Monday, February 28, 2011

Author Spotlight on: Michael P. Spradlin

It's a Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and I'm pleased to be interviewing Michael Spradlin, author of The Youngest Templar trilogy. These fast-paced adventures mix history with fantasy, and I have to say, they are absolutely addictive. (If you'd like to own a copy of the first book in the series, read on to the end of this post for your chance to win.)

But don't just take my word for it. Meg Cabot agrees with me. Seriously.

Adventure quest at its best. Tristan is a hero to remember. Readers will be dying for the next installment."
~ Meg Cabot, New York York Times Bestselling author 
Pretty cool, huh? My 11-year-old actually discovered this series and lists them among his top ten favorite books. He's a pretty tough critic so that's high praise coming from him! When he found out I was interviewing the author, he threw some of his own questions into the mix.

My son got me hooked on the Youngest Templar series. I think I read all three books in two days. Like him, I couldn’t stop once I started. But now we both want to know: Are you going to continue the series? (We’d really love it if the answer is yes!)

I would love it if the answer was yes as well!

I think I left enough threads in the story to be picked up and explored and continued, but the decision doesn’t rest with me. It’s up to the readers. And what I mean by that is, it’s up to the readers and fans of the series to convince the publisher that the audience wants more books. And that’s true with any book or series not just The Youngest Templar. Not every series is a mega bestseller out of the gate like Percy Jackson or Wimpy Kid. Readers who write enthusiastic reviews on websites like Amazon and are enormously helpful. Who recommend the books to their friends and fellow readers, they are a series’ best friend. And frankly, not to be crass about it, but it comes down to readers buying the books they’ve read and loved as birthday gifts and Christmas presents and as donations to their school or local library. Nothing replaces word of mouth and the recommendations of others when it comes to helping an author continue to write more books in a series that readers love.

Publishing is like any business, driven by the bottom line. And it takes a lot of luck and support from fans and readers to be able to continue a series. I would love to keep writing more Youngest Templar novels. But at this point it’s not really up to me.

I am shopping around a Youngest Templar Graphic Novel series which would tell all new adventures with Tristan, Robard and Maryam. You can find out more about it by joining The Youngest Templar Fan Page on Facebook.

Well, I'm spreading the word right here! READ THESE BOOKS! THEY'RE AWESOME!
You’ve pretty much conquered every age group with picture books, adult comedy and a YA series. Do you have any more books planned for middle grade readers?
I most certainly do. I love writing for Middle Grade and that’s actually what I consider myself: a Middle Grade writer. I always saw my Spy Goddess series as a Middle Grade series but the publisher published it as YA. The bulk of my fan mail for that series comes from 10-12 year olds. So I think I was right. I think publishers and booksellers are sometimes confused about what ages read what.

My next novel for Middle Graders is The Raven’s Shadow which features a thirteen year old Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln saving the world.

Now that sounds cool! You write such a wide range of stories and for different age groups. How hard is it going from writing pirate haiku and zombie Christmas carols for adults, to channeling a teenage spy goddess, to getting inside the head of a 13th century boy or developing a picture book about the pony express?
My standard answer is I find it easy because I consider myself a renaissance man, interested in all sorts of things. My wife would tell you I have the world’s shortest attention span. I’m not sure I really have an answer except to say that each of my books, even the non-fiction or Pirate Haiku, have characters. And I become invested in them and just want to tell their stories.

The Youngest Templar series has such a great blend of history and fantasy. I love how seamlessly characters like Robard and Tuck are woven into the story. Without giving any spoilers, how did you even come up with such an amazing concept?
As a tween/teenager I loved historical fiction, and I especially loved it when fictional characters interacted with historical figures. In this case, even though may of The Youngest Templar’s characters are based on legends, I just thought since the book was set in the third Crusade, it might be fun to have Tristan become friends with a certain archer from a certain forest in England. It was such a rich tapestry to draw from, and gave readers something familiar, yet allowed me to reinvent things in my own way.

