Thursday, November 16, 2017


I (Holly Schindler, administrator at SMACK DAB) was thrilled to get my hands on this fun new MG from Mike Rich, the screenwriter of FINDING FORRESTER and THE ROOKIE. I was also delighted to chat with Mike about his book:

HS: Tell us about SKAVENGER’S HUNT—where the idea came from, how it originated.

Mike: I guess the seed was planted by the books I read when I was growing up. I was raised in a small town in northeastern Oregon, a great little place called Enterprise, and there was this terrific bookstore called “The Book Loft.” It’s actually still there! The story was inspired by books like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Those were the kind of books I loved when I was growing up.

HS: As an author, I find action to be one of the most difficult aspects of writing. It’s tough to strike that perfect balance: providing enough detail to make sure your reader can visualize what’s happening but not giving so many details that the reading gets bogged down and clunky. How did your experience as a screenwriter (heavy on action and dialogue) help writing a book? How is the process of writing a book different or similar to writing a screenplay?

Mike: It’s a night-and-day difference. If I’m writing a screenplay, say it’s a scene with a chase onboard a train, all I have to do is write a scene heading that reads: INT. TRAIN – DAY. The film itself will provide the description by showing the moviegoer the inside of a train at daytime. But in the writing of “Skavenger’s Hunt,” it was my responsibility to make every part of that train come alive in the reader’s mind through pure description. It is a tricky balance, though, especially with action sequences. I always had to be aware of whether I’d written one-too-many sentences, so that the moment itself doesn’t start to hit a lull.

HS: What kind of research did SCAVENGER’S HUNT involve? How do you approach including factual material in a project for young readers?
Mike: Even though “Skavenger’s Hunt” begins in present-day New York, the majority of the story actually takes place in 1885 New York…along with a few other places, but I don’t want to slip and reveal any spoilers. There was a LOT of research involved, starting with finding that one year in the late 1800’s that had an unusually large number of interesting events and personalities. I simply started researching one year to the next, until I stumbled upon 1885. Hopefully, the readers will know what I’m talking about when they read the book and discover the pretty sizeable list of cool things that were going on at that time. As for including factual material in a project for young readers? That’s the part that excites me the most! Interesting characters and compelling events are always going to be interesting and compelling, no matter if they happen now…or then.

HS: Was there a wild scavenger hunt from your own childhood?
Mike: Not this wild! Remember, I grew up in a small town, but I did take part in a lot of scavenger hunts when I was a kid. They were pretty conventional, though. Y’know, knocking on someone’s door and seeing if they had a paper clip.

HS: The middle grade mind is always in motion—leaping into the ability to understand more complex concepts while still being drawn to somewhat childlike attitudes and interests. How did you tap into the middle grade mind in writing SCAVENGER’S HUNT? Did you rely on your own memories? Experiences with children?
Mike: You’re right about the middle grade mind. I actually decided early on that the worst mistake I could make would be to intentionally write “down” to those young readers.  You can’t and you shouldn’t. They’re so smart! So I set out to constantly challenge them with puzzles, and riddles, and clues that were difficult; and I wanted to layer those challenges inside a narrative that they’ll hopefully find entertaining.

HS: One of my favorite lines in the book is “Henry usually found himself on the boring side of the window.” Who was your inspiration for Henry specifically?

Mike: Henry wasn’t inspired by one kid in particular, but by a good many who maybe aren’t seizing the thrill of adventure that’s right there in front of all of us. We live in a time where adults, not just young teens, spend way too much time staring at that tiny screen of our cell phones. So I guess it’s safe to say Henry’s a composite character whose isolation is made worse by the recent loss of his father. It’s also a message to parents that they should never ever hold off on introducing their children to adventure. Don’t wait till they get older. Do it now.

HS: As a kid of the ‘80s, some of my own favorite movies that I might classify as “MG” include THE GOONIES and STAND BY ME. What are your own favorite middle grade books, characters, or movies? How did those favorites play into shaping SCAVENGER’S HUNT?

Mike: Wow, you nailed my own list! I still love those stories that showcase the power of a group of kids with a common goal. So many times, in so many books and movies, the number of kids who become tight…is four. We even see it now in TV series like “Stranger Things.” For me, it was so excited to come up with my own foursome of young characters, each of whom had their own special skill or ability that allowed them to compete against intelligent adults from all over the world. Kids are resilient and creative. Adults usually stumble because they get bogged down by what can go wrong, instead of what can go right.

HS: We all know openings are important—in today’s fast-paced world, maybe more so than ever. I’m fascinated by the fact that so much study is being put into a movie’s opening credits (via, etc.). How important do you feel the “opening” of a book is? (Opening lines, cover art, etc.?)

