Monday, March 2, 2015

Writers Series: Jon and Pamela (J&P) Voelkel


On today's writers series we'll be spending time with Jon and Pamela (J&P) Voelkel who are the author-illustrators of the Jaguar Stones series; Pamela does most of the writing and Jon does most of the illustrating. 

Their books tell the story of a city boy and a jungle girl - a mirror image of Jon’s wild childhood in Latin America and Pamela’s altogether tamer upbringing in an English seaside town. The Voelkels met in London, where they both worked at the same advertising agency, and now live in Vermont.

And here is their latest book in the Jaguar Stone series: 


With his parents in jail and his best friend ignoring him, fourteen-year-old Max Murphy was pretty sure things couldn’t get much worse. But that was before a parade of Maya monsters crashed through his house and the Queen of the Bats tried to sink her fangs into his neck…

Meanwhile, down in the Maya underworld, the evil Death Lords have realized they’ll never conquer the mortal world without conquering social media. So with the bad guys on a charm offensive, it’s up to Max and his Maya friend Lola to reveal the terrible truth before it’s too late.

This epic conclusion to the Jaguar Stones series takes Max and Lola on their wildest adventure yet, north from the teeming rainforest to the lost city at the heart of America’s past.

How has your travel affected your writing process?

As we're sure many people find when they set off to research a story, the act of travel has a way of changing everything. 

In our case, we started out with a fast-paced Indiana Jones type adventure about a city boy who gets lost in the jungle. It was based on Jon's wild childhood in South and Central America, with the Maya pyramids as a suitably spooky background. But when we took our own kids down to Belize to explore some of those pyramids first-hand, we realized we were writing the wrong book. Firstly because almost everything we'd read about the ancient Maya was out of date; and secondly because the living Maya were just as fascinating as their ancestors. 

After that, we went down to Central America many more times and tried to learn new facts rather than validate old ones. It was talking to a group of Maya teenagers in Guatemala that inspired the character of Lola and she quickly became the center of things. It's a delicate balance because our primary goal is still to tell a fast-paced and funny adventure story. But now we also try to bring alive Maya mythology, make a case for rainforest conservation, and dramatize the predicament of modern Maya people. 

Hopefully, the social messages are subtly done, but we'd like to think our readers are sneakily educated while they're being entertained. We feel a responsibility to get things right, so all our books are fact-checked by a leading archaeologist. And because there's still so much misinformation about the Maya on the internet, we share our research with teachers via downloadable reading guides and free lesson plan CDs. So you could say that our travels have driven our writing process and inspired everything we've written.


What was the hardest thing about writing The Lost City?

The hardest thing about writing The Lost City was knowing it was the last Jaguar Stones book and that we'd have to say goodbye to all the characters we'd come to know so well. It's not that we wanted to extend the series - we always knew where it would end and we'd written the very last paragraph right at the beginning to keep us on track - but the books had become part of our lives. In fact, we were already on borrowed time because the series was originally planned as a trilogy but the story took on a life of its own. 

Mostly writing The Lost City was pure fun. Unlike the first book in a series, where you're establishing your world and your characters, you can relax and go with the flow. It's the difference between walking into a room full of strangers and going to a party with old friends. When we wrote the first book, Middleworld, we were terrified that readers would lose interest if we stopped too long for descriptions, so the story moves at breakneck speed. By the time we got to The Lost City, which is the fourth and final book in the series, we'd established a rapport with our readers and we knew which bits they liked because they told us. Some of them even emailed us plot ideas and requests. It's impossible not to be buoyed by that kind of support! So it's going to feel kind of lonely starting from scratch again...


What are you writing next?

Please ask us anything but this! It's become a kind of superstition not to talk about the next book until we have a decent first draft. It's like you can jinx a book by talking about it too much. You feel almost like the book is written but, in reality, all you've done is talk. And if the Jaguar Stones has taught us anything, it's that the book you think you're going to write may not be the one that wants to get written.

Jon and Pamela, thank you so much for spending time with us!

If you'd like to find out more about J & P you can follow them on Twitter @pvoelkel and @jaguarstones of Facebook, and their website.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Some Thoughts About Characters in a Story

So I'm working on a revision for an MG (middle grade) fantasy. Ok, its not really a revision. I'm rewriting the whole thing. My agent, Adriann, wants me to focus on depth of character in this version. And I whole heartedly agree. The last book I wrote was a contemporary YA about a figure skater. I was able to really flesh out those characters because I've lived in the figure skating world for twenty plus years. And it wasn't until I received revision notes on the MG from my agent did I realize that I didn't come anywhere close to being as immersed in the world of my characters in this new story.

So I've been doing a ton of research. I'm practically stalking the NASA website, learning as much as I can about stars, watching YouTube videos on how to operate telescopes, watching ANCIENT ALIENS on Netflix, and I just finished reading a biography about Einstein. What a fascinating individual.

