Janet Sumner Johnson
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Writing for Middle Graders

Jan 21, 2014 Uncategorized 11 comments

My ten-year old got a Kindle for Christmas. I might be a tad jealous since I don’t even have one, but I guess Santa was feeling generous and understood just how much that kid loves to read. And encouraging reading? Well, it IS something I try to do.

One of my favorite things about the Kindle is watching how he chooses to spend his Amazon giftcards. At first, there were a couple of recently released books he was dying for (ones that were the latest in a series he’d been reading). The choices were easy. But with all the book suggestions from Amazon based on his buying history, he realized really fast that there were plenty of other books that cost a lot less than the $10 ones he’d been buying.

The kid’s good at math, so he figured out that he could get MORE books if he got the books in the  $0.99 to $2.99 range. Unless it’s a deal, I found that this range usually means self-published. I know plenty of talented self-published authors who work really hard to make their books awesome, so I had no problem with this. But I tried to go through the reviews before buying, to vet his choices. Because let’s be honest . . . there’s self-published and then there’s self-published. Those who do it right, and those who . . . don’t.

There was one book in particular where I found quite a few less-than-complimentary reviews about the quality of the writing: ‘the characters are very one-dimensional’; ‘the plot meanders completely from where it started in the beginning’; ‘the story is very derivative’ . . . Big enough issues that were brought up in enough reviews that I strongly discouraged him from getting it. That said, I let him make the final choice (since, you know, it WAS his money).

Of course he got it. “It sounds really good, Mom!” And wouldn’t you know it, by the time he finished the book (later that day, I believe), he was RAVING about the thing. “This is my second-favorite book, ever!” And the kid reads A LOT of books.

This experience really made me stop. I’ve thought a lot about this. I mean, why do we kill ourselves to make our prose shine, when in the end, our younger readers haven’t yet learned to discern the difference between excellent and mediocre writing anyway? My son liked this book because it involved dragons (his favorite subject), it had lots of action, and it reminded him of other books he loved.

Isn’t that enough to strive for?

I have to conclude that it’s not. When I consider the power of a book–a well-written book–how can I settle for anything less than my best? And it’s not just about getting it right for the reader. The writing/revising of a book is a transcendent experience that I believe makes me better as a person. I learn to find empathy for the vilest of villains. I learn to consider ideas from all different points of view. I learn what’s important to me, and I solidify my beliefs as I spend hours and hours with my characters and their views.

I can’t help but think of J.K. Rowling. She wrote for middle grade readers, and she captured them with a fun and adventurous book. But her prose was so excellent, the ideas she tackled so relatable, that she didn’t only capture middle graders. She captured the world and caused a revolution in the world of books.

Yes, her story is rare, but isn’t that what we all strive for? To write something that leaves people (including ourselves) thinking well beyond the actual reading of it? How can we possibly hope for that if we don’t give it our all?

What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

The Source of Inspiration

Jan 13, 2014 Uncategorized 8 comments

Since I actively joined the blogosphere, way back forever
ago, I’ve gotten to know a lot of other writers. One of the things I love
learning is where they draw their inspiration from.

Last week, Kimberly Afe talked about her inspiration for her
book, The Headhunter’s Race. A Zelda commercial, and poof! idea.

My awesome friend, Amy Sonnichsen, talked about her inspiration for
Red Butterfly (S&S, 2015!!) HERE. Her sympathy for another’s plight led to a
beautiful story.

J.K. Rowling dreamed of a boy with a lightning-shape scar,
and Stephanie Meyer dreamed of vampires. Inspiration that served them well.

The very first book I wrote was inspired by a longing to
return to my youth. To an easier, more carefree time. I’d just turned 19 which
(for a reason completely unknown to me now) was a huge deal to me. I was a
freshman in college, living on my own, having to be totally responsible for
myself. I had no one pushing me to do what needed doing.

And I remembered. Remembered the carefree days of exploring
the jungle of our backyard ditch. Of racing off on my bicycle with my brother
to go dig in the empty lot around the corner. And I wanted it back. The book
was a joy to write, because I just relived all the wonderfully crazy moments of
my childhood. I even included the awful ones that now make me giggle: getting
trampled by the whole soccer field; getting thrown in the ditch by my sister.

