Thursday, January 16, 2020

My Best Mentor, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

As we're blogging about National Mentoring Month, I've been thinking about the various mentors I had throughout my life, from teachers to bosses to fellow writers. There was the tough, strict English teacher in junior high who made me cry one day (okay, more than one day) but taught me how to spell and punctuate. There was the boss who somehow at the same time praised my work but also pushed me to do better. And how much I've learned from other authors -- more lessons than I can count.

But one person in particular stands out, and she's an unusual, unlikely mentor. My daughter! She's now an editorial intern at a lifestyle magazine in New York, but it was way back when she was 10 and I was attempting to write a middle grade novel that she became my mentor.

Since I'd had three novel fails before then, I was hesitant to let anyone read my next attempt. But my daughter was the same age as the main character. And she loved to read. Finished a book every few days. Plus, she'd be kind, wouldn't she?

She agreed to read each chapter after I wrote it and took her task seriously. Turned out, she was helpful, insightful, honest, and had spot-on suggestions for plot and characters. And yes, kind, but also surprisingly critical. She pointed out where a 10-year old wouldn't really say a line of dialogue I'd written, or where a plot turn didn't make sense.

About halfway through the novel, I remember she came out of my office with a smile on her face.

"Mom," she said. "I think you really have something here. It's good. Keep going. I need to find out what happens at the end."

I hugged her. Then burst into tears.

She was right. That novel would go on to become my first published book, Calli Be Gold, in 2011.

My daughter has continued to read early drafts of each of my novels and I trust her advice implicitly. As I would with any great mentor.

Michele Weber Hurwitz's fifth middle grade novel, Hello from Renn Lake, publishes in May from Penguin Random House/Wendy Lamb Books. Check it out at

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Adventures in Time and Space and Writing Mentors

You may remember, I am one of the original Whovians. I've been with the show since 1963. I tell my students that I am as old as thirteen Doctors. Fourteen if you include the War Doctor. While mentor texts tend to be considered literature, I offer that it can be of anything that reflects “story.”   If we remember that fiction is primarily an emotional exchange, then plot can be understood as a sequence of emotional milestones. The viewer/reader stays connected to the hero because she feels the story. The reader wants to see the character succeed, or at least wants to see what happens next because of this connection.

Developing Character

Consider the character of Doctor Who. The very essence of thirteen incarnations (regenerations) reflects the complexity of a fully-realized protagonist. The First Doctor was an eccentric curmudgeon. The Second Doctor had a strong sense of humor. The Third Doctor had a love/hate relationship with authority. The Fourth Doctor was quite taken with his own charisma and cleverness, with a love for long scarfs and jellybabies. The Fifth Doctor was a pacifist. The Sixth Doctor was petulant. The Seventh Doctor was ruthless. When the Eighth Doctor changed, there was a profound shift in the character. This was the great moment in the plot when everything changed. He became the War Doctor, a warrior that committed genocide against his own people. His was a regeneration considered so dark, he renounced the title of Doctor. The hope and curiosity of the previous incarnations were ground away by the brutality of his choice. He became the brooding Ninth Doctor, the tragically lonely Tenth Doctor, the guilt-ridden Eleventh Doctor, and the self-doubting Twelfth Doctor.

When seen as one character, rather than thirteen  “regenerations,” the protagonist becomes a complex, dynamic character. A character, while racing through time and space, who remains anchored to his (and her) companions. They exert a force on him (and her!), changing him even as he changes them. That’s the very essence of a plot moving forward.

The two most common reasons why a manuscript is rejected is a plot without enough tension, and characters that are not fully developed.  I often use this workshop exercises in my classes, adapted from Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, to help explore character dimensions. First, write a small paragraph detailing your protagonist’s defining quality. What trait is most prominent in her/his personality? Second, being as objective as possible, what is the opposite of that quality? Third, write a paragraph in which your protagonist actively demonstrates the opposite quality you noted in the second part.

The Importance of Backstory

Important to developing a realized character is his backstory, the history that underlines the situation at the start of the book. Backstory drives the character’s motivations. It is primarily the character’s wounds that become the core of his emotive journey and drives his choices. Choices that move the plot forward. Such wounds are so deep and organic that they ultimately define how the character sees the universe.

And the Doctor has had 57 TV years of backstory, of accumulating a long lifetime of emotional wounds. As Amy Pond once said of the Eleventh Doctor,
“What if you were really old, and really kind and lonely, your whole race is dead. What couldn’t you do then? If you were that old, and that kind, and the very last of your kind, you couldn’t just stand there and watch children cry.”

Secondary Characters, otherwise known as Companions

At its core, the Doctor's story is about these epic relationships. These secondary characters helped to reveal the best and worst characteristics of the Doctor. The First Doctor was a know-it-all, prickly codger, but his two hearts softened whenever his granddaughter, Susan Foreman, walked into the Tardis. When Adric died during the tenure of the Fifth Doctor, the first long-term companion to die on the Doctor’s watch, the Doctor was stunned and reflective about his mad man in a blue box ways. By the time the Ponds died (during the time of the Eleventh Doctor), he was overwhelmed by his grief and hid away in the clouds. Only the mystery of the Impossible Girl was strong enough to compel him to leave the Tardis.