But research can be a daunting task because I'm coming across many ideas and concepts that will never make it into the actual story. But as I read and watch and learn I can feel the characters coming to life in my head. And as the characters deepen, the plot reveals itself.

In the past I always thought I had to map out the plot first and then install the characters (I was wrong). With the YA contemporary about the figure skater, even though I hadn't realized it at the time, I knew the characters as well as I knew myself and so the plot unfolded organically.

This past January I took part in Natalie Parker's Crit Camp and she said something that was a total light bulb moment for me. She said to imagine your story like a pyramid. The base of the pyramid, the foundation of the story are the characters. The middle section is world building and setting, and the top of the pyramid is the plot.

I've heard this before, but it was just the way Natalie said it, the way she diagrammed out, that really resonated with me. And it made me realize that all my favorite books are heavily character driven. The characters ARE the story. THE INFERNAL DEVICES. THE SCORPIO RACES. HARRY POTTER. THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. THE RAVEN CYCLE. THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE.
I fell in love with the characters first and foremost.

All these thoughts about character have been percolating in my brain since January and then I saw that J.K. Rowling tweeted this recently:

And it just makes sense! When I first started researching for the rewrite I have to admit that I felt like I wasn't being productive. In my mind productivity = word count. But, I've learned that spending some time to get to know your characters and researching what makes them tick can be just as productive and vitally important to the success of your story.

Happy Writing!

Monday, February 2, 2015

What We Learned From NaNoWriMo

Today my long time friend Cassidy Savidi (@OptionalD) and I are going to talk about how even though we didn’t “win” NaNoWriMo this past November, we learned some valuable lessons.


Let me start by thanking Anita for the opportunity to share my thoughts. I’ve known Anita more years than is decent and have always been impressed by her many talents. I was lucky enough to be a beta reader on one of her projects and can’t wait to buy and champion her first book - whatever it may be.


Awww...I was lucky to have you beta read that project and share your thoughts on it. Even though it ultimately became a drawer novel I learned so much from that manuscript. So Cassidy, tell us about your NaNo experience.

This was my first attempt at National Novel Writing Month, and although I only made it to 28,525 words, I learned a lot about myself and my writing in the process. I managed to build a fairly solid foundation to a new world and fleshed out some interesting characters. I did not “win”, but after 30 days of writing, I have 28,000+ more words than had I never attempted NaNoWriMo. Something always trumps nothing.


Cassidy, I totally agree. It would take some complicated math to figure out how long we’ve known each other and yes, something is always better than nothing.


November 2014 was my second attempt at NaNo and I wrote 10,435 words of a new YA Fantasy. And like you, I don’t think I would have even written that much had it not been for NaNoWriMo. As I was writing the new project for NaNo, I was also concurrently revising an MG Fantasy. What helped me stay on track was Victoria Schwab’s Sticker Method. It was my first time applying this pacing technique to my writing.


I bought a cheapo calendar from Walmart and some sparkly stickers that just yelled, “stick me on something.” Tiny star stickers were designated as rewards for small accomplishments and cuddly, glittery panda stickers for big accomplishments. For every chapter I revised I got a star sticker and for every 1000 words I wrote I also gave myself a star sticker. The sticker method may seem silly to some, but there is something immensely satisfying when you look at your calendar and it is full of stickers. And when the stickers were sparse on the calendar, the sad empty white space gave me the extra kick in the rear I needed to get back on track. I will definitely continue the sticker method in my writing routine and for NaNo 2015. Cassidy, how did you start your NaNo journey?


I started by reading No Plot? No Problem by Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo. Each chapter deals with a specific week of the challenge and some tips and strategies. I recommend this guide for anyone that attempts NaNoWriMo. I did not have any cuddly, glittery panda stickers, but rewards are central to a challenge like this. The NaNoWriMo website has achievements that unlock when you reach certain page counts, and the book offers various strategies for rewards and punishments to motivate yourself. I will caution first-timers that no plot is in fact a problem. I’m a pantser by nature, but you must have some sort of sign posts to be able to make it through 50k words in 30 days. At 25k words I realized that I was just hitting the second act while simultaneously writing myself out into thin air like an authorial Wiley E. Coyote holding an “uh-oh” sign. 50k is a short book. It doesn’t feel short when you have to write it in 30 days, but if you’re used to reading and plotting regular length novels then you may find it hard to pace and pants at the same time. This year, I solemnly swear to have a general outline before attempting NaNoWriMo. Probably.


