Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Westside Writers Schmooze goes MAD for Middle Grade

Charlie & Karol came prepared with visual aids.
It was Pure Madness when the Westside Writers Schmoozers got together to talk about All Things Middle Grade on November 13th

We started with the passel of passionate attendees naming favorite middle grade novels of their own, whether a book fondly remembered from childhood or something they read recently.  Not surprisingly, the titles mentioned varied widely in genre, tone and subject matter, proving just how vast and wonderful the world of middle grade is.

(Images of the book covers from the amazing list of books mentioned are featured throughout this post...and here's one now!)

With that bit of wonderfulness out of the way, we dove into trying to answer what, on the surface, may seem like a simple question:  What is middle grade?  Sure - there are the generalities that most of us learn at our first SCBWI conference or by perusing the SCBWI website.

What’s that you say?  YOU aren’t familiar with these supposed “generalities?” 

OK – so here’s what you would have found out if you’d done the slightest bit of research (which, coincidentally is precisely the amount Charlie and Karol do before these Schmoozes) – those brand new to the world of writing for children are forgiven:

  • Both the main characters and the readers of middle grade novels tend to be between 8 and 12, give or take a year or two.
  • Middle grade protagonists are often internally focused and concerned with matters close to home – family, schoolmates, neighborhood friends.
  • Edgier subjects (sex, drugs, violence) used to be avoided but are now often included in age-appropriate ways.

Our discussion soon led us beyond this simple definition and got to the real heart of the genre – why middle grade matters so much.

Naturally, Karol and Charlie made a point of throwing in their two cents. 

Years ago, when Karol was encouraged to adapt a screenplay into a novel for children, her research into the world of kid lit brought back the memory of what a voracious reader she’d been all throughout grade school.  She proposed that reading middle grade novels is what really creates a child’s love of reading (as opposed to a love of stories that may be created with picture books).

Charlie’s take was that middle grade is important because it’s about the time of life when you BECOME yourself: “Gail Sheehy in Passages talks of the ‘Merger Self’ and the ‘Seeker Self.’  The first seeks to merge with others, the second to achieve individuality. Middle grade books are about the awakening of the Seeker Self.  That’s why they often take place in fantastical universes.  It’s too frightening for a young child to actually take off on his own, but it is, metaphorically, exactly what children are doing at that age –  taking off from mom and dad and finding themselves.  That’s why MIDDLE GRADE IS WHERE IT’S AT!  IT’S ALL THAT MATTERS!!”…at least according to Charlie.

Editor Molly O’Neill from Harper Collins espoused a theory about middle grade readers on the Everything you ever wanted to know about middlegrade…and were willing to ask Blog.  She said, in part, that middle grade readers are “often reading for one of two reasons: to understand, or to escape.”  (Note:  She gave the caveat that she was speaking very broadly.)

Local authors Frances Sackett and
Greg Pincus proudly display their books!
Two local authors whose debut middle grade books came out recently, Frances Sackett and Greg Pincus, shared some thoughts on writing middle grade.  Greg suggested people write the stories they want to tell and not worry about the age-specific details. As long as dialog, actions and emotions are authentic to your character, they’re okay.  Frances offered that anytime you make a decision because you’re concerned about your book selling, it’s probably the wrong decision.  In short – if it feels wrong, it probably is.  Both agreed that it’s best to keep your focus on the emotion of the story. 

Of course, NO conversation about the magic of middle grade would be complete with some insight from this year’s Golden Kite-winning MG author extraordinaire (and one of the original Westside Writers Schmoozers), Joanne Rocklin. 

When Karol asked her how she taps into such an authentic middle grade voice, she replied, “My middle grade voice is a very natural part of's the voice that emerges when my fingers begin to type. I don't force it...that's just what I write. Possible Theories: I'm basically 10 years old?”

Joanne also told the SCBWI Team Blog:  “Middle grade readers are unique…I think that story and characters need to reflect the needs of their readers. Children’s authors must be very clear about the age they are writing for and about. So - read scads of middle grade novels, get to know kids of that age, and most importantly, tap into your memories of your own middle grade self. (sic).”

Be sure to read the whole post!  (

Having gotten into the aspect of “authentic middle grade voices,” there was only one thing to do next:  A writing exercise!

