Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Leftover Magic - a new work in progress

My newest WIP is tentatively called Leftover Magic, and I'm very excited about it. It is a middle grade novel with a mystery element and something which might be termed magical realism and might be termed light fantasy. The main character is Chester, a boy with a journal that he thinks might hold clues to a treasure, possibly even a magical treasure. He is befriended by Olive, tormented by his great aunt, and confused by almost everybody else who might also be looking for the treasure.

While the novel is in prose, the journal and some other things have poems that provide Chester clues in his search, or guidance about how to proceed. Some of these are fairly simple and direct, such as this cinquain (2/4/6/8/2 syllables):

Today brings you
A friend, and enemy,
But which is which may not be clear

The more challenging ones are less clear to Chester. The following is one I wrote for a particular purpose, but it is probably too much for middle grade readers, so I'll save it here in case it doesn't make the cut or gets drastically simplified or something. It is a Petrarchan (or Italian) Sonnet, so iambic pentameter with a rhyming pattern of abba abba cdecde. (Yes, I am a poetry geek.)

Goldfinch in winter, having lost most of its yellow
The finch may seem so golden in the spring
as through the dew-dropped underbrush he flits.
A flash of yellow, then perchance he sits
surveys the yard as in his realm, the king.

But when the leaves begin their coloring
and in your evening walks, the cold chill hits
Then watch for him as early dusk permits
a tawny white with barely yellow tinge.

If knew you not the myst'ry of his kind
You'd think a diff'rent heart within him beat.
If you had learned his happy song to trust,
you might no longer, to his faith be blind.
Your doubts might grow, and think it was deceit
to think of him as friend, but sure you must.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Poem 4 - A Giant Feast

As I wait for the #PitchWars submission window, and try with desperation to narrow down my list of potential MG mentors, I'm sharing a poem a day (or so - I'm a busy guy!) about my MG Fantasy novel, Danger Tastes Dreadful, which stars two 11yo trolls, Bernie & Tish. I wrote this fourth poem today. It brings up the stakes for Bernie, basically rescue his parents before they become the main entree at a giant feast. (There is no poetry at all in my MS, more's the pity.) The drawing below is one of the giants, with Bernie beside him for perspective (and noshing on?!?) If you are curious, read my bio.

A Giant Feast

When giants come a'stomping, knocking down trees
Everybody scatters and hides.
What could they be there for, visiting? Please!
They want what is tasty inside.

A feast's in the planning, but they need hors d'oeuvres
Watch out if you're juicy and plump.
A horse might go well with some piglet preserves
Or humans who sport a large rump.

But most prized of all for the gluttonous feast
The entree for everyone's bowls
(though truly to me don't sound good in the least)
The toughest, the chewiest trolls.

Under bridges, in caves, behind waterfalls
the giants will search every inch
Till they find all the trolls, then back to their halls
And serve them with salt (just a pinch).

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Poem 3 - Trouble that Starts with T and Stands for Tish

As I wait for the #PitchWars mentor blog hop, I'm sharing a poem a day about my MG Fantasy novel, Danger Tastes Dreadful, which stars two 11yo trolls, Bernie & Tish. I wrote the third poem this morning. It describes Tish, who likes nothing more than causing a bit of trouble. (There is no poetry at all in my MS, more's the pity.) If you are curious, read my bio.

Trouble that Starts with T and Stands for Tish

In the world, there are many injustices
Those accused without basis at all
But with trolls, it's accepted as just how it is
When there's trouble, Tish must take the fall.

She's sly and she's tricky. Mischievous
is probably the very best spin
you can put on her exploits, which leave us
blaming her, but hiding a grin.

If your eel stew is suddenly motionless
If your cave entrance oddly's not there
If your ear contains earthworms in distress
It was Tish on a whim or a dare.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Poem 2 - Trolls Smell

As I wait for the #PitchWars mentor blog hop, I'm sharing a poem a day about my MG Fantasy novel, Danger Tastes Dreadful, which stars two 11yo trolls, Bernie & Tish. I wrote the second poem this morning (see below). It shows a way that my trolls are special.