Cassidy I’m glad you brought up outlines. Prior to November I actually did make a beat sheet (for those of you who don’t know what a beat sheet is I recommend reading Save the Cat by Blake Snyder) and used an act structure diagram to map out the high and low points of my shiny new story. I also wrote one hundred declarative sentences about the main characters. It’s a technique I learned from Mary Kole, back when she was a literary agent. For example, if I was going to write 100 declarative sentences about Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games it would go something like this:


Katniss loves her sister Prim above all else.
Katniss has a sense of duty towards her family.
Katniss despises the Republic.


I think you get the picture.


Even though I didn’t write 50k words for NaNo there is something to be said about an entire month dedicated to BIC (butt in chair) and to word quantity. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate quality words. But sometimes that internal editor just won’t shut off for me and thus the quantity of words suffer. But during NaNo I felt like I could just tell the internal editor to take a vacation and there was something freeing about that.


I agree 102% (100 + 2 because I will now add my 2 per-cents). Writing is a muscle. Thirty days of writing at least 1500 words a day is like doing P90X/Insanity/BeachBody on your mind brain. You will learn that writing will not kill you (though it may feel like it is maiming you). You will form a habit by writing every day for 30 days. A writing habit wards off writer’s block. If you take advantage of the NaNoWriMo website, you will connect with other writers virtually and in person at local write-ins. You may not have much quality at the end of the month, but you’ll have something. There will be glimmers. There may even be a nugget of gold. Even if you end up with something that you delete or ceremoniously render unto ash, you have written every day (or almost every day) for a month. You will have greatly strengthened your writing muscles. Can you imagine if I actually exercised my body every day for a month? Yeah, me neither. So this is as close as it gets.


Writing is seasonal for me. I don’t know why it works out this way, but I usually start new projects in the fall. Take a break for the holidays. And then write and revise from January to early summer. NaNo just seems a great way for me to kick start a new manuscript, and I’ll definitely be doing it next year. How about you Cassidy?


November is an awful time to try and write every day. It’s a 30 day month. There are two major U.S. holidays (one involves massive amounts of tryptophan). The leaves are changing in most areas, and it’s actually morally irresponsible to not go traipsing through them. And yet, November may just turn out to be my most productive month. Thank you, Anita. Good Luck everyone. See you in November. Friend me on the NaNoWriMo website at OptionalD. My mind brain is going to get so buff this year.


Thank you for sharing your writerly wisdom Cassidy and for reminding me to ask people to friend me as well on the NaNoWriMo website at AnitaSk8. Hopefully Cassidy and I will be posting again next year to talk about our Nano experiences.


Happy writing everyone!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

An Afternoon with Librarians

I always knew librarians were cool people, but never realized just how immensely cool they were until yesterday, when I went to an event at my local library called the Best Books of 2014.

Katie Jane Morris, who is an outreach librarian at the Hoover Public Library, gave a fantastic over view of staff picks for juvenile and teen fiction books of 2014. Librarians from the Birmingham area and local writers attended. What amazed me about Katie Jane was first how she categorized the books: scary books, animal books, serious books, funny books, etc.. She could pick up almost any book from the list and talk about the characters and the plot off the top of her head as if she had just finished reading the book that day. She confessed to reading about two to three hundred books per year and her enthusiasm for children's literature was absolutely infectious!

It was also interesting hearing about books from a librarian's perspective. When a teen book was discussed, librarians in the audience wanted to know which titles would be appropriate for older middle grade readers. Katie Jane talked about also how certain titles were shelved. For example, PERCY JACKSON'S GREEK GODS by Rick Riordan is actually a non fiction title, but the library decides to keep it in the fiction section along Riordan's other books to make it easier for fans of his books to find.

What was really cool was when Katie Jane started talking about HALLEY, a novel by Faye Gibbons, and Ms. Gibbons was actually in the audience. Ms. Gibbons is such a sweet lady and I was honored to have had the opportunity to chat with her afterwards.

Here is a link to the list of Hoover Library Staff Picks of 2014 for juvenile and teen fiction. There are so many books on here that I hadn't even heard of, but sound like fabulous reads.

Here are some from the Juvenile list that I am looking forward to reading:

SPACE CASE by Stuart Gibbs
Dashiell Gibson, who lives on Moon Base Alpha, has to solve a murder of one of the moon's most prominent doctors.

TESLA'S ATTIC by Neal Shusterman & Eric Elfman
With a plot combining science and the supernatural, four kids are caught up in a dangerous plan concocted by the eccentric inventor, Nikola Tesla

ICE DOGS by Terry Lynn Johnson
In this survival story set in Alaska, fourteen-year-old Vicky and her dog sled team find an injured sledder in the wilderness.

Here are some from the Teen list that I am looking forward to reading:

ILLUSIVE by Emily Lloyd-Jones
I actually won a copy of this as a door prize!
After a vaccine accidentally creates superpowers in a small percentage of the population, seventeen-year-old Ciere, an illusionist, teams up with a group of fellow high-class, super-powered thieves to steal the vaccine's formula while staying one step ahead of mobsters and deadly government agents.