Mike: I can only speak for myself, but when I’m writing a screenplay, I feel a responsibility to grab the viewer within the first three pages, which usually translates into three minutes on screen. If you wait much longer than that, you’re asking for trouble. Even though books are, by their very nature, longer than scripts, I used the same approach with “Skavenger’s Hunt.” By the end of the prologue, the reader has a good sense of who twelve-year-old Henry Babbitt is and the hurdles he needs to clear. I’ll tell you what our secret weapon is…Will Staehle’s incredible cover art. It’s one of the best book covers I’ve seen in years!

HS: So often, we don’t choose a project; a project chooses us. What called you to book writing after years in the film world? Why MG (rather than adult)?
Mike: It was a creative itch that I just had to scratch. I mentioned the bookstore I used to visit when I was just a kid. I’d look up at the books on those shelves and, every so often, catch myself dreaming of writing a story I’d see on THAT shelf as well. My wife and I are fortunate enough to now have three grandchildren, with a fourth on the way. I wanted to have something I could read to them.

HS: How did you come to work with Inkshares? What was the process like? How was it different (or similar to) screenwriting?
Mike: I liked the approach Inkshares was taking, seeking out new writers and giving them a chance. Even though I’ve had a lot of success writing screenplays, I was new to the process of writing a novel as well, same as a lot of other Inkshares writers. I think I was most surprised at how many layers of editing were involved; and, as it turned out, I was grateful for it. Story editing. Line editing. Copy editing. It was exhausting, but exhilarating at the same time. The other difference was how long it took to proof read my own writing. With a screenplay, which is usually about 110 pages long, I can zip through it in about 90 minutes. With a book, it takes a little longer.

HS: Another favorite line: “Time isn’t about time. Time’s about the moment.” Will we all be able to share more of Henry’s moments in the future? Any sequels planned? What are you working on now?
Mike: I sure hope so. By the way, that was one of my favorite lines as well, so thanks! I’d love for “Skavenger’s Hunt” to find enough of a reading audience that it makes writing a sequel an easy decision. As for what I’m working on now? Brainstorming the next story, which will likely be aimed at that same middle-grader audience.

We all appreciate Mike stopping by to chat. Be sure to grab your own copy of SKAVENGER'S HUNT!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Let's Talk Jabber-Play!

“This here story is all true, as near as I can recollect. It ain’t a prettified story. Life as a river rat is stomping hard, and don’t I know it. It’s life wild and woolly, a real rough and tumble. But like Da said, life on the river is full of possible imaginations. And we river rats, we aim to see it through in our own way. That’s the honest truth of it.”

So says River Fillian as she begins to tell her story in my first book, Big River’s Daughter. River’s story is an historical American fantasy, a blend of the tall tale tradition that captures so much of the American identity, and a unique form of fantasy. I have long been a student of tall tales, epitomized in the exploits of Annie Christmas and Mike Fink -- two important characters in River’s life. In true rough and tumble fashion, the heroes and heroines of tall tales mocked and defied convention. Their language was as wild and unabashed as the circumstance and landscape that created these characters. And that describes my character, River.

Wordplay is a powerful tool for the writer as well as the young reader. Language-- both the narrative and the dialogue -- was key to River's story. American folklore is unique in the world, and its characters like Mike Fink and Annie Christmas are absolutely engaging. More than this is the language itself. The language defies the tidy and restrictive, even uptight structure of formal grammar. It mocks the formality of grammar, in fact, pushing its boundaries by using pseudo-Latinate prefixes and suffixes to expand on the root. It plays with structure. The result is a teetotaciously, splendiferous reflection of a frontier too expansive for mere words to capture. By creating such a grand language, the frontier storyteller found a means to make an unknown frontier less scary. More than this, the grander language captured the bigger ideas.

To capture the language in River’s story, I  listened to storytellers tell their stories, and the best ones – like Eric Kimmel, Rafe Martin and Ashley Bryan – enrapture the audience. Theirs is the process of storytelling as old as human communication. We are story animals, suggests Kendall Haven (Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story, 2007). We have told our stories for over 100,000 years. Not every culture has developed codified laws or written language, but every culture in the history of the world has created myths, legends, fables, and folk tales.

Language is more than mere words. The rhythms and patterns, the musicality and the poetry of language. Such wordplay is important. Studies suggest that language acquisition is keyed to youth, and we can infer that language appreciation is similarly keyed. Young readers learn to appreciate the emotional and creative power of words. What else is at risk in this age of minimalist language and truncated text talk if the traditional tale fades away? If language reflects what lives inside us, our hopes, our dreams, our history, what does this truncated text talk reveal about us? LOL.