Which character do you identify with the most? 
Honestly, I think I indentify most closely with Robard. Robard is a little rough around the edges. A little bull in the china shop when it comes to his relationships with others. Always well meaning but a little clumsy about things. Yet, he is steadfastly loyal, brave and believes in honor and justice. I don’t know if I quite live up to his example, but I do try to do the right thing, just as he always does in the books.

He’s also a bit of a smart aleck, he approaches every situation with humor and ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you they are my most common traits.

Your blog has a lot of templar history, including links to Any other resources you’d recommend for separating the fact from the fiction?
When speaking at schools and to young writers, I always tell them to immerse themselves in whatever world they are writing about. Mainly, I tell students to always approach history with a bit of skepticism. We talk a lot about the importance of primary sources, but we have to remember that sometimes even primary sources are flawed. Human beings have feelings, emotions, agendas, and faulty memories. People who ‘witnessed’ a historical event will all see it differently. So remember that often times the ‘truth’ is relative.

I also caution users of the internet to remember that not everything on the internet is fact. It’s great for photos, records, documents etc, but whatever you use from the internet you need to be sure of the source.

And remember when you are writing historical fiction, it’s important for a story to sound and feel realistic, but don’t let the ‘facts’ get in the way of a good story. It is fiction after all.

How long did it take from when you started writing until you got your first book published?

My first book was a picture book which I finished in 1997 and was published in 2002. It had a long and laborious road to publication but it finally got there.

Wow, five years. And now you have fifteen books under your belt! What advice would you have liked to hear after you got that first contract?
Get an agent. I didn’t have an agent for my first three books and I regret it now. Dealing with your publisher creatively is taxing enough. Let an agent handle the business side of it.

Sounds like excellent advice. With all these books, you must spend a LOT of time writing. What do you do in your down time?
Usually my down time is spent relaxing with my family, being owned by two dogs, and thinking about what I’m going to write next.

Personally, we're hoping what you write next is another trilogy of The Youngest Templar!

Thanks so much, Michael. It's been a pleasure.

Many thanks for the chance!


Michael's next middle grade novel, Raven's Shadow, should hit the shelves in 2012. His next picture book, The Inch High Samurai--a sort of Japanese version of Tom Thumb--will likely be out in 2013.

Michael Spradlin around the web:
The Youngest Templar website
Read an excerpt from book one, The Youngest Templar: Keeper of the Grail.
Facebook Fan Page
Keep up with Michael on his blog.

If you'd like to win a copy of The Youngest Templar: Keeper of the Grail, leave a comment by midnight on Thursday, March 3. One lucky winner will be announced on Friday, March 4.

Looking for more Marvelous Middle Grade books? Visit the Shannons: Shannon Whitney Messenger and Shannon K. O'Donnell have the full roundup.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Bee Proud

My son has always been a good speller. Since he started taking spelling tests in Kindergarten, he has only missed two words. And one of those was in First Grade when he mixed up a "b" and a "d" spelling dlack instead of black. Maybe it's all those hours spent reading...who'd have thought!

Last year he went to the Santa Barbara County spelling bee and spelled out in the second round. Disappointed, he determined to do better next time. This year, he finished third.

It took 74 words to get him out, and let me tell you, by the time it got down to the last ten kids, I was having trouble breathing. Every time he spelled a word right, he'd look across the room and smile at me. I fought to keep the tears in because no 6th grader wants to see his mother bawling in the audience. But I was so overcome with emotion, SO incredibly proud of him.

The top two finishers get to go to the state level spelling bee. If one of them can't make it, my son can take their place. For him, the best part was finding out that he got not only the trophy (with his name soon to be engraved on it), but $25 cash. In addition, a representative from the Mason's will be going to his school in a few weeks to present him with the engraved trophy and another check in front of the whole school. All for being a good speller.