And these secondary characters were often the vehicle used to escalate the stakes while adding layers to the character, asking the question, “what if?”

What if we went to a museum to see the works of Vincent Van Gogh, and saw a monster in his painting? What if we went back in time to visit the artist, and met the monster lurking in the church?

What if we met a friend in a creepy old building with a garden filled with stone statues? What if these statues were really predatory creatures, and every time you blinked, they moved in for the kill?

What if there were giant whales swimming through space?

What if a broken but brilliant man, during the final years of a 1000 year war, genetically modified survivors to ensure his people's survival? What if these modifications were integrated into tank-like robotic shells, with every emotion removed except hate? What if this new species thought themselves the superior race?

Supported by the sweeping themes of love and war and redemption, grief continues to be a powerful, emotional theme that prevails throughout the Doctor’s story. As the Doctor learns repeatedly, honor your dead, but keep on living. He learned this with the passing of Adric, and the passing of the Ponds, even at the passing of his wife, River Song. His best friends, and even his childhood best friend who grew up to be his favorite frenemy, the Master, eventually they all left him. Throughout the course of his long life, he became defined by his losses.

In one story, the Twelfth Doctor saves a Viking girl -- at his companion's urgent request -- through a technology that makes her immortal. Her tragic saga spans through eternity. She outlives everyone she loves, witnessing  the end of the universe. And yet, her story doesn’t end. It continues unexpectedly after the Doctor endures torture for a billion years, forcing his way back to Gallifrey, in hopes of saving his companion, Clara. Eventually he pulls Clara out of her timeline, trapping her between two breathes. In their final goodbye, she wipes the Doctor’s memory of her before flying off into her own adventures with the Viking Girl. Clara chooses to let him go to save him. Yet, before the Twelfth Doctor regenerates, he remembers Clara.  The story comes full circle, a narrative device that frames the story to bring about resolution. At this point, the Doctor's inner and outer conflicts converge at the same time and place (all puns intended) for emotional impact. There remains intact certain kernels of emotional truth.

An old Ibo (Africa) proverb states, “all stories are true.” And what we learn in this wibbly wobbly journey through time, as the Doctor has learned, as all great stories exemplify,  is  what it means to be human.

--Bobbi Miller

Monday, January 13, 2020

Pop Quiz, by Chris Tebbetts

I do an exercise in some of my workshops, where I encourage participants to hone in on the things that stick to them the most: favorite stories, persistent memories, influences on their creative lives, etc., all with an eye on identifying prospective core material from which they might draw for some future writing project.

First, I ask my writers to take a minute or less to make a list of five favorite movies. Anyone who isn’t a movie person is free to list five favorite stories from whatever medium: books, plays, tv shows, video games, whatever. Either way, it’s not meant to be a definitive list, but a quickly-generated one that captures whatever items most readily come to mind in that particular moment.. 

From there, I ask participants to see if they can discern any repeating motifs, ideas, or themes among the movies/stories they just listed. It doesn’t have to be something that’s true for every title on the list; this is more about looking for repetitions of any kind. For example, someone might notice a handful of stories with strong female protagonists; or a lot of mysteries; or stories about loners; or about friendship; or…or…or….whatever it might be.  

After that, the workshop covers a long series of steps that I won’t lay out in detail here, but the overall idea is to put us in touch with story elements that naturally excite us, spark our own imaginations, and—presumably—are there in our minds for a reason. My guess is that if I incorporate anything from my list into a story idea, or a story in progress, it’s going to bring a natural level of creative energy with it, and maybe give me a leg up on the story I’m trying to create. 

So, in keeping with this month’s theme (“The first time I…”), and in the spirit of everything I just mentioned, here’s a list of questions for your consideration. Instead of movies, I'm focusing here on middle grade fiction, and I've included my own answers as well. 

If you want to play along, write down your responses and then see if you don't spot some kind of repetitions in and among the answers you come up with.

And....if you’re still feeling energetic after that, try a timed free write for five, ten, or twenty minutes. Take one of the motifs or themes you’ve identified, and use that as a jumping off point for the free write. For example: What do those strong female characters mean to you? What emotions does the idea of adventure evoke in you? What is the appeal of loner stories? (Alternately: Start writing a scene that incorporates the thing in question.) The point here is to just start writing and see where it takes you.

1) The first character I remember wanting to be: Charlie Bucket, in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

2) The first book I can remember reading over and over: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, by Judy Blume 

3) The first book I can remember buying with my own money: The Littles, by John Peterson

4) The first MG novel I can remember having a real emotional impact on me: Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh

5) The first MG author to earn my loyalty as a reader: A tie between Beverly Cleary (Ramona the Pest, Henry Huggins, Ellen Tebbits, etc.) and Roald Dahl (James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator). 