When I rewrote it (as my 3rd book), my inspiration came from
the present instead of the past. Foreclosures were popping up everywhere, and I
couldn’t help wondering how kids were handling it. I needed an outlet to express myself. The two ideas morphed, and
it became my first query-able book.

I was thrilled when I finally “finished,” but I
was worried . . . where in the world I would find another book idea?

Which now makes me laugh. Because they come at me from
everywhere. A cold became the idea for a humorous MG. A scary dream became an idea for an MG Horror. A horrible real-life
event became an idea for a YA Contemporary. A Wedding Dinner in France became
the idea for a novel set in France. My soccer team became the idea for a work
of adult fiction. They come at me so fast, I know I’ll never actually write
many of them.

But that’s okay. Because some ideas rise to the top. And the
best ideas will get written because they keep on inspiring until they must be put on paper for the world to see.

That’s the way inspiration works. At least for me.

Where does your inspiration come from?

Blog Tour: The Headhunters Race!

Jan 06, 2014 Uncategorized 8 comments

So I’ve known Kimberly Afe for a while via her blog, and I’m thrilled to be a part of her Blog Tour for The Headhunters Race which was released Jan. 3! She’s all over the blogosphere this week, and having a fabulous giveaway with a chance to win her ebook PLUS a $25 Amazon gift card and other cool prizes. Totally awesome! So if you haven’t heard of it, here’s the blurb:



Avene was sentenced to prison at thirteen for a crime she didn’t commit. Now
she has a chance to win her freedom back – if she enters the Headhunters Race.
Second prize isn’t so bad either, an upgrade to the Leisure Prison if you make
it to the finish line. To win either prize, Avene and the other prisoners must
navigate one hundred and fifty miles of dense forest, desert, and worst of all,
cannibal territory.

With a mechanical collar timed to
strangle the prisoners if they’re not back in nine days, Avene allies herself
with seventeen-year-old McCoy, another prisoner that insists on helping her at
every turn and a boy she’s trying hard not to fall for. Together they battle
nature, other prisoners, and the timed death collars to win the coveted prize.
But when Avene is tested with one deadly conflict after another, she realizes
there is more at stake than winning her freedom – first she has to
And I love her story about how she came up with the idea in the first place. I’ll let her tell it in her own words:
The Headhunters Race has a bit of a long journey.  The idea was born on June 26, 2011 after a Zelda game commercial inspired me.  The commercial was brilliant and I thought why can’t they make a movie that cool?  And then I thought, why don’t I write a cool adventure myself! 

So I brainstormed this story with my son over a dinner of spicy spaghetti a couple of nights after the idea came to me.  We worked out the entire novel:  the characters and their motivations, the world, and the details of the race as I frantically wrote it all down.  My husband and daughter also helped me brainstorm items that I needed worked out.  I then spent a little while playing around with Avene’s voice and then wrote like crazy.  I finished in December of 2011.  I actually started having critique partners read it in November of 2011 and began querying agents in January of 2012 after more revising.  I also entered it into a few popular contests around the blogosphere in early 2012.  Then I took a very long break due to life circumstances with hubby’s heart and moving.  Early this year I got back into writing.  I’d been thinking about self publishing for quite awhile so when querying a few more agents and a handful of publishers didn’t work out, I decided to go for it, and now, 2 1/2 years later, the book is out there!  Wahoo!


Kimberly is the mother of
two awesome kids, wife of the nicest man in the world, and her dog’s best
friend. She works by day and writes middle grade and young adult science fiction
and fantasy novels in her spare time. She lives with her family in the
beautiful Sonoran Desert.

Website     Goodreads     Twitter
    Facebook     Blog  

Congratulations Kimberly! I’m really excited for you and wish all the best for you and your book. The rest of you, go forth and enter below. The last day to enter is Friday, January 10th!

Rafflecopter Giveaway

There are 3 prize packs to
giveaway.   The Giveaway includes a copy
of her eBook + the SAS Survival Handbook (2 of these to giveaway) and also
giving away a copy of her eBook + a $25 Amazon gift card – the Rafflecopter
lists all of these prize packs. 🙂  The
Survival Handbook is awesome. 🙂

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Merry Christmas! Etc.