In a world where basketball stars and strung out actresses make more money than a whole staff of teachers and librarians, it's incredibly cool to see someone rewarded for hard work and using their brain. Especially when that someone is my child :D

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Of Subplots and Shelves

I've spent the last week trying to rework an old story, hoping to figure out what's missing, why this story doesn't read as well as I want it to.

First of all, I'm so happy to see how much better a writer I am now. When I wrote this middle grade novel, I thought I was brilliant, ready to hit the big time, thank you very much. How wrong I was. The funny thing is, now that I've learned so much, I'm realizing how much more I still need to learn. Will I ever get to a point where I feel like I've mastered this writing thing?

I needed some inspiration, some guidance, so I started watching all the Plot Whisperer videos (again!) and the sixth one struck a chord with me. According to Martha Alderson (The Plot Whisperer), the purpose of the subplot is to reinforce the main plot, to provide further depth and give more meaning to the story. As she said those words, I realized that was part of my problem. Not enough subplot, not enough depth, no apparent theme.

I also pulled out my Save the Cat! Beat Sheet, tried to make the turning points more clear and do a better lead up to the catalyst moment in the story.

Between Martha and Blake, I think I might be able to whip this story into shape. Because I'm not ready to give up on it. Not yet.

After all, how do you know when it's time to shove a story under the bed and never look at it again? Is there any hope for a shelved novel?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Robot Huck Finn

This video literally made me laugh out loud. It seems like a good one for this President's Day, where we celebrate men known for the changes they made in America. What will be the impact of these literary changes? How far have we really come?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Flawed Logic

Every character wants something. It's our job as writers, to keep it away from them.

Not forever. If we're good, we string it out over the course of a book or a series, with enough of an interesting journey to keep people reading. We throw obstacles in the way, make them struggle against evil forces, help them grow into the person that can overcome it all to succeed in the end.

But what if their worst enemy, turns out to be themselves?

Say your main character wants to be a fighter pilot. She makes models of planes, reads every book she can get her hands on about fighter jets, joins the air force...but is scared to fly.

What if your character desperately wants friends. She finally finds a group of girls to hang out with, people who seem to really like her, and then she ends up betraying the very person that brought her into the group...

Or maybe your character is a writer. He blogs, he tweets, he's friended every editor on Facebook. But he never has the guts to query a novel. Maybe he never finishes writing one...

What flaws in your character keeps him or her from achieving their goals?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bernard Pivot Blogfest

Nicole Ducleroir is hosting a Bernard Pivot blogfest today. Here are my answers to his famous questionnaire:

What is your favorite word?
Just, but I'm trying to get over it...

What is your least favorite word?

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
The ocean. I can't stay away for too long.

What turns you off?

What is your favorite curse word?

What sound or noise do you love?
The waves crashing on the beach.

What sound or noise do you hate?
My children fighting.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Studio singer.

What profession would you not like to do?
Anything that involves cleaning up barf or crap.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
So glad to have you here...

Things That Make Me Smile

Reading by flashlight, a time honored tradition in this house :)

And what's keeping her up when she should really be asleep?
The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo.

Obviously, Momma needs to read this book, too!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Author Spotlight on: Terry Lynn Johnson

We’ve all heard the adage: Write what you know. Sometimes, it’s actually good advice. 

It worked for author Terry Lynn Johnson, debut author of DOGSLED DREAMS. In a crowded literary world filled with vampires, witches and snarky teens, DOGSLED DREAMS stands out from the rest because it’s so…well, different.

The book came out last month through 4RV Publishing, and Terry is here today to talk about her journey so far.

I can’t think of a lot of books on this topic, though I do remember reading Gary Paulsen’s Winterdance a few years back. What made you think about bringing this story to the children’s market?
When I went to races with my dog team, I was constantly asked the same questions by spectators. Questions about my life in general with the dogs. People are curious about the lifestyle and they want to make sure the dogs are being treated well. Especially kids! It was important to me to show how amazing it is to share your life with sled dogs. To try and portrait how strong the relationship is between a musher and her dogs. How it's that special relationship - that bond and trust, that keeps the integrity of the sport. Gary Paulsen is also a musher. His books are a joy to read.