Trolls Smell

You might think it's an insult
  to say that all trolls smell,
But if you said it to one,
  he'd nod and say "quite well".

Aside from all the odors
  wafting from his feet,
aside from stinky underarms
  and ears that simply reek,

All trolls smell things that we don't,
  smells which make no sense
Like trouble (spicy cinnamon)
  or tangy (like suspense)

They taste things that we can't at all
  they have a special knack
The bitter taste of danger
  right before the crack.

So, when I say a troll smells
  Ignore his stinky butt
Admire instead his magic
  and how he smells whats what.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Poem 1 - Three Billy Goats Yum!

As I wait for the #PitchWars mentor blog hop, I thought perhaps I could share a few poems about my MG Fantasy novel, which stars two 11yo trolls, Bernie & Tish. The first poem is included below, and is the poem which first started me thinking about trolls as heroes. I wrote this back in 2009. Other poems will be new, meaning I have no idea what I will write but like to challenge myself.

Three Billy Goats Yum!

I lie in wait beneath the bridge
and lick my lips, my eyes ablaze.
There’s nothing fearsome trolls like more
than Billy Goat with Hollandaise.

As shadows lengthen, prospects dim.
I lie in wait beneath the bridge,
dismayed that I may have to eat
some week-old toad left in my fridge.

With aching tummy left to mourn
the tasty treats that might have been,
I lie in wait beneath the bridge.
Trolls should be fat, but I’m so thin.

But wait, is that a tapping hoof?
Three goats traipse down from yonder ridge.
My dinner plans at last prepared,
I lie in wait beneath the bridge.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Pimp My Bio

I've never been much of a joiner, even in school, so when I read (today) about Pimp My Bio for #PitchWars mentees, I hesitated.

But I have learned a few things since school... as an adult, as an author, as a socially awkward middle aged man in a virtual room full of digital natives wearing their neon warpaint in the form of GIFs and selfies.

I have learned that sometimes you have to dance if you want to attend the party.

So, here I am.

Oh yes, you don't know me. My name is Ben, I'm 53 and own a small software company. My software hides in the background, much like me, so you won't have noticed it, even if you use it.

I write stories and poems and occasionally draw things. I have three kids, but they've all flown the nest, so I live quietly with my wife and two cats (okay, they aren't quiet - they knock things over a lot). I write middle grade fantasy, among other things. (I also write poetry - Orson Scott Card once wrote and said he loved my poems. How cool is that?)

My Pitch Wars middle grade novel has trolls (nice ones) and giants (not so nice, but perhaps just misunderstood) and dragons (nasty pieces of work). It also has friendship and adventure and... well, you'll just have to read it. Suffice it to say, the main characters are eleven-year-old Bernie and Tish. He's always hungry but more timid than a troll should be. She's obsessed with rocks and loves trouble, even when it leaves her smelling strongly of cinnamon.

Below is a drawing I made of Tish's home, though it is a bit hard to see through the water.

Thanks you to Lana Pattinson for hosting the mentee bio blogs. See other links on her website. And thank you for stopping by. Mind the penguin on your way out.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

New WIP - New excitement

After a long time editing and rewriting Danger Tastes Dreadful, my middle grade fantasy that is in the query cycle right now, I am thrilled to be writing something new. It feels like it has been forever.

My new novel is tentatively called Josiah and the Bridge of Fire, and it is a very different book for me. This is a contemporary late middle grade novel, but it has a parallel story told in poems in the book Josiah finds. These poems echo some of what is going on in his life with perhaps a touch of magical realism in how appropriate they can be.

I have little idea how one pitches/sells/categorizes a book which is partly prose and partly poems, but I've wanted to give it a try for a while. I'll worry about details like that when I have something to show people.