JACKABY by William Ritter
Katie Jane couldn't stop talking about this one. She said this title was one of her favorite books from last year, which I think is saying a lot coming from someone who reads as many books as she does.

Newly arrive in 1892 England, Abigail Rook becomes assistant to R.F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with the ability to see supernatural beings, and she helps him delve into a case of serial murder which, Jackaby is convinced, is due to a nonhuman creature.

THE IMPOSSIBLE KNIFE OF MEMORY by Laurie Halse Anderson
Hayley Kincaid and her father move back to their hometown to try a "normal" life, but the horrors he saw in the war threaten to destroy their lives.

There are so many other awesome titles on the list so I encourage you to check it out. And if you ever get the chance to spend an afternoon with a group of librarians-- DO IT. I had an amazing time.



Sunday, January 11, 2015

My Fav Books of 2014

What better way to start off 2015 than to talk about the books that I loved last year.

Books That Took Me To Another World
I'm talking about those books where you are so absorbed you feel like a part of the cast of characters. Anything that happens to them, happens to you.



Books That Let Me Know That Everything Was Ok
A few of my favorite "series" came to an end in 2014. I enjoyed reading these books and finally knowing how everything turned out.



Books I Loved From Authors I Hadn't Read Before
Kendare happens to be an agency mate. And Natalie, who debuted this past fall, has been a mentor to me the past few years.


Book I Loved That Just Might Happen (Hopefully Not!)
Mindy who is also an agency mate (I'm surrounded by so much talent!) addresses the question what the world would be like if we didn't have access to water as we do now.

















Books That Enchanted Me Although They Didn't Have Any Enchantment
I love contemporary just as much as I like any genre. But I always have to give my hats off to contemporary authors who weave tales with rich characters, settings, and plots rooted in the real world.


Looking forward to all the great books to read in 2015!

Friday, November 14, 2014

I've Been Tagged!

Kristin Rae and I became friends over the years through our love of FRINGE and figure skating. She's the author of WISH YOU WERE ITALIAN and her second book, WHAT YOU ALWAYS WANTED comes out in early 2016. She's been an exceptional mentor and friend, so when Kristin tagged me in a blog hop, I found it perfect for a mid NaNo November blog post.

What are you working on?

Last week I finished what I believe is the next to last round of revisions on a middle grade fantasy. After that I decided to give National Novel Writing Month a try and I'm working on a young adult fantasy. I'm using some world building concepts from something I wrote three novels ago, but drawing up a fresh new cast of characters and conflict. I'm really enjoying the project. Sad to say though, I'm not quite keeping up with the NaNoWriMo pace. According to the stat tracker on the website, if I keep writing like I am, I'll finish the novel February 17, 2015. And that'll just be the first draft!

How does your work differ from others in your genre?

I love unique and strange stories like Maggie Stiefvater's THE RAVEN CYCLE trilogy or THE SCORPIO RACES. I'm always aspiring to write that never-done-before story and I hope that shines through in my writing.

Why do you write what you do?

I love music because of the lyrics. And I love books because of the characters. If a story has real, fleshed out characters, then I fall hard. So for me, regardless of something being contemporary or fantasy (which are the two genres I write), it always comes down to writing characters that come off the page and that I can't live without.

What does your writing process look like?

My writing process has consistently evolved over the past ten years. But, I'll share what I did with my past two novels.

  • I make a beat sheet. If you don't know what a beat sheet is, check out SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder. OR I fill in the blanks on a plot diagram sheet, planning out every high point and low point. OR I do both.
  • I write about 20-30k words of the manuscript.
  • I revise.
  • I put that 20k words through Natalie Parker's Crit Camp.
  • I revise again based on my Crit Camp notes.
  • Now, that my novel has a strong 20k foundation, I write the rest of the novel.
  • I let that novel marinade for about 6 weeks. I don't open the document. I don't think about it. And I usually catch up on my reading pile during this time.
  • I print out the manuscript, read through it, and edit with a red, purple, or green pen (has to be one of those colors).
  • It's been 6 to 8 weeks by now, and I'm finally opening the document on the computer to implement edits.
  • I send to three or four critique partners.
  • I receive critiques and decide which suggestions I want to use to make the story better.
  • I revise.
  • Send new version to different crit partners/beta readers.
  • Decide which suggestions I want to implement in story.
  • I revise again, and then will let my agent know I have something new to share with her.
For the past two novels, this entire process takes about a year. Around bullet point #12 I start thinking about and planning for the next novel.

Thank you Kristin for tagging me in the blog hop. It's alway fun to chat about writing! Have a wonderful weekend everyone!