I know you canoe and kayak and do a lot of outdoorsy activities. Do you actually have any experience with dogsledding?
For over ten years I had my own team. I raced, guided overnight expeditions, even went to Alaska for a winter and handled for a team running the Iditarod and worked for a dogsledding company in the Yukon. Every dog in DOGSLED DREAMS is inspired by my own real life dogs. All the names are the same, as well as some of their quirks. 

Wow, that's impressive! So you know this topic very well!
I’m not exactly a city girl, but the whole dogsledding thing seems really foreign. How hard was it to make the story accessible for all readers?

At the heart of dogsledding you find universal themes. Love and trust. That is easy for anyone to relate to. I weaved in some technical information, some mushing terminology too, but hopefully in a way that a reader will understand and learn. I've had readers email me and say they now feel like an apprentice musher after reading the story. That is so wonderful to hear!

Even after finding a small publisher on your own, you were still querying agents. How surreal has it felt to sign with your dream agent and have a book come out so close together?
It has been quite a year. I feel extremely lucky.

And are you out on sub with another book through your agent? Can you tell us the pitch for that book?
My latest project: A 15-year-old musher, a boy with a secret, and a fight for survival.

Secrets and survival -- sounds like another exciting read!

You’ve done some pretty out of the box marketing for this book. Not everyone can talk about their Junior Musher Video Contest! And the little stuffed Huskies were too cute! How did you manage to find such creative tie-ins? 
I can NOT take credit for the Junior Musher Video Contest. That was the brilliance of my publicist Kirsten Cappy of Curious City. She has awesome ideas and it seems an unlimited supply of energy. I couldn't have done it without her.

What has been the most amazing part of your journey so far?
The support from readers. Their enthusiasm and selfless assistance with promotion completely blows me away! Also, connecting with the writing community. I've made so many great friends. 

I know lots of people on the East Coast have been suffering under this Snowmageddon. Any professional tips for staying warm? :-)
Find a buddy. Or a good book!

Thanks, Terry! Stay warm with DOGSLED DREAMS. Hey, that could be your new slogan :P

DOGSLED DREAMS has been selected as a recommended read by the Iditarod Education Department. The book is available through Indiebound, Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Read more about Terry and DOGSLED DREAMS:
First chapter of DOGSLED DREAMS
Terry's website:
Terry's blog:

Friday, February 11, 2011

Winners: On the List and Off

E-books have made it easier for self-published authors to reach readers in a way that wasn't possible even five years ago, and some of them are making quite a splash. For the first time ever, the USA Today Top 150 best sellers list included a self-published author, Amanda Hocking.

If you haven't heard her name yet, you're in the minority. This prolific 26-year-old from Minnesota uploaded a few of her completed novels to Amazon, Smashwords and B&N last March. Since then, she's sold more than half a million copies. Do you see where she is on this list? #16. Yeah, sandwiched between Suzanne Collins and Jeff Kinney!

And that's not her only title on the list. She has another book at #24 and one at #31. Pretty amazing for someone who hit the market less than a year ago!

You can read her interview at the USA Today website. So tell me, if you have an e-reader, have you read any self-published titles? How did they stack up against traditionally published books? And does Amanda Hocking's success make you want to start uploading your book to Amazon?

Well, I'm about to make three people happy with some old-fashioned hard cover books :)

The winner of Mockingjay is:

The winner of Catching Fire is:

The winner of Beautiful Darkness is:

Congratulations to all of you! Email me at solvangsherrie at gmail dot com with your snail mail address and I'll get your books to you next week.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

How Do You E-Read?

I didn't want a Kindle. It was never on my wish list, not something I thought I would use. But when I won one without even trying, I wasn't about to turn it down.

Even after it arrived in our house, I avoided it. What can I say? I love the feel of pages beneath my fingers. I like looking at my titles on the book shelf and pulling out one that I love and thumbing through to find a favorite passage.