Since Josiah is African-American, and living somewhat on the edge of poverty, I wanted the poems to resonate better with that life. With that in mind, some of them will be written in a form of hip hop poetry if I can manage. I have actually written the first of the ones for the novel, but don't want to share it yet, so instead, here is my first hip hop poem, which is a rewriting of The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost. Click on it to see a larger version if you have trouble reading it.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

In the Galleries - Weeks 4 and 5

Two different pieces this week, one a re-do of Week 4's piece, Edward Hopper's "Hills, South Truro" and another of Claude Monet's "Gardener's House at Antibes". The latter was a lot of fun, and I thought I captured the feel fairly well given that I was using very different materials (pastel sticks on sandpaper rather than oil on canvas). I didn't have time to finish it (no trees on right, for example), but

My unfinished version of  "Gardener's House at Antibes":

Three different studies of "Hills, South Truro", the first two from last week, and the last from this week:

Monday, March 14, 2016

In the Galleries - Week 1

While not doing pitch contests and running my international software business, I have signed up for another art class. This one is called Drawing in the Galleries, which means I get to spend one morning a week in the galleries of the magnificent Cleveland Museum of Art, drawing stuff. We are starting with charcoal drawing, which is new to me. The instructor is new to me as well. (Part of the reason I take different art classes is because every instructor has a different approach, so I learn more and get to pick and choose which I use when I.)

This instructor likes to start with form, or "masses". Basically the heaviest stuff. She then moves us to tone (light and dark). With charcoal, you can basically make the form all somewhat dark and then lighten parts with an eraser and darken other parts with heavier charcoal.

We started in the Egyptian Gallery, and worked on a statue of a bull which stands in the middle of the room. It is the Apis Bull, for those curious. Here is my drawing, done on cheap newsprint paper.

Afterwards, we were encouraged to find another piece of our own choosing. I chose the Seated Pair Statue, because I thought it was cool how they looked so formal, but still have their arms around each other. This was done on a higher quality paper which we prepped by rubbing charcoal all over it. (Lots of fun. Like fingerpainting for artists.) The faces were hard to capture off a statue, but I feel good about the tone.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Pitch Madness - Lessons learned

As anybody following me on Twitter can't have missed, I participated in Pitch Madness this year. It was my first Twitter/online pitch contest, and I mostly did it for the experience. I had fun and might do it again, though I fully expect to get an agent the old fashioned way through queries and patience.

In any case, the entire experience was tremendously enlightening, so I thought I'd write down a few of the lessons learned. I wrote ten of them on Twitter, but will expand a bit more here for those interested (and so I remember for later).

These are just as I tweeted them (minus "#PitchMadness Lessons learned"), with additional commentary:

1) Your title is the first part of your hook. Make it snappy, intriguing and appropriate to genre/age.

There are titles that just jumped out among the winners. Titles such as "My Paper Route and Other Deadly Things"  and "Daisy Kincaid and the Time Travel Shoppe" and "The Road to Dusty Death". All of a sudden, my perfectly serviceable "Reach for the Sky" sounds dull. I realized that for middle grade, I need something that intrigues and excites. I think I am going to change to "Danger Tastes Dreadful", which was suggested by Chris Garson from my writer's group. It has several different meanings for the story itself, and I think it has much more of a hook.

2) A 35 word pitch isn't just a Twitter pitch. You need to communicate voice & writing ability with the hook

From the teasers and from the interviews posted by ‏@DaemosChronicle, it was clear that some people just used a Twitter pitch they had created earlier for their 35 word pitch. It was also clear that the slush readers were not impressed by that. 

Also, and this really deserves its own tweet but I forgot, your hook can include comps. If saying "PRINCESS BRIDE meets DRACULA" communicates a lot about your book, use it. Association is powerful in all pitches, and agents really do respond to those associations.

3) The first 250 words of your story matter, and not just for contests. Make them stand out and pull reader in

There were several teaser comments that made me scramble back to my first page to make sure I wasn't making this or that mistake... or that I was doing this or that thing. For example, while my stakes don't become clear that early, I added some foreshadowing to suggest the stakes.