Dec 23, 2013 Uncategorized 7 comments

Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukah! Happy Kwanza! Happy Wassail (for you Princess Sofia fans)! Or whatever you might celebrate this season. Hope it’s a good one and that you make lots of happy memories. 🙂

See you next year!

A Book Exchange Booth!

Dec 16, 2013 Uncategorized 9 comments

Visiting the William Jewell campus for a Christmas concert, I came across this:

I’d seen pictures of ones in New York City, and was thrilled to see the idea had caught on here in a small Midwest town. If I’d had a book on hand, I’d have totally done an exchange. Still it was fun riffling through the offerings: Suzanne Collins, Janet Evanovich, Maria Schriver, John Grisham, and tons of authors I’d never heard of.

Have you ever seen one of these? And what book would you leave in a book exchange booth?

On Overcoming Criticism

Dec 09, 2013 Uncategorized 8 comments

So I recorded this video of my 4 y.o.:

She was very proud of it. But when I showed it to her brothers, 7 y.o. burst out laughing. “Oh! That is so embarrassing for her!”

I worried that she would get all self-conscious, but she was like a duck. The comment slid off her back as she grinned at her video on the computer screen, pride glowing from her.

And it was a flash of inspiration for me. There will always be someone out there ready to criticize. Ready to tell us we are silly (or worse) for doing what we did. For trying to write a book. For daring to think it might be good. For trying to get it published. For having published a book on that subject. Whatever.

But we have to be like my Girlie. We have to love our own work so much that it doesn’t matter what anyone else says. Let those criticisms slide off our back and move forward.* We need to be confident in ourselves.

Because guess what? When 4 y.o. asked to watch it again, 7 y.o. caught the bug. “So do I get to make one, too?”

What have you done when someone hit you with a criticism-bomb?

*To be clear, I’m not talking about critique partner or beta-reader comments that were requested. I’m talking about those un-requested, hurtful, put-downs that we can all do without.

What I learned from NaNoWriMo

Dec 02, 2013 Uncategorized 8 comments

So NaNoWriMo is finished and amazingly, I won! I finished
with 50,176 words written by Nov. 29th.

I first heard of this event about six years ago when a
critique partner of mine told me about it. I’ll admit, I thought the whole
thing was nuts! Why would anybody kill themselves to write 50K words in 30
days, in the month of November no less? Thanksgiving alone makes the idea
insane (and I also happen to have my anniversary this month, too).

But when I found myself with a novel all outlined and my
last WIP scheduled to be to my agent by the end of October, I decided to give
it a shot. Worse case scenario, I simply wouldn’t win. So why not give it a go?

As it turns out, NaNoWriMo was very educational. I learned
all kinds of things, which I’m forcing on sharing with you:

I write better in the morning. I’m sure
everyone is different, but when I found the time to do it first thing, it was
always easier. The words came faster and better, I wasn’t as distracted, and I could
enjoy the rest of my day
, guilt free.

Having a more detailed outline really helped.
I hit this point where I knew I had outlined, but apparently I hadn’t written
it down, or perhaps I’d written it on some scrap that I couldn’t find. Point
is, the writing slowed down enough that I stopped for a day to outline. Things
went much smoother after that. (Did I ever stray from the outline? Absolutely.
But I could just adjust it as needed.)

Leaving myself a note at the end of the manuscript
when I finished writing for the day saved SO MUCH time
! I’d simply put a
note in brackets to remind myself what I planned to have happen next. I didn’t
have to search my outline to remember where I was. I didn’t have to reread
everything I’d written the day before. And as a bonus, it plopped me right into
the mood of the story. The days I forgot to do this, I really regretted it.

I can write more than I think I can.
There were a few days on my schedule that were so packed full of things I
needed to do, I was certain that I couldn’t do any writing. Amazingly, when I
organized my time, scheduled it all—including writing time—it somehow all fit.
I had to be diligent. I had to avoid Facebook and Twitter. But it WAS POSSIBLE.