But the day Mockingjay released, I woke up around 1:30 a.m. and downloaded it to my Kindle. I'd finished reading it by the time my local book store opened, although I did go in and pick up my pre-ordered copy. And that was kind of cool, to have immediate access to the book, right when I wanted it.

When we went on vacation I downloaded about ten new books onto my Kindle to read. Much easier than lugging along the printed versions. We also brought along the iPad my husband gave me for Christmas and downloaded some books for the kids. I went back and forth between the Kindle and the iPad for my reading, and I was impressed that no matter which device I used, it always opened to the last page I read. The kids enjoyed the novelty of electronic reading and appreciated the color illustrations on the iPad over the grayscale images on Kindle.

So, I guess all of that is to say that while I still enjoy having physical, paper books in my possession, I'm also seeing the benefit of the e-readers. According to this article in the New York Times, e-book sales jumped sharply after Christmas, and more than ever, books for children are fueling that rise.

Has your family joined the e-revolution? Which device do you (and/or your kids) read on and why?

And if you'd like to win some old-fashioned hard-cover books, I've got copies of Beautiful Darkness, Catching Fire and Mockingjay up for grabs. Leave a comment on the post below, telling me which ONE book you'd like to be entered for, before midnight on Thursday. I'll announce the winners on Friday.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Take Your Pick -- 3 Books up for Grabs

Some free books have fallen into my lap so I thought I'd pass them on to a few people who might not have read these titles yet. Leave me a comment, telling me which ONE you'd like to read. I'll announce the three winners on Friday. Good luck to you all!!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Revisiting Brilliance

I read the Sorcerer's Stone out loud to my husband when it was first released. I was pregnant with our first child at the time, and the cover of the book caught my attention. I had no idea what I was getting into, but oh, how that book swept me away!

I read the entire series to my son the summer between third and fourth grade. It was so much fun diving back into the wizarding world and discovering it again with an eight-year-old. I noticed things I hadn't seen before, found even more to love about the series. And now, after visiting Harry Potter World in Orlando, my daughter has asked me to read the books out loud to her. Of course, brother and father are quite happy to listen in again :)

Opening those pages is like connecting with an old friend, someone you'd forgotten just how much you liked and why. The foreshadowing of characters (Sirius Black doesn't become important until book 3, but he's in chapter 2 of this first book, and of course Mrs. Figg), crucial plot points (parsel tongue at the zoo) and the humor. I forget just how funny J.K. Rowling can be. I laughed so hard I cried as I read Chapter 3, with Mr. Dursley desperately trying to keep Harry from getting his acceptance letters. It's one of the most hilarious things I've ever read!

But foreshadowing, a funny chapter and well-executed plot points weren't the only things that made these books international bestsellers. In addition to doing all that, Rowling created amazingly real characters, placed them in a fantastic world just beyond our eyes, and told us their stories in an incredibly compelling way. Not too much to expect from a book, right?

Yeah, I'm falling in love with her brilliance all over again.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Agent Spotlight on: Michelle Humphrey

I’m thrilled to welcome the wonderful Michelle Humphrey to my blog today. Most of you know that she signed me back in December (yay!) so today you're getting a peek into her job as an agent at ICM. 

Michelle has been working at agencies since 2007. Her latest deal, just announced last week, is for debut author Joanne Levy, whose middle grade novel, SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE, sold to Bloomsbury Children's. (Congratulations again, Joanne and Michelle!!)

So, first off, what did you do before you were an agent?  
I was a kindergarten teacher, and a substitute for elementary and high school. 

No wonder we have such a connection! It's the teacher thing :)  What made you leave the classroom behind to become an agent?  
As much as I enjoyed teaching, I wanted to work in publishing. I worked at Art in America for a while, and then started interning at an agency.

How many queries do you read a month?  
About a hundred. 