4) Unless you are writing about weather gods or rewriting The Tempest, skip the weather report at beginning.

Fortunately, I didn't do this, but it was mentioned by multiple slush readers.

5) Know your word counts, and don't try to be the exception. You aren't JK Rowling... yet. 

While I still live in fear that my word count is too high or low, at least I can tell I am in the right ballpark... and that some people aren't.

6) Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds redux. Mix up your writing style even in first 250 wds.

While this is something I learned long ago in a general sense, the hints about this in teasers reminded me that I better make sure it was evident on my first page. I didn't alter much, but it definitely reads better with the tweaks I made.

7) Unless you are writing about dream elves in Brooklyn, don't start with dream sequence.

Not in mine, but at least a couple of authors were scrambling after this advice.

8) If the pitch, or worse, the first page, don't make clear who your MC is, the pitch will be a strike.

This one seems obvious, but clearly it isn't. I think one of the problems is people who use a Twitter pitch or logline for the 35 word pitch. In those, roles are preferred to names, but in a 35 word pitch, you have enough (even if it is hard to believe you do) to introduce the main character and give a sense of him/her/it.

9) Unless you are writing about vampires, keep your stakes in plain view. Also, don't write about vampires.

This advice (well, without the vampire bit) was repeated frequently. Make the stakes clear in your 35 word pitch. That pitch needs to a) introduce your character, b) make the reader care about your character, c) make the stakes for your character clear, and d) make it clear that you can write a story about that character. Sounds tough, but YOU ARE A WRITER. You can do it.

10) A journey of 1000 miles starts with a single step. So, make it a good one, but not your last or only one.

Whether or not you made it into the draft for Pitch Madness, this is simply a step in your journey. If there is one thing I have learned about writing, it is that authors always tend to focus on the next step as if it is the last. If you choose to go with traditional publishing, you have to:
a) have an idea;
b) write the book; 
c) rewrite and polish; 
d) find a way to get an agent; 
e) negotiate a contract; 
f) work with the agent; 
g) work on building a platform so that you can support both marketing and your readers; 
h) deal with offers for publication; and 
i) have an idea for a next book. 

Rinse and repeat. Also, the steps don't usually go in that order. You may write a few books before you get an agent. You should probably work on your platform before the book is sold, and preferably before you have an agent.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Pitch Madness - Hopping in feet first

With my middle grade fantasy, Danger Tastes Dreadful, finally ready for querying, I am jumping in feet first with a Twitter challenge called Pitch Madness. Since this is also an opportunity to meet some fellow authors swimming along with me in the waters that are not nearly infested enough with agents.

Welcome, fellow authors. Below I offer the briefest of excerpts from my book. Bernie and Tish are the 11 year old trolls who are the main characters in my novel:

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Self portrait - making some real progress

My self portrait from art class today. I feel really good about this. The mouth seems a little off, but that is what I looked like in the mirror. I especially like how the glasses worked with the white. It was interesting doing this on dark paper, as it make the highlight very different. I am going to try photographing it again later with my wife's Galaxy 5, as that seems to do a better job than our camera with darker shots. Regardless, I feel like this is a great improvement over some of my past self portraits.

You keep working at something, and you actually start to get better. Amazing.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Dear Francisca Montague (draft query letter)

The truth is, I'm not quite ready to query. Close, but not there. I am going through "Reach for the Sky" on another polishing run, and soliciting feedback from beta readers. So, if you happen to be an agent and just can't wait to request a full on this, sorry. (Though do let me know, so I can query the heck out of you when it is ready!)

I am close enough to be serious about the query letter. I've gone through some revisions, but this is probably what I will use, or something like it. Just thought I'd share in case anybody is curious or has any feedback.

Dear Francisca Montague: [or whomever - never just say 'agent']

Trolls are tough. Trolls are strong. Trolls are fearless. Well, except for Bernie. Bernie is eleven, timid and enjoys munching on beetles. When he tastes danger in the air, his parents won’t pay any attention. His best friend, Tish, is clever and obsessed with rocks, and she thinks that anything dangerous sounds like fun. Boy, is she ever wrong.

