Writing Tough Topics for Middle Grade with Marie Miranda Cruz

Mindy:             Today's guest is Marie Miranda Cruz, author of Everlasting Nora, an uplifting young reader debut about perseverance against all odds. Marie joined me today to talk about the difficulty of querying a middle grade novel with complicated and heavy themes.

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Mindy:             A lot of my listeners are aspiring authors and many are in the query trenches trying to get an agent. So can you talk a little bit about your experience at landing an agent?

Marie:              It took me about four years to land my agent. My agent is Paula Munier of Talcott Notch. Basically my query journey probably began in 2009. I started out querying my debut, actually Everlasting Nora back then it was, it had a different title and it was called Nora's Grave. I started out with that. I received a lot of requests to read, but at the time agents just weren't willing to take a chance. I think they thought it was a bit of a conundrum in a way. First of all, how to categorize the story. They weren't sure if it was middle-grade or young adult. And then also because they thought it was a little scary too. The elements I had in the book, they just didn't know whether or not they could sell it. I did that for a couple of years. From 2009 to 2010 I queried that book and in the meantime I thought, well I, I really wanted to write a YA.

Marie:              So I wrote a YA book and this one was a story set in San Francisco this time. Because my first book, the one that came out in October is set in the Philippines. So I wrote one that was set in San Francisco about a teenage girl who has psychic powers. I queried that book for a of years, well, maybe more like a year and a half from between 2011 and 2012. And I was basically still actually querying both books at the same time. Although the first book I decided to shelve, towards later of 2011. And that's how I found my agent. In 2012 I queried Paula Munier who was new to agenting. Publishing was cutting back on staff and there was a lot of layoffs and she had been an editor. She decided to go into agenting lucky for me and she offered representation. That's how my journey began basically.

Mindy:             So you mentioned that your first book Everlasting Nora is a middle-grade. It has a very specific voice and that it was a struggle actually in the beginning to land an agent because of the fact that it does have some darker themes yet is middle grade. So people that were reading it were struggling with categorizing it. How did you come to the decision to write middle grade in the first place and when you are writing middle grade, knowing that you intend to make it a middle grade book, do you ever look at what you're working on and think that it's leaning too young or too old?

Marie:              I don't know that I approached this project necessarily thinking about whether or not this book was one thing or another. All I wanted to do was tell a story that was very honest to the character and to the situation she finds herself in. As I was writing it though, talking with my critique group, they felt the voice was definitely middle-grade, but considering the content they felt, it was more YA. And one of the, one of the comp books I had used when I was querying was Sold by Patricia McCormick, the character in that book at 12 year old girl, her father I think sold her into prostitution. And so that was my conflict initially. And I think when, when I started querying, I felt that my book was, was young adult, despite the fact that my character is only 12. It Was a little bit difficult. And when I had to decide how to pitch it to some of the agents that did come back to me at that time did make that comment that, oh, you know, if your character, she's a kid, you know, and the voice is very middle grade. But I said, yeah, so what do I do?

Marie:              Like I said, I never really intended to write one way or the other. I just really wanted to tell this kid's story.

Mindy:             It is a kind of a tough age range right there and they're capable of looking at those darker themes. But you also don't want to be impacting them in ways that are negative. Everlasting Nora is set in a shanty town in the Philippines, in a graveyard. And you deal with a lot of the harder topics in this book. So can you talk about the issues that you address in the book, some of those harder themes and the difficult topics and how you decided to frame them for Middle Grade.

Marie:              Poverty, addiction, and violence and crime. When my agent was um, pitching the book, we had a conversation and she was the one that actually said to me, you know, we need to work out the tone of this book. And she felt that the first part of my book had a different tone that was, that was more about just the poverty and about the family and about the community. And the, the second half of the book was different in tone, more violent, it focused a lot more on the crime aspect and the addiction. She said to me that I needed to do something to balance that and to make it a little bit more focused. And so there were some elements that I had in there, in that version of the story, the mom in the story didn't have a gambling addiction. She did something totally different to make money.