The prompts (and feel FREE to play along at home) were:

  • Think of a “big moment” in your life when you were between 8 and 12.  Could be happy, scary, confusing, funny, etc.  Tell us about it using first person.
  • Then rewrite the "story" using 3rd person but try to retain the voice of your young self.

After 10 minutes of mad scribbling, we only had time to hear from a couple Schmoozers on what they uncovered or discovered through the exercise, so if YOU have something to share, please DO…in the comment section.

Will "neo-classic" children's authors and their books stand the
test of time like "classic-classics?"  Only time will tell! 

We wrapped up, as we always do, with an announcement about the next Schmooze, which will be on Wednesday, December 11th

It’s our annual holiday treat – a guest speaker!  Of course, we didn’t know then what we know now…our speaker will be the amazing Ann Whitford Paul!!!  Author of many wonderful books (including a book about writing for children), stories and poems, Ann intends to talk to us about, among other things we’re sure, “the music of picture books.”  

Rather than passing around an envelope to collect a voluntary honorarium as we usually do with guest speakers, Ann has requested that we instead collect books and/or monetary donations (again - completely voluntary) for a wonderful organization, Project BookBag.

Pretty awesome, huh?  And YOU thought we wouldn't be having a holiday book drive in 2013...

Be sure to join us!

Until then - keep passing the open windows,
Charlie & Karol

Cool point brought up by a Schmoozer - some classics are edited slightly so that new readers
aren't alienated by things like outdated language.  Book covers change with the times, too.
Here's an example - various covers of Judy Blume's seminole book.

P.S.  Here are a few links to blogs mentioned at the Schmooze and here in this post:

Interviews with MG agents, editors and authors

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Magical Mystery Blog Post — A Time-Traveling Linkfest!!

Strange as it may seem, The SCBWI Westside Writer’s Schmooze Blog is back in business, ready to pick up where we left off. Unfortunately, we left off posting so long ago (the 40’s, it turns out) that neither Karol nor Charlie can recall the details of all the Schmoozes we missed. Fortunately, Karol is an extremely anal woman (and, in addition to that, she keeps good records) and was able to unearth these long hidden, never-posted (most likely due to the scarcity of reliable internet ISPs in those days), blogs from back in the day.

The first post she found does indeed come from the 40’s, when we held a Schmooze devoted to niche writing, asking the (as it turns out literally) age-old question, Is Niche Your Niche?  The topic was appropriate to the times as detective novels were all the rage back then, even in kids’ books. The information we exchanged, however, remains as useful as if the Schmooze were actually held on June 12th 2013:

Pony up to the typewriter, sister, and we’ll lay it all out.  Last Schmooze we talked niche markets and magazines.  You wanna get a little scratch for your troubles, don’t you?  Then you gotta learn about niche marketing. 

What’s the skinny on niche?  Well, according to the business dictionary, it’s “concentrating all marketing efforts on a small but specific and well defined segment of the population.  Niches do not ‘exist’ but are CREATED by identifying needs, wants, and requirements that are being addressed poorly or not at all by other (s)…” 

"Killin' Karol"
So what’s that look like in kid’s books? Our resident femme fatale "Killin' Karol"  took us literally under the covers of THE book on Kid Lit Markets (niche presses are only part of the tome, she claims), which coincidentally is known as “The Book” and is available for free from the SCBWI. 
Though Karol, of course, had murderous ulterior motives, (just ask her four former high school school principals — if you can find them), The Book was an icy G & T.  Take a sip and you’ll find, among other things, that it lays out all the niche presses churning out books right now. Any ink jockey worth his blotter would be a sap not to snatch up The Book toot sweet.

About this time “Weasel Charlie” coughed his way into the room and started singing like a canary, ratting out which tells you how to find the niche of what you’ve already written. He went on to squeal on Cynthia Leitich Smith, who has a blog on “how to niche market yourself!”  We thought he was done, but he musta gotten some bad hooch, ‘cause he started ranting about “Author’s Access,” which (he said) was some kinda thing called a “podcast,” featuring writer Ellen Feld gabbling on about her horse niche market. We never figured out if he was talkin’ about heroin or a heroine.