Wow, my eyeballs hurt just thinking about it! 
What piques your interest in a query?
 I like them short and sweet: a quick teaser, a quick bio. I like queries that give me a sense of the writer's personality and style.  I think it's a great idea for writers to workshop queries with their writer groups. 

I totally agree with that. (I would also recommend Elana Johnson's blog for some good query writing tips.)
How many clients do you have right now?  
Fifteen or so -- they write young adult, middle grade, picture books, and literary fiction.  

Can I just say how happy I am to be one of the 15?  So. Very. HAPPY :) 
As you go through those queries, what are you hoping to find right now? 
I'd love a middle grade or YA that takes place in turn-of-the-century France. I'd love an alternate history, or a steampunk. I'd really dig a retelling of Shakespeare.

Hmmm....*jotting down ideas...*

When we spoke on the phone, you mentioned that your authors all have a certain way of treating their characters that really spoke to you. Could you explain that more?  
I am really drawn to characters who are self-aware and emotionally smart. Characters -- antagonists included -- who, in spite of themselves, care for each other, and want to connect with each other. I like villains that I empathize with, and heroes that are sometimes their own worst enemy. I like characters who are trying to figure out what it means to live a meaningful life. I love it when the battle between good and evil is blurred somehow. Kekla Magoon's CAMO GIRL is a perfect example. So is Denise Jaden's LOSING FAITH which has so many great human moments.

I know a lot of people worry about their web presence and whether they should be blogging, Twittering, Facebooking, etc. What’s your view on that?  
So much marketing hinges on online presence. Do it all -- blog, twitter, facebook. what you can. (You still need time to write your story, after all. :) 

Have you ever not worked with someone based on a lackluster blog or lack of web presence?  
No. You can certainly develop that once you have a agent, or a book deal.

I know some writers think going to a conference will give them an edge if they meet an agent in person. But have you signed more people from referrals, conferences or cold queries?  
Referrals and queries, largely. I would agree that it's great to meet an agent in person, but why not utilize everything: send queries, blog, go to book launch parties, go to writing workshops. There's so many ways to connect.

Besides books from your clients, what are some of your favorite books you've read in the last year? 

Most of the books I read are galleys in no particular pub-date order; I pick up whatever's on top of the pile :)
  • Because I Am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas
  • The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins
  • Skinned by Robin Wasserman
  • The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet by Erin Donne
  • A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend by Emily Horner
  • Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore
  • Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Next in my pile: Matched by Ally Condie and Across the Universe by Beth Revis.

Oooh, great books in that list. And the next two in your pile were a couple of my favorite reads for last year. (Go Beth!!)

What’s your best bit of advice for aspiring authors?  
I think one of the hardest parts of trying to get published is the amount of rejection a writer may experience before they break through. But -- at the risk of sounding cliche -- it's part of the business. A rejection could be an opportunity to learn something. Go forth with an attitude of "There's something positive in this -- this brings me a step closer to my goal." It's that kind of attitude that will keep you learning your craft, and sending out your queries -- and hopefully, connecting with the right agent and the right editor.

And it's exactly that kind of attitude that makes me proud to be one of her clients! 
Thanks so much for taking the time out for this interview, Michelle!

If you'd like to read more about Michelle, here is her spotlight from Casey McCormick's blog, Literary Rambles: Agent Spotlight: Michelle Humphrey

And some additional interviews from around the web:
Guide to Literary Agents, Agent Advice: Michelle Humphrey
Guide to Literary Agents, Successful Queries: Michelle Humphrey on "Losing Faith"
Class of 2K10, Agent Perspective: Michelle Humphrey from ICM!
All the Write Stuff: Meet Literary Agent Michelle Humphrey
Denise Jaden: Agent Interview with Michelle Humphrey

UPDATE 1 NOVEMBER 2011 : Michelle Humphrey has moved from ICM to the Martha Kaplan Agency, where she will be helping to develop a children's list for the boutique agency.
If you have a completed manuscript that you're ready to query, you can email  Be sure to include the first chapter along with the query.
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