Pushing through the void helped me find my voice.
When I started, I just couldn’t find the voice. It was awful, the writing was
awful, but I knew I couldn’t afford to wait for my muse or I wouldn’t meet my
goal. As it turns out, pushing through helped me find it. Will I have a ton to
revise? YES! But I always do. Even when I have the voice from the beginning.
Forcing yourself to write ugly words can lead you to the better ones.

Despite my qualms with this whole event, I am now I convert.
I learned so much about me and how I write. After 30 days of this boot-camp, I
feel like a better writer. Admittedly, I’m not promising to participate next
year, BUT . . . I plan to use this writing method to write the first draft of
my next book (which I plan to do much sooner than November).

So how about the rest of you? Did you participate in
NaNoWriMo? If yes, what did you learn? If no, think you’ll ever try it?

Guest Blogging

Nov 14, 2013 Uncategorized Comment

Psst, I’m not really here because I’m hard at work for NaNoWriMo (totally rocking it, btw), BUT I had agreed to do a guest post over at Ink and Angst forever ago, so I’m over there talking about 10,000 hours.

Also, if you haven’t commented on the Blog Tour post for Connie Arnold’s Count 1, 2, 3 With Me, go and do it to be entered into a drawing for three great prizes! 🙂

Hope ya’ll are having a great November!

Blog Tour: Count 1, 2, 3 With Me

Nov 11, 2013 Uncategorized 7 comments

So yes, I’m really still on break, hard at work on NaNoWriMo (so far so good!), but I had the opportunity to be part of Connie Arnold’s Blog Tour for the release of her latest picture book, Count 1,2,3 With Me. This tour is Also for her new inspiration book, Peaceful Moments of Love and Light. Connie is such a sweet, kind, and supportive author, so I was thrilled to be asked and couldn’t turn it down.

I had the chance to read Connie’s book, which counts from one to ten, painting scenes from the life of a child. It has a fun rhyming text, with bright, vivid images which can easily be counted by children learning to count. As a parent, I love that the text is short, without feeling skimpy. Counting the objects together would easily add length if you were looking to spend more time on a book, but I love finding quick, fun reads that I can read to my kids at night (especially when it is past bedtime–more than likely mine!).  

You can purchase this book from Connie’s website,
from Amazon, or from 4RV Publishing. These links will take you directly to her book.

Also, Readers can comment on this post, or on the posts of other stops in the blog tour, to receive entries in a drawing for three prizes: 

  1. A set of three candle holders.
  2. A signed copy of Connie’s first book.
  3. A framed sunset print with one of Connie’s inspirational verses.
Details about the blog tour, prizes and schedule are on Connie’s blog.

Happy Halloween!

Oct 28, 2013 Uncategorized 38 comments

Happy Halloween!!

This is the pumpkin I carved with my family. I am definitely a traditionalist.

So my good friend Susanna Leonard Hill holds these wonderful children’s story-writing contests on her awesome blog (if you haven’t visited, you should) and I never enter. So I mean to rectify that. Here are the rules:

Write a 100 word Halloween story appropriate for children (title not included in the 100 words), using the words spookyblack cat, and cackle. (black cat can count as 1 word and title not included). So here is my entry:

Brewster’s Halloween Trick

Brewster, the fat black
, loved Halloween only second to chocolate. He ate it all the time.

When the witch donned her spooky hat, he shivered. When she whistled for her broom, he
quivered. When she chanted her battle cry, he quaked.

Cackle, cackle,
black crow’s feet, scaring children, that’s MY treat!”

Brewster hopped on the broom. Tensed for take-off.

But the broom wouldn’t go.

It hummed and whirred. Rattled and shook. Shuddered and

Brewster was too fat.

So the witch kicked him off and zipped into the sky.

“Cackle, cackle, Eye of newt. Eat your veggies and more

The End

So wow. Getting it down to 100 words was a fete-and-a-half!

Finally, I wanted to let you know that I will not be around for the month of November. For the first time EVER, I will be doing NaNoWriMo. I’m a touch nervous, but I’ve outlined until I can outline no more, and I’m excited by the idea, so here’s to hoping it all goes well!

For those of you who have done it before, I’d love any hints or suggestions! Otherwise, I will see you on the other side. 🙂