6) Favorite MG book of all time: James and the Giant Peach 

7) A MG book that to made me cry: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, by Kate DiCamillo. 

8) A MG book that made me laugh out loud: Cosmic, by Cottrell Boyce

9) Favorite middle grade reads from the past year: The Bridge Home, by Padma Venkatraman; Where the Heart Is, by Jo Knowles; A Time Traveler’s Theory of Relativity, by Nicole Valentine; The War that Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley 

Now it’s your turn. If you’re inclined, share your responses in the comments.

Happy reading, listing, and writing in the meantime! 

Sunday, January 12, 2020

On the Subject of Mentors

This month's topic of mentors got me thinking about who led me to this field of writing for children. For me there was no ONE person, but rather a combination of every author I love and the books I've read that inspire me. Each time I read a middle grade novel from someone whose writing I admire - be it Kate DiCamillo, Katherine Applegate, Bruce Coville, Jerry Spinelli, Jane Kelly, Tracy Holtzer, or whomever - I jot down turns of phrase, beautiful descriptions of place, an unforgettable bit of dialogue that I want to recite and remember over and over.

The more I read the work of authors and books I admire, the more ideas spark in my mind and the more I want to make the journey beside an old friend (character) who points me to an unexplored path. A path with a story begging to be told. A path for me to follow with pen and paper poised and ready.

So, to all the MG authors out there...thank you for your stories that open up the world of discovery and imagination. Thank you for being such wonderful mentors.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

First Isn’t Always Best

by Jody Feldman

Once upon a time, way back in the dark ages before we all had computers, in a year that started with 19**, I submitted my first book, a picture book based on the neighborhood where I grew up. This was a neighborhood teeming with kids playing one yard game or another, but it also had “mysterious” neighbors, who were the subject of much speculation.

I submitted this book with much hope. It sparkled. It shined. It was good. Then the rejections (multi-plural) came. I eventually did what one does when faced with an exhausted pool of publishers: I shelved that book and moved on.

Not too long after, I realized the concept would work much better as a younger middle grade. I wrote, I submitted, and I received another collection of rejections. (Upon reread, no wonder.)

The idea continued to tug at me, harder and harder, until I no choice but to revisit it. This time, I came at it with more skill and skills and all the things that go into creating a book with voice and mystery and emotional arc.

Currently, this book is in the capable hands of my agent. We’re talking next week. And while I now know that first isn’t always best, I’m hoping that third time’s the charm.

To be continued...

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Mentoring Myself, Or What Would Athena Do --- by Jane Kelley

In 2018, I was a mentor. The SCBWI-WI chapter asked me to advise an up-and-coming MG author. I chose Maria Parrott-Ryan. I learned more from her than she did from me. (If you aren't a SCBWI member, you should join. It offers many opportunities to learn, no matter what point you're at in your career.)

As 2020 begins, and I rewrite a novel for the one-millionth time, I sure could use some guidance. I'm not eligible for the SCBWI-WI opportunity. But I can learn from the one who was the very first mentor--Athena.
Athena, by Rembrandt
Yes. THAT Athena. Goddess of Wisdom. In Homer's epic, The Odyssey, Ulysses couldn't go home after the Trojan War because he had made Poseidon mad. As a result, lots of greedy, evil suitors were hanging around Ulysses's palace, hoping to marry his wife and get rid of his son Telemachus. Athena decided to help out Ulysses and Telemachus. She could have waved her hand and brought Ulysses home. But she didn't. She became a mentor. Literally.

What Does Athena Do?

1. Take the form of a trusted family friend.  

Mentor really was a close friend of Ulysses. So when Athena "becomes" him, Telemachus is more likely to take her advice. Just as I'm more likely to listen to a kindly uncle who wants what's best for my book than to a sneering critic.

2. Give practical suggestions.  

When Athena enters the scene, Telemachus is moping around and daydreaming. If only Dad were here, he would put things right. Athena gives Telemachus specific things to accomplish. Go find out what happened to your father. If he's dead, then bury him. And so I should find out what isn't working in my book. If a section is dead, get rid of it.

3. Be inspirational. 

Athena put menos into Telemachus. She gave him mental strength. As Homer put it, Athena "left his spirit filled with nerve and courage." She also had to inspire Ulysses after he finally made it home. Her words to him resound in my ears. "Where's it gone? Your power? Your fighting heart?" Writing isn't easy. That doesn't mean I can quit.

4. Protect them from attacks. 

Athena doesn't actually fight for Ulysses and Telemachus. She can't. They don't just need to win the battle; they need to win their self respect. She does, however, make sure his enemies' arrows miss their targets. Do I need to be wounded by self-doubt? What good does it do to read a mean-spirited review? Or hear someone say that no one reads books anymore anyway? Let those arrows pass me by.

5. Know when the work is done. 

Finally, on the last page, Athena calls a halt to the fighting. Enough is enough.

"Athena handed down her pacts of peace between both sides for all the years to come---the daughter of Zeus whose shield is storm and thunder, yes, but the goddess still kept Mentor's build and voice."

I'm very grateful that she did.