 To capture the dialogue, I studied many readings, like Davy Crockett’s Almanacs (1835 – 1856), which included much of the language used by storytellers of that day. Of course, these were the days before the dictionary and so people spelled words according to how they pronounced the. And different pronouncements produced different spellings. And one cannot write about the Mississippi River without reading Mark Twain. I read most, if not all, of his books, annotating, deciphering, pulling apart words and sentences. Of course, whenever river men, like the western mountain men, gathered, they told their tall tales. They used songs and signals to call to each other. One of my favorites was from Mark Twain, which goes, “Who-op!” It means, “I’m here! Look at me!”

Another strategy I use to learn the musicality of language is the study of poetry. And one of my favorite is the playful, whimsical imagination of Jabberwocky, complete with its galumphing chortle:

   by Lewis Carrol

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
     And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
     The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
     The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;
     Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree
     And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
     The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
     And burbled as it came!"

(For the complete Jabberwocky poem, see Poetry Foundation here.)

Do you have any favorite poems that show jabber-play in action?

-- Bobbi Miller

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

An interview with author Christina Soontornvat

Christina Soontornvat is the author of In a Dark Land: A Changelings Story, which released last month from Sourcebooks. It's a sequel to her 2016 middle grade fantasy debut, The Changelings. I'm so excited to interview Christina on Smack Dab in the Middle. Her books embrace the element of imaginary play in a big way so they're right in line with our theme this month.

In the first book, 11-year old Izzy teams up with a crew of Changeling children to rescue her little sister Hen, who has been stolen away to the magical land of Faerie. In the sequel, life hasn't been the same for Izzy since she returned home. She's glad to be back on earth with her human family but can't stop thinking about the friends she left behind and the place she felt she truly belonged. When Izzy gets the chance to return to Faerie, she's quick to say yes. But once there, she must confront a dangerous witch, come to terms with a secret she's keeping, solve cryptic riddles, and lead her friends on a treasure hunt before the witch destroys everyone Izzy loves. But will Izzy get her magic back in time?

Q: Welcome, Christina! Tell us about your new book. What inspired you to write the story?

A: In a Dark Land is the follow-up to my first novel, The Changelings. Both stories are heavily inspired by my fascination with Changeling folktales, particularly the ones from Ireland and the UK that describe fairies snatching away babies and switching them with shape-shifters. I always wondered what happened to the human babies who were stolen. I also wondered about the Changelings, and why in the world they'd agree to come to earth and pretend to be boring, old humans. But the catalyst that got me to actually sit down and type the thing came from meeting my two nieces. I wrote the first book as a story for them, and then it just wouldn't leave me alone until I had crafted it into something much bigger.

Q: Did you plan to write a sequel when you wrote the first book? What were the challenges of writing a sequel?

A: Although I had some ideas for other adventures that Izzy and her friends could get into, I didn't plan on writing a sequel. I honestly didn't expect that my publisher would want to purchase a series since I wrote the first book to stand on its own. I was thrilled when they told me they wanted more!

My preconceived notions about sequels were that they should be easy. After all, you've already got the characters and the world built around them, right? But I found it much more challenging than I thought it would be! After everything I put my characters through in the first book, I had to find more ways for them to grow and change in the sequel. I had a really hard time and many frustrated days until I settled on what the theme of the novel would be. Once I decided that this book would be about identity and knowing and accepting one's self, that helped me craft arcs for each character.

Q: I so admire writers of fantasy since I stick to realistic fiction. How do you go about creating another world? What was hard? What was easy?

A: That's so funny, because I'm totally in awe of realistic authors and how they create extraordinary stories in our ordinary world! For me, the easiest part is letting my imagination go wild. With In a Dark Land, I really went for it, and I think readers will see that in some of the new characters and settings (the half-rabbit warriors, the walrus women with their magical underwater puppet show). The biggest challenge is laying a solid foundation for my characters underneath all the magic. At its heart, a story has to be about what these characters want and need, deep in their souls, and the ways they overcome many obstacles to get there. So in that way, I think fantasy and realistic fiction are very similar!

Q: Did you like magical stories when you were young? What were some of your favorite middle grade books, then, and now?

A: I grew up feeling like an outsider in my tiny Texas hometown, so as a child, I loved escaping into fantasy. Some of my favorite books were Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series, The Lord of the Rings, and anything by Roald Dahl. I also voraciously consumed Calvin and Hobbes comics!

Q: Flip to a random page of In a Dark Land and give us a one sentence teaser.