Marie:              One of the things that I really wanted to talk about in the story was the the black market in the Philippines. People were selling their kidneys basically. This was actually based on an article I read of someone's experience. Some of the poor people in the Philippines were being taken advantage of, offered lots of money through a middleman to donate a kidney basically, and then getting cheated out of the money. I decided to mellow that out a little bit more. Gambling addiction is not something to be treated lightly. But I thought that might be a little bit easier to understand. I had to kind of steer the story more towards the relationship of mom and daughter when the book was finally acquired and I was working with my editor. My editor is the fantastic Diana Pho of Tor Books. When I was working with her, we made the focus a little bit more family-centric at that point,.

Marie:              The issue of poverty. That was something I really wanted to sort of illustrate to show the American audience how some children in the Philippines live. It'll make them feel sad, that's for sure. I wanted it to be an experience for them just to see, to share in what, what it is to live and how to live that way. The issue of poverty, I definitely wanted to illustrate it for them to share in that experience and see what that's like as far as the addiction and some of the violence, because there is a part in the book where Nora's friend is attacked. There's theft in the novel and a certain kidnapping. I wanted to show those issues because those are some of the real dangers for children and for families that live in squatter communities. I wanted it to be as honest as possible, but in a, way that wouldn't cause trauma and I hope it didn't. Some book bloggers in the Philippines when they reviewed my book, they did offer trigger warnings, you know, to warn people to say that, you know, there is some violence in the book to be warned if you were going to buy this for a young reader. American librarians and the book bloggers abroad did recommend this for upper middle grade, more than lower middle grade readers.

Mindy:             There's some things that a 12 year old obviously is going to be able to process and handle that an eight year old is not, and so middle grade has always been that way. It's always been a tough area. Tough to write for. Tough to target, tough to market to. There's always been, I think, I mean I wouldn't want to write middle grade. I don't think I could do it. I think it's way more difficult. It's probably the most difficult in my mind,

Mindy:             Coming up, writing about tough topics for middle graders as a way to build empathy and where to find Marie online.

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Mindy:             I'm curious, the agent that did finally pick you up, was she thinking we're going to try to reframe this as YA or was she thinking middle-grade all along and what really sold it for her?


Marie:              She really felt it was middle grade. The strength of the novel was the Middle Grade Voice. What she found, I think the most compelling, and I believe that's how she pitched the book, was the idea of the community and the story is so strong that Nora lived among people who were there to support her. I mean an absentee mom for the most part, her eventual disappearance. And then her mother's eventual illness, she found that she had friends among the people there. And so that was what uh, my agent thought was the most compelling of a story and that would make it definitely more middle grade so that it would be more appealing to a middle grade audience. It is difficult because I've been reading a lot of middle grade books lately and they do tend to skew from stories that that would definitely appeal to very young kids. Simpler stories that centered just around the family and on um, little adventures and mysteries. And then you go to the upper middle grade where it does deal with other issues. One parent who is in prison and how a child deals with that. An older sibling who went away because they got pregnant. So those definitely are for older kids.

Mindy:             Do you have any concerns when you're writing about these tough topics for the younger age range or do you think that your audience is equipped to handle it if you're giving it to them appropriately?

Marie:              I think definitely the audience would be able to handle it. Kids tend to observe and understand more than people give them credit for. Life itself is a difficult journey and there are lots and lots of kids, probably more kids than we can say who are in situations that are difficult and I think books that deal with tough issues and difficult situations could be good for them to read so they can see how the kids in the story deal with it to sympathize and connect with that, with that character and feel like they're not alone. There's a good number of kids who you know are in really good family and situations and probably have no idea what these things are like and in a way it's also good for them to read these stories with kids who are experiencing tough situations. It could generate empathy as well. In kids who don't live those lives, they may know a classmate or a friend who is experiencing those things. Reading those stories helps build empathy I think as well. Of course you have to be very judicious in how you handle it and how you tell a story, imagery you want to use, send a message, but without frightening them.

Mindy:             Very good. I agree. I think empathy is always the goal, especially when you're writing fiction and when you're writing for younger ages. I think even more so.

Marie:              I was a kid in the what in the late seventies early eighties I was living in the Philippines and so my access to books was totally different and the kind of books that we had, my household weren't children's books. So I imagine that that must be the experience of a lot of kids. I think, you know, and they're rummaging around for something to read, at least back then. And you know, they ended up reading adult books. The fact that the, there's so much available now is wonderful. You know, every, anything from the scope of realistic fiction and contemporary fiction to fantasy. Even in fantasy books, there's a lot of things to learn and a lot of things for a child to connect with. Anything that they could be dealing with or anything that their friends can be dealing with in their lives.