When giants destroy the bridge over Bernie’s home and carry off Bernie’s parents and Tish’s Granny Mac, Bernie and Tish must journey to Mount Dreadful alone and find a way to rescue their loved ones, though neither knows how two young trolls can fight giants ten times their size.

Inside Mount Dreadful's murky caverns, the trolls will learn that size doesn’t always matter, that fears can be overcome, that protecting people sometimes means risking yourself, and that when fiery dragons take to the sky, no one is safe.

Complete at 32,000 words, REACH FOR THE SKY is a middle grade fantasy. This is my first novel, though I have published short stories for both children and adults. The first ten pages of REACH FOR THE SKY are included below. [If this agent's submission guidelines say so - always follow the guidelines!]

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Best regards,

Ben Langhinrichs
[contact info, blog and social media stuff]

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Book Queries - so much to learn and so many mistakes to make

I feel as if I have been reading about the query process for years, and yet there is always more. A fellow member of my small writing group is also working on his query letter. His book is for a similar, though slightly older, age group, but it is a far different book. In any case, he has also been reading QueryShark and other sites.

The biggest mistakes that I have seen out there in query examples, aside from writing a book that nobody wants to publish because the market is saturated with vampires or the plot is way too similar to Harry Potter:

1) Not knowing what your book is really about. This sounds bizarre, but there do seem to be a number of people who write a whole lot about some characters without ever really grasping that there needs to be a real plot. If you don't have that plot, the query seems to ramble on about either the author or the kind of characters, but never communicate a sense of urgency or a sense of the stakes in the story for the MC. Often, the author wanted "to write a book" rather than write this book.

2) Inability to sell the story. This is far more common, and may happen even with a great book. Whether through paralysis or carelessness or something else, the author seems to say: Trust me, it's a great book, so I shouldn't have to describe it. Just read it. (As a software developer, this is akin to software companies that can't describe their products, but simply want you to discover it for yourself. I've never once bought software sold that way.)

3) Rushed and sloppy. An author may spend years writing a book, but then whips off a query letter and sends it, warts and all. Again, hard for me to believe, but it happens a lot. Usually, this is followed by zero offers for representation and the book being self-published filled with typos.

4) Arrogance. Some authors are convinced that the world should grovel at their feet because they wrote the masterpiece of all masterpieces, unique among books. Somehow, this comes through in a query letter.

5) The query doesn't follow the submission rules. While some agents may overlook some minor infractions, most seem to have too many queries to start with and are looking for queries to cull. If the agent has posted clear rules and the query doesn't follow them, it significantly raises the chance that the author will be a slightly better controlled version of #5.

There are obviously many other reasons why an agent will pass on a query, not all of which are "mistakes". They may have too many like that one, or it may not sound like a voice they like, or they may have had too much coffee and feel unable to read that afternoon. Your query may not be significantly flawed, but it is probably a good idea to assume it might be if nobody is asking for partials or fulls or showing any interest at all.

Garden house on a hill

Second week of art class, and the instructor went in a different direction. Most of the drawing we have done before is of a thing actually in front of us. Instead, she pinned a number of different types of landscapes and scenes on the wall, and had us make up a landscape based on elements we saw in those different images. In addition, she wanted is to focus on using crosshatching for shadows and "value" (one of those arty words that seems to mostly mean how dark it is). In addition, we needed to think about foreground, middle ground and background elements, and alsocomposition, especially things like triangles and odd numbers of elements and visually pleasing layout. Sheesh!

Some students tried to copy specific elements, while others did what I did and tried to capture the essence of the different images in our own made up landscape. I decided to make a garden house on a hillside. 