"Weasel Charlie"
Thankfully, it was just about then when Big Joe Taylor thundered into the room.  Charlie squealed out of there like a rat on the Titanic, but not before yelling from the doorway something about blog posts murderers Dr. Peggy Sissel-Phelan (Fiction Notes) and Jane R Wood (Children's Book Writers-Florida)  who apparently made some sort of killing (in niche marketing, that is) and lived to tell about it. Then the Weasel squealed off into the night.

All eyes were on Big Joe now as he slowly thumped across the room and planted himself in the chair at the front. “I’m here to wise up you saps to the rag trade,” he growled. Seeing everyone’s perplexed looks he clarified, “Magazines, you hacks!”

Everyone knew Big Joe was a monster in the mag world:  Winner of 2009 SCBWI Magazine Merit Award for a piece called Flying Balloons, The Story of the Montgolfier Brothers in Cricket Magazine, and more a bunch of stellar Cricket pieces since then.  We also knew that nobody was going anywhere until Big Joe had said his peace.

Right away Big Joe put us wise to the amount of work, determination, talent and luck it took to become “Mr. Cricket” (his uptown moniker). Seems his award winner started its life as a picture book. He liked it but thought it had too many words. He then tried turning it into a historical novel but felt he was “losing the essence.” Last time Big Joe felt like he was “losing the essence” of something, 23 characters ended up at the bottom of a shredder. Balloons mighta ended likewise but Joe then thought of Cricket Magazine. He submitted it there, found the editors copacetic, ended up winning the SCBWI Merit Award, and carving out a nice territory for himself. Call it a niche within a niche at the magazine – lightly fictionalized stories about scientists and artists who made amazing breakthroughs in their fields. (Word to the wise:  You wanna keep scribbling? Steer clear of Big Joe’s niche.)

He then handed out a flyer with the Carus Group's various magazines (of which Cricket is one). Here's a link with the 411:

Suddenly, Big Joe stood up.  Everyone ducked, ready to meet their makers, but it turned out Big Joe was just letting us know that the Schmooze was over and it was time to go.  Sobered, we filed out of the library, into the night.

The next un-posted blog Karol found was from a Schmooze we held on e-books, way back in the 60’s, the days of heady, communal DIY radicals. Appropriately, this gathering was a “Schmooze Collective” with a “panel of crackerjack hotshots, rapping on e-books and self-publishing.” Karol claimed to be under the weather and unable to attend, but Charlie had it on good authority that she was actually in Oregon, running naked with the Tree People. She did check in, though, virtually (through some hippie-futuristic thingamabob called Skype). Not surprisingly, her camera was off. This blog post is striking, both for its quant use of language and for the fact that the subject, e-books, did not even exist at the time the Schmooze occurred. You’d think it had actually happened on September 17, 2013, rather than back in the Decade of Love.

If you missed the e-book rapfest last night, man you missed a true happening. Greg (“the Fibber”) Pincus blew all our minds, making the scene in a man-miniskirt, Jeff (“the Webmaster”) Cox showed up in a bright orange Nehru Jacket, and Josh (“Brother#3”) Hauke wore his trusty torn jeans and “Keep on Truckin’” T-shirt.  The Tribe gathered to hear “The Three” pontificate on e-books and self-publishing — “the future, Mr. Gittes.”

Charlie (“Mr. Jones”) Cohen, looking clueless as ever in his Brooks Brother’s suit, questioned the gurus about the state of self-publishing.

Greg set the tone, laying down some TRUTH about expectations and goals – you gotta be honest about both. What do you want to get out of it? Why are you doing it? Greg rapped on how he released his amazing compilation of poems, The Late Bird, to learn how to release an e-book as well as to build on the audience he had grown online. Though he did not get rich off the e-book (yet!), he achieved both goals. “Know why you’re doing it, man,” he said, “and you’ll know what you need to do.”


Simple, but deep. 

Not unlike Greg himself.

"The Webmaster" on a bad day
Jeff must have gotten some of the brown acid, cause he bummed us all out, telling us how hard it still is to format a true e-picture book.  It’s got to cover all kinds of platforms and none of them are the same and each changes their protocols willy-nilly. He said you really gotta know how to program to do it. If not, you should steer clear of graphic-centric e-books, at least for now.

Propitiously, Josh emerged from his cloud of smoke just then to lead us all back into the groove. “It’s just transition, man,” he said, “like when we went from CD’s to MP3s. There’s always curves in the path; you just gotta learn to enjoy the view.” He went on to rap about the different path he took with his Tales Of The Brothers Three. He wanted to compile the first year of his amazing Web comic strip into a book. Rather than mess with e-books and all the formatting troubles that had so bummed out Jeff, Josh decided to release it digitally as a pdf (no formatting issues at all!) as well as in a (beautifully) printed book on Amazon. He said the two formats complemented each other: he sold more hard copies but made more scratch off the ebook.

‘Round this time Charlie started tripping: He ripped off his suit, stood on the table in just his “Friend of the Devil” BVDs and exulted: “FELLOW TRAVELERS! I GET IT NOW!! The Man says the worst reason to self-publish or e-publish is cause you can’t get your stuff published through the regular channels. I say, bullshit! That’s a great reason! The companies are narrow and getting narrower, and the percentage you make is small. So if your book appeals to a smaller, niche audience, it makes good economical sense for them to pass and for you to publish it! Both things are logical. SCREW THE MAN!!!

Everyone nodded. Except Jeff, who just growled, “First get your book into shape. Make sure you’ve vetted it, rewritten it and made it the best work you can do. And find better underwear.”

Then Greg, pupils dilated, started talking about the “world wide webs,” saying we should check out this book-designer Joel Friedlander’s blog about self-publishing and design, which had every possible thing you could want to know about how to design and release your book. 

“He’s awesome dude,” agreed Josh, “but if you really want your minds blown, check out this hombre, Matthew Herzberg.  He created this whole website about a fictional town and he writes all these stories about all the people in it.  The WEBSITE ITSELF is his e-book.  YOU GOTTA SEE THAT THING!!!”  

We had to restrain Josh at this point – in his excitement he was throttling Greg. 

Jeff shook his head and pointed accusatorily at the gathered tribe.  “These squares don’t care about that, man,” he sneered.  “They’re just looking to make money.  

All right Squares!  You want to make money off self-publishing?  Go to and satisfy your mercenary little hearts.  

And while you’re online you might visit where this chick, Joanna Penn, will give you a 51 page free download about marketing.

Josh chuckled the weird vibes away.  “That’s it, man.  I think we did it.”

And we had.  Everybody split to do their own things.

The final Schmooze we blogged about happened just last month on October 15, 2013. Of course in these modern days of social networks, e-readers and iPhones, “The Man “ has been renamed “The Cloud” and is back in control of the means of production. So as not to cross him/it we focused on more prosaic issues. Which is to say, this Schmooze was about plot - and promised (#notreally) to help Schmoozers learn How To Plot Like a Pro (trademark Charlie and Karol). (To appease the man further, please “like” our choice of topic on Twitface and Icarly.) #plotschmoozepander

Our plot Schmooze began like so many others, with Charlie trying to bring us all into his personal hell (#noncomposmentisleaders), laying bare his personal struggles with the very subject he helped choose (#whinyjew)

“I’ve always been suspicious of plot," whined Charlie.  "Always thought of it as lies rather than story.  A hard metallic infrastructure that wants to bend my characters into some predetermined and ultimately dishonest shape.  At the same time, I know that the only parts of anything that an audience can pay attention to are those that feel like they are integral to the story being told.  So where does that leave me?” 

“In need of my wise counsel,” snapped Karol (#obnoxiousknowitall), as she, wisely, opened the floor up to the Schmoozers for comments.  It turned out Charlie wasn’t entirely alone as most Schmoozers there confessed they were more vexed by plot than not, many wishing they could find a way to make do with less of it (#writershatewriting). We were lucky enough to have a teacher in attendance, though, who quickly set us straight.  She told us that kids in her classes were often “plot junkies” who read only for the plot.  She had to work to get them to slow down and actually pay attention to details. 

We came to the conclusion that plot was but one of many doors you can open to get into your story.  Still, once you were inside your story, you needed a plot to make it work. This led to a spirited debate between “Pantsers” (writers who write by the seats of their pants) and “Plotsers” (those who map out a course).  This, of course, brought to mind the great, overlooked fable by Aesop, “The Pantser and The Plotser” which centered on the struggles of a blathering butterfly and a boring ass to tell their mother her yarn was broken. The fable, of course, went on to inspire the famous vaudeville team of “Pantser and Plotser” whose career exploits were legendary, as well as their fall when Pantser pantsed Plotser and revealed Plotsers plotz (#whatthehellwasthat??, #imnotreallysurethisbitworkscharlie, #atleastiwrotethepost, #yeahforonce, #wherewerewe?). 