Mindy:             Definitely. Definitely. Last question. What are you working on right now and where can listeners find you online?

Marie:              I'm working on my next middle grade novel. I think I mentioned when I signed with my agent, I wrote a YA, so I actually have a couple of YA books. The one YA book unfortunately didn't sell. So young adults was really my passion. I'm really loving writing middle grade right now. And so I'm writing my next book. It's about a girl who finds it hard to say she's sorry and, and later figures out that sometimes the words, the things that we keep inside and the words that we hold back could hurt other people and ourselves even more. And that's, that's basically the essence of my next project. And uh, people can find me on www.cruzwrites.com

Brandon Marie Miller On Writing & Fear

 I'm lucky (or cunning) enough to have lured yet another successful writer over to my blog for an SAT - Successful Author Talk. SAT authors have conquered the query, slain the synopsis and attained the pinnacle of published. How'd they do it? Let's ask 'em!

Today’s guest for the SAT is Brandon Marie Miller, an award-winning author of U. S. History for young people. She earned a degree in American History from Purdue University and now lives in Ohio. Her books have been honored by the International Reading Association (IRA), the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), the Society for School Librarians International, Voices of Youth Advocates (VOYA), Bank Street College, and the Junior Library Guild.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

I’m both!

As a mostly nonfiction writer I am definitely a Planner. I have notes, some neat, some scribbled on scraps, some in MS Office OneNote. I have outlines. I have timelines. I have stacks of books ready to tip over. I have piles of photocopies spread all over the floor. Now that I think about it—things are a lot less planned and organized than I’d like.

For fiction, I usually have main plot points in mind, but I go with the flow after that and see what develops in a bare bones draft.

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish? 

The only novel I’ve written (YA historical) took me 8 years off and on to finish. It is not yet published but I have hopes.

My history and biographies take about 2 years to research and write.

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi-tasker?

I only work on one project at a time, although there are always small things going on and fires to put out. I might be waiting for comments from an editor while working on a nonfiction book proposal or writing a blog. But multi-tasking at writing is not one of my strengths and I don’t beat myself up about it.


Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

I’ve had 13 books published and I have fears every time I sit down to write. It’s huge, it’s a long process; you need thick skin, persistence, and self-confidence, which are often in short supply. I always worry I won’t be able to do IT (write something) again. I worry I won’t be able to sell the next thing or will I go through a long drought of nothing. But, the writing community (especially in kid lit) is supportive and helpful. I don’t think I could do this without my writing buddies.

How many trunked books did you have before you were agented?

I handled my own submissions, rejections, and contracts for many years before getting an agent. It used to be that more houses were open. And for nonfiction you have the chance to sell a book based on a proposal and a sample chapter instead of a finished manuscript. Contracts are so complicated now with e-rights and different things, and so many houses are closed to submission, that I was very happy to have an agent for this last book.

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

I don’t have any half finished ms stashed away. I finish what I start and quit the rough way-- when the market tells me to quit through numerous rejections!

Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them? 

My agent is Dawn Frederick at Red Sofa Literary. I actually queried another agent at Red Sofa who wasn’t taking on new authors at that time, but she loved my query and told me to send it to Dawn. I sent Dawn my book proposal and she offered representation after we talked on the phone. So I had a referral, but also wrote a query letter and a book proposal. 

How long did you query before landing your agent?   

For the project that got me an agent I probably sent out a dozen queries, maybe more.

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?

Patience. Also, if you don’t have writing credits, don’t point it out—just leave any comment about that out of your query. Read successful queries. Use the internet and social media to refine your focus on agents who like what you are writing.

How did it feel the first time you saw your book for sale?

Unreal. Fantastic. That first book, now long out of print, is still so special to me!

How much input do you have on cover art?

None. And out of 13 books, only one has my working title! 

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

How very slow it all is. How bruising the process can be. And the biggest surprise: How little money a writer actually makes.

How much of your own marketing do you?  Do you have a blog / site / Twitter?

I do what