This counts as one of those learning experience drawings.I like parts of it, don't like others, but got some sense about what I would need to do differently. Now that I am doing sketches as well, I tend to break down the element a bit in my mind and ask myself what worked and what didn't. Then, I tackle the things that didn't work by watching videos and trying to "get" what I may have missed. Someday, this should all make me better, even if better is barely beyond the level of a somewhat naturally gifted 10 year old.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Sketch Day 5 - Merz and Bernie

Sketch Day 5

One of my fellow writers requested that I draw one of the giants alongside one of the trolls to get a sense of their relative sizes. This is Merz, the first giant Bernie encounters close up, and Bernie himself. His scale is such that I couldn't do much justice to his drawing, but you can probably tell he is shouting.

I am considering this more of a character sketch, as there is no scene exactly like this. At the very least, it gives me a better sense of what the giants look like. (My muse is in charge of the sketches, so I am as surprised as you by how they turn out.)

To give just a bit more sense of scale, Bernie is about half my height, or just over 3 feet tall. One meter almost exactly for you sensible metric people.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Sketch Day 4 - Bernie crawls through the tunnel

Sketch Day 4

I decided to do something a little different today. In my previous sketches, I've shown characters and a place. In this, I decided to illustrate a scene later in the book where Bernie has to crawl through a tunnel inside the lair of the dragons.

After making the sketch, I decided to go one step further and include some of the scene itself. (Obviously, they are superimposed on the actual sketch, but I thought I'd post it this way.) 

I never plan ahead what I am going to sketch, but I would assume it will be a combinations of characters, places and scenes. I may also focus on some details (such as troll feet or hands), mostly because I am trying to learn to draw them. Let me know if there is anything you would like to see more so that you can picture it. (Moar scenes! Moar characters! Dragons and trolls together! Or whatever.)

Friday, January 8, 2016

Sketch Day 3 - Bernie

Sketch Day 3

I have been a little scared to try drawing Bernie, but I decided I might as well give it a try. I don't like the body, hands or feet much, but the face is pretty close to what I want.

One of the challenges in visualizing Bernie and Tish is whether I think trolls are more human-like or less human-like.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Sketch Day 2 - The Waterfall

The Waterfall

Sketch Day 2

I went for a very different scene today. This is the waterfall behind which Granny Mac and Tish live. (The stream which leads to the waterfall is the Lillygusset for those who like names, and this is Lillygusset Falls, though it is quite small.)

I am experimenting with sketches at the same time as trying illustrations, and this is my try for more abstract surfaces. I kind of like it, though I am sure there is more I could do to emphasize the light on different rocks without getting too concrete. Still, I am quite proud of this one. Maybe tomorrow I will even try Bernie. 


Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Sketch Day 1 - Granny Mac and Tish

Sketch Day 1

As many of you know, I am in the middle of polishing a novel for middle grade (7-12 y.o.) kids. It is called Reach for the Sky, and it features two troll children, Bernie and Tish. I decided that rather than sketch random stuff, I am going to try to visualize some of the characters and scenes from my novel each day. This is very experimental, as part of my passion for learning to draw is trying to figure out what Bernie and Tish look like. I'll also try sketching where they live, some of the obstacles they face (giants! dragons!) and perhaps a map of where there adventures take place.

Tish lives with her Granny Mac, and I decided for my first day to try drawing the two of them. This is somewhere between drawing and sketching, and we will have to see whether all my sketches are like that or some are more or less detailed. In case you wonder, this is not really how I see Granny Mac and Tish looking, so I may have to keep trying to get them closer to my internal (and very fuzzy) image.

Still Life with Convoluted Cow

Art class has finally started up again after the holidays, and our first project was a mixed up sort of still life. Our instructor likes these because she thinks it helps get you away from the idea of the thing to the reality of the thing. She is always telling us to draw what we actually see, not what we think we should see.

I am fairly happy with this, especially because I captured more of the character of the odd clay cow than I thought I would be able to. (It has horns and udders, so I am choosing to call it a cow, though it is possible it was intended to be some other animal entirely.)

I am also hoping to do a sketch-a-day, though I likely won't do them the days I do art class. The subject of those sketches will be revealed when I post the first one.