A: The Piper looked at Izzy and Selden and said, "I suppose it's time I finally told you the truth." (And yes, that would be the Pied Piper. And no, he is not what the stories say he is, but you'll have to read to learn more!)

Q: What do you love best about Izzy?

A: Izzy's biggest strength is that she can step back and see situations from a different angle. She's always using her wit and creativity to solve seemingly impossible problems. I love that she's a hero, but a bit of a reluctant one. She has fear and she doubts herself, which I think is very relatable. But when her friends and family are at risk, she can dig deep and do almost anything to help them.

Q: What do you think kids will enjoy most about In a Dark Land?

A: This story is one big mystery, complete with a treasure hunt and rhyming clues! I have always loved books like that, where little bits of information are parceled out along the way, and I hope kids will enjoy that too. And if kids were fans of the Changeling children in the first book, they will love that they get to meet more of them in this one!

Q: I know you have a picture book coming out soon. Are you working on another middle grade book?

A: Yes, my first picture book, The Ramble Shamble Children, illustrated by Lauren Castillo, will come out in 2019. And I am indeed working on a new middle grade! It's a retelling of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables set in an alternate Thailand. And of course, there is magic!

Thank you, Christina, for visiting with us at Smack Dab! Check out Christina's new release here.

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of Ethan Marcus Stands Up, The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days, and Calli Be Gold. Find her online at

Monday, November 13, 2017

Writing Tool: Visual Outlining

This month's blog theme, PLAY, is timely for me. I've spent a lot of time in the past year thinking about (and speaking about, and leading workshops about) my own take on improvisation and play as it applies to the writing process. Some of the techniques I use have already been covered by my fellow Smack-Dabbers here on the blog, so I'm going to focus on one technique in particular: visual outlining, which for me is about (literally) re-seeing a story--playing with my idea of it--from any number of new angles.  

For starters, I’m a fan of the old school note-cards-and-corkboard method. I use one card per chapter, scene, or story beat, and also color-code to indicate POV, story thread, setting, or whatever else suits my purposes. 

Here’s one of my works in progress. The story takes place in two different locations, indicated with yellow or blue, with pink cards for interstitials and other material. Ideas that I haven’t yet placed into the story are on the right, and the already-woven parts of the narrative are on the left. Like the story itself, outlines can always be works in progress.

It’s also possible to tackle this method electronically. I have become a true fan of Scrivener (software for novelists), and one of my favorite features is their corkboard function. It’s easier than working with real cards and thumbtacks, and it integrates well with the manuscript in Scrivener. Although, to play devil’s advocate, I also like the tactile approach of a real bulletin board, and am always happy for a reason to get my eyes off the computer screen for a while.

Another aspect to outlining—and this wasn’t intuitive to me at first—is that it can be useful at several different phases of the writing process. Sometimes, when I’m in the middle of a story, or just after I’ve finished a first draft, I like to stop and take stock of what I have.

One way of doing that is to print and spread out my pages, then mark them up with different highlighters to indicate whatever I might want to track in the story: scene length, characters, internal monologue, etc.

If you don’t have the room to spread out, another (electronic) approach is the shrunken manuscript technique. Save your manuscript as a new file. Use the highlighter function to visually score whatever you’d like. Then shrink the whole file down to 25% or whatever size will give you a snapshot of the whole thing.

Depending on where you’ve focused your highlighting, you can see right away (for example) if one of your characters has disappeared from the story for too long; or if you’re under-utilizing a given setting; or if your action-to-narration ratio is off.  The applications here are, of course, whatever you want them to be.

Speaking of Scrivener, the same company has a lesser-known product, Scapple, which is basically an electronic bulletin board. I love it, and use it in more ways than any other software on my computer.

When I work with James Patterson, I start with a written outline from him. Almost always, I’ll adapt that outline into a visual spread with Scapple, to help me get to know—and to literally envision—the story as I move toward the drafting process.

Here’s a story map I created for one of our collaborations, MIDDLE SCHOOL: JUST MY ROTTEN LUCK.  If you look closely, you can see our main character in the center, one image for each of the three main plot threads, and lots of little bubbles: pink for characters, tan for plot points, and representative quotes in green.  It wasn’t until I mapped the outline this way that I really saw the shape of the overall story for the first time.

When I was writing the STRANDED series with Jeff Probst, I used Scapple to focus in on one sequence in particular: a journey our characters took across a remote island. I pulled images off the web and inserted notes to help myself get a handle on the various settings along the way, and also to share with Jeff what I was imagining for those settings.

These are just some of the visual tools I use in the writing process. What about you? I’d love to hear about any crafty ideas you all have, or techniques you use to get a handle on your stories. If you have any thoughts to share, please do so in the comments.