When a book title goes back to the drawing board

If you’re not an author, it may surprise you to know that sometimes, the title a writer originally gives a book doesn’t always stay the title of that book.  A lot of people chime in along the way, from agents and editors, to the sales reps who will ultimately be making sure that your book is available in stores. THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. for example, wasn’t always THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z.   First it was SWINGER OF BIRCHES.  Then it was MAPLE GIRL.  Then there was a whole lot of brainstorming before we came up with the final title, which I love.

My new book, about a figure skater from a small-town maple farm who earns a scholarship to train with the elite in Lake Placid, was originally called SUGAR ON SNOW.  Even though I like the way that sounds, there are concerns that it doesn’t make the ice skating element of the book clear enough, so we’re working on new titles right now.  Brainstorming.  I sent a list of ideas to my editor a week or so ago, but none of those seem to be sparking joy and agreement either, so we’re trying again. 

I thought I’d share the process I used last night, since regular old brainstorming wasn’t helping me get at anything new.  First, I brainstormed a list of all the skating words I could think of and jotted them down.  SKATE, ICE, RINK, SPIRAL, SPIN, BLADES…and on and on. Then I wrote down other words that are important in the book.  SUGAR, MUSIC, SEASONS, SONGS, SPARKLE…you get the idea.  Then I did this…

Cutting up the list into little pieces allowed me to literally play with the words, move them around and try combinations that my brain might not have come up with on its own.  Kind of like a magnetic poetry set, but more impromptu.  It worked well, and I’ll try this again the next time I’m feeling title challenged.  Sometimes, there is value in just seeing things in a new way.  In play.

And I did send a new list of title ideas off to New York early this morning.  I’ll keep you posted…

Skyping with 6th Graders

Have I mentioned how much I love the way Skype allows me to teach my own 7th grade students all day and still have time for a virtual author visit with kids halfway across the country before I make dinner?

Today’s crew of 6th graders, Mrs. Duff’s class in Oelwein, Iowa, read The Brilliant Fall of  Gianna Z. this fall and prepared some great questions for our virtual visit.  Here’s a quick sampling:

What was the inspiration for GIANNA Z? 
My students and their mandatory 7th grade leaf project.

How many drafts did you have to write before it was published?  18.  Then we did copy edits.

Are you going to write a sequel? 
Yes. I already did. Zig is the main character in that one. If you’d like to read it some day, please write a nice letter to my publisher to let them know!

What’s the last movie you saw?  Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, which was fun because I’d just been to the Smithsonian for research last spring.

What’s your favorite book?
It’s so hard to choose, but I have to say Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  And I loved When You Reach Me, too.

Hey! We’re reading that book now. Will you play $20,000 Pyramid with us?  Sure!

Ready?  Sleds. Shovels. Angels. Toboggans...    THINGS YOU DO IN THE SNOW!!!!!!!  **cheers and dances**

Turns out I didn’t actually win $20,000 but that’s okay.  Chatting with such a fun, interesting group of kids was priceless.  Thanks, 6th graders and Mrs. Duff!

Many things on a Monday…

1. We spent Saturday skiing with friends at Whiteface Mountain on what I’m convinced was the best ski day of the year so far. It was sunny and beautiful and full of fresh air. Just perfect.

2. My students spent last week brainstorming and pulling together some quick fundraisers for Doctors Without Borders’ earthquake relief efforts in Haiti.  On Friday after school, we ate pizza and did a final count…

I am so, so proud of their efforts!

3. I am reading CHARLES AND EMMA: THE DARWINS’ LEAP OF FAITH right now, and finding it just as amazing as the awards committees and everyone else says it is.  I love the the way the story mixes science and religion and love, three things that fascinate me. Even if you don’t usually read nonfiction, I’d recommend giving this one a try.

4. I sent a new picture book manuscript off to my agent this week.  If you are a writer, you know the mix of jitters and excitement that can bring. It’s one of those books that I could never work on without laughing. **fingers crossed that it makes agent laugh, too**

5. Speaking of picture books that make you laugh, I picked up an F & G (folded & gathered copy) of SHARK VS. TRAIN, written by Chris Barton and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld.  If you are interested in writing picture books, read it. It’s a shining example of a book that appeals to both kids and the adult readers who will no doubt be sharing this one aloud over and over and over again. So, so funny!

6. At the end of this week, I’ll be heading to Kindling Words, a writing retreat where I’m looking forward to workshops, time with author friends, and time to write.  My goals: finish up a nonfiction picture book I’ve been working on, revise the middle grade mystery so it’s ready to share with my agent, and write at least one chapter of a new project that’s been keeping me up at night.  It’s a fun, fast-paced mystery with a hint of magic, and my typing fingers are itching to get started.