The Schmooze then settled down to some information that one can actually use to help you get through plotting (#finally):

Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park and The Book of Mormon had some great tips on discerning plot from “stuff” in an impromptu writing class they taught at NYU which you can watch HERE.

Screenwriter Blake Snyder created a 15 beat story structure that he immortalized in his “Save The Cat” writing guides.  Rita Crayon Huang #hernewbabysbabymama said that she found it too daunting to start her story with but used it as a diagnostic tool after she finished her drafts.  You can check out ol’ Blake’s ideas at his posthumous website:

Still very much alive is Bruce Coville who gave one of his amazing plot talks at the 2011 SCBWI conference (read a recap HERE). Bruce has so much great stuff to say, there’s no way to do it justice here,  But one of the big takeaways was to complicate, complicate, complicate.  Use the senses.  Complicate not only your character’s overall goal, but the individual scenes too.

Linda Sue Park says to look at your character’s internal and external quests, and focus on the tension between the two.  She has a great explanation of it on her site:

Charlie found a surprisingly useful entry on how to plot a story—in wikihow!  (Hint: It’s character and conflict!)

More traditionally, there was Freytag’s Story Pyramid (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement).

Martha Alderson, the Plot Whisperer can take you through her plotting steps on her youtube channel.  She’s all about finding your characters’ flaws and she speaks sweetly from a garden with lots of dappled sunlight and chirping birds! (#makeyouwannabarfandlovelifeatthesametime) 

And of course, Charlie’s favorite plotting device, Joseph Campbell’s amazing Monomyth – an assessment arrived at by studying myths and stories of every hero’s journey throughout time and from all around the globe.  Charlie loves it because it’s so inspiring and yet so vague and open to interpretation.  

Here are two versions of it to peruse:

Campbell's Monomyth

And one that's at least slightly easier on the eyes #sheeshsmallprintwhydonha:

Finally, (SOME SCHMOOZER) brought up Randy Ingermanson’s (#evilvilliannamesMarvelneverused) notorious “Snowflake method” of plotting, a method so detailed and anal and terrifying that it made Charlie want to kill himself and even gave Karol some pause.  

For those of you who dare, though, here is a link to his page:

And that was it (#againfinallynoreallythistime).  Fully flayed by the long evening we all plotsed out of there just in time before the library closed, escaping by the seat of our pants. (#seewhatwedidthere?)

Now that we're all super-caught-up-to-date, we hope you'll join us for any or all of our awesome upcoming Westside Writer's Schmoozes:
Mad About Middle Grade, Wednesday November 13th
Fabulous Guest Speaker (We Promise), Wednesday December 11th
Happy New Year!  The Failure Schmooze, Wednesday January 8th
I Know What Boys Like, Wednesday February 12th
Livin' In A Blogster's Paradise, Wednesday March 12th
Picture Book Critique Night, Wednesday April 9th
Novel Critique Night, Wednesday May 14th
Perfecting the Art of the Elevator pitch (Just in Time for the Summer Conference!), Wednesday June 11th

Until we see you again (like next week), keep passing the open windows!
Charlie & Karol

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Westside Illustrators & Writers Schmooze

The Westside Illustrators

& Writers Schmooze!

See 'Schmooze Spotlight'/ Fall/2013 /Kitetales/ pages 25-26

WHEN: Monday evening, October 21, 2013
                        7:00pm to 9:00pm

WHERE: 445 15th Street, Santa Monica CA 90402


"Prepping for Art Directors Day and Beyond"                                     AKA...Illustrators Day
    This is just the excuse for getting our work 'together...'
    Let's TALK & SHARE portfolios, dummies & postcards.
    Let's RESEARCH the speakers!
         "Dream Big... Start Small!"
             Continued discussion of our
              strengths & stretches...
       with our 'baby steps.'                         

Come prepared to participate, ask questions and be inspired!
Let's enjoy a fun creative evening together
& move forward in our common pursuit

of making a contribution to the world of
children's illustration and literature!

Next meeting ... November 18, 2013

RSVP???  YES...if you can...

WHERE??? 445 Fifteenth Street, Santa Monica Ca 90402
cell 818 389 1950