Hope everyone has a great week!

An Invitation for Northern NY Friends

I’m giving a lecture tomorrow night as part of a new series of talks at the Alice T. Miner Museum in Chazy. The concept, which I found irresistible, is to have two half-hour lectures presented on unrelated topics, followed by a joint Q and A session in which the audience can ask whatever they want and perhaps make connections between the two speakers.  Here’s the event poster:

One correction: It’s not $5 to get in; it’s free (yay!), and though it’s a relatively small venue, I believe there’s still space if you’d like to come.  Just call 846-7336 to reserve a seat.

Real authors don’t plan…or do they? An open letter to Tyler

Dear Tyler,

So I heard a rumor today.  Is it true that you told your teacher that real authors don’t use story webs or outlines or plan their writing?  That real authors just write whatever comes into their heads and if they need to outline or do any prep work, they’re not real writers?


Your teacher dropped me a note to ask if I might be able to make you reconsider.  She’s a friend of mine and knows that I’ve written eight books for kids — three that are out now and five that will be published in 2010 and 2011.  And she has a pretty good idea what “real writing” looks like.

I told her I’d share some photos tonight, because I thought you might like to see this.

This is some of the pre-writing I’ve done for the book I’m writing right now. It’s a middle grade mystery called CAPTURE THE FLAG, and I’m finished with my draft, but I’ll be revising for a while now, trying to make it better. What you’re looking at in the photo includes:

  • A timeline showing where all the characters are throughout the story & what happens when (top left)
  • Page two of the timeline (top middle)
  • A list of things I needed to research (top right)
  • A character brainstorming chart with notes on the three kids’ personalities, interests, families, etc. (middle left)
  • A story web showing how the central mystery relates to the clues, villains, setting, etc. (middle right)
  • A plot diagram that I did to make sure the story gets more exciting as it goes along, right up to the climax (bottom left)
  • A chapter by chapter outline of characters, action, settings, plot threads, and theme connections (bottom center)
  • A chart listing secondary characters hanging around the airport where the story is set & their stories

And then there’s this…

It’s my revision to-do list, with jobs for each chapter.  I’m on Chapter 13 right now.

So do I do all this stuff for EVERY novel I write?  Nope. But I use a lot of it with each book. 

And do I ALWAYS outline and plan before I write?  Well, your teacher might not like this, but no.  Sometimes I just plunge in and write for a little while.  That kind of free-writing can help you get good ideas, but it’s also scattered and unorganized and hard for readers to follow, so even if I start a book by free-writing, I usually don’t make it all the way through.  Once I have an idea where the story is going, I stop and…. you guessed it… make an outline, a road map that can get me to the end.

Having practice with a lot of different kinds of brainstorming, story mapping, and outlining helps me make sure I have the skills I need to write whatever I want to write. It’s like having a big toolbox.  You might not need the hammer for every single project, but you’d sure be lost without it, and if you have one, you can pull it out whenever you need it.

So give the outline a try, okay?  Real writers do use the tools your teacher is talking about, and we use them all the time.

I hope your fantasy story turns out beautifully.

All the best,

~Kate Messner

P.S. I am sorry about this post.  I used to hate it when my teachers were right about things like this…

This World We Live In by Susan Beth Pfeffer

I finished reading Susan Beth Pfeffer’s THIS WORLD WE LIVE IN tonight.  Now I am in no mood to sleep and will likely be awake in bed plotting ways to store canned goods in my basement.  I should know by now not to read post-apocalyptic fiction on school nights, but no…I’m a sucker for a great story.  And this one is.

If you enjoyed the first two books in this series, LIFE AS WE KNEW IT and THE DEAD AND THE GONE, you’ll also love this latest (and final) installment.  Set in a world turned upside down almost a year after an asteroid has hit the moon, upsetting everything from weather patterns to the tides, this book is dark, to be sure.  But it’s not without its moments of hope and beauty.  Reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD, it’s the story of those who remain…including some familiar characters from the first two books.  It’s tough to say more without being spoilery, and I most definitely don’t want to do that; fans of Pfeffer have been waiting for this one, and they won’t be disappointed.

Reviewed from an ARC from ALA midwinter and due out in April 2010.

How They Got Here: 2009 Debut Author Rhonda Stapleton

Rhonda Stapleton’s debut YA novel STUPID CUPID is out now…and she’s here to join us with some questions about how 2009 came to be her big year!

From the author’s website…

Felicity Walker believes in true love. That’s why she applies for a gig at the matchmaking company Cupid’s Hollow. But when Felicity gets the job, she learns that she isn’t just a matchmaker…she’s a cupid! (There’s more than one of them, you know.)

Armed with a hot pink, tricked-out PDA infused with the latest in cupid magic (love arrows shot through email), Felicity works to meet her quota of successful matches. But when she bends the rules of cupidity by matching her best friend Maya with three different boys at once, disaster strikes. Felicity needs to come up with a plan to set it all right, pronto, before she gets fired…and before Maya ends up with her heart split in three.

Welcome, Rhonda! Tell us about the first thing you ever wrote that made you think maybe you were a writer.

I started an adult story that I really took time to plot and work on regularly. When I did that, I knew I was a real writer!

What books did you love when you were a kid?

I looooooved so many books as a kid–Homecoming, Jacob Have I Loved, any of the Sweet Valley High books, romance series books, Ramona Quimby (so funny!), etc.

Moving on to the here and now, most writers admit that making time to write can sometimes be a challenge.  When and where do you write?   Do you have any special rituals?  Music?  Food & beverages?

I need caffeine when I write. haha. It can be soda or tea, but I love having something to drink right beside me. I usually write in the evenings–and it can be anywhere I can plug my laptop into…the living room, dining room, or my office.

Do you have a favorite strategy for revision?

I try to come up with a list of things I know I need to tweak. Also, I start with the big stuff first (plot, characterization, setting) and then focus on the smaller things (grammar, word choice, etc).

What’s your best advice for young writers?

Keep on writing! Do it regularly–keep a journal, or whatever it takes. Practice your craft! That’s how you grow. Also, read a lot. Writers are often huuuge readers.

How did you find your agent and/or editor?

I queried my agent through email! She found my editor for me. 😀

Thanks for joining us, Rhonda!

You can read more about Rhonda Stapleton at her website. You can pick up your copy of STUPID CUPID at your local independent bookseller, order it through one of my favorite indies, Flying Pig Bookstore (they ship!), or find an indie near you by checking out IndieBound!

Cheers for ALA Youth Media Winners!

There was much cheering in the Messner house this morning, once we finally figured out how to get the live feed of the ALA Youth Media Awards announcements from Boston.  So happy for all of the winners, but particularly some friends whose books we loved…

Tanya Lee Stone’s brave and brilliant ALMOST ASTRONAUTS won the Sibert Medal.  If you haven’t already read this story of the "Mercury 13" women who secretly went through astronaut testing before NASA was ready to consider women in space, you are missing an amazing story. And if you’re a teacher, know that Tanya does an incredible job with school visits; she was our visiting author last year, and the kids were fascinated by the story behind this book.

Rebecca Stead’s WHEN YOU REACH ME won the Newbery Medal, and my eight-year-old shouted "YES!" so loudly she woke up her brother. WYRM is one of those books that is just so, so special you want to hug it.  I picked up a copy at last summer’s ALA conference, read it, wrote a blog recommendation, and immediately emailed Rebecca to see if she’d be my school’s visiting author for the 2009-2010 school year.  She said yes, so in March, we’ll have our first-ever visit from a Newbery Medal author.  I believe that she may also be making a stop at Flying Pig Books, so if you’re a Vermonter, be sure to check the Flying Pig Events page for the official announcement so you don’t miss it!

Time to get some writing done, because if this morning’s feast of great books wasn’t inspiration, I don’t know what is.

Home from ALA Midwinter

It was so wonderful to see book-loving friends who were there, and my whole family loved ogling all the new books coming out in 2010. So many amazing titles on the way – it’s a very good time to be a reader!

The amazing, overwhelmingly large exhibit hall

Not all of my writer-friends could make it to Boston, so my daughter and I thought it would be fun to put together an exhibit hall scavenger hunt to look for friends’ books.  We found almost all of them, with the exception of a few that were so popular, they’d been scarfed up (display copy and all!) before E could snap a photo. 

(Note to author friends… If your book is here and you’d like to grab the photo for your own blog or FB or whatever, feel free.)

How many of these titles do you recognize?

(They also had THIEF EYES,  , but we weren’t fast enough & all the copies were gone when we got to RH!)

Time for me to finish unpacking and get back to reading my first ARC of many…Kathryn Erskine’s MOCKINGBIRD, which is heartbreaking, beautiful, and real so far.

More to come from ALA Midwinter soon!

Title Question, Just for Friends

There’s some discussion swirling around the title for my next middle grade novel, about a figure skater from a small-town maple farm who earns a scholarship to train with the elite in Lake Placid.  The original title is SUGAR ON SNOW, which I have always liked, but I’m also open-minded, since some folks at the publisher think it would be better if the title had a clearer connection to skating. So we’re brainstorming.

The other title that’s come up that I like is SUGAR AND ICE. (Thanks eluper and literaticat!)

So may I ask your opinion?  Which one do you like better? Which title would make you more likely to pick up a book with a skater on the cover?




…or something else??  Would love to hear your thoughts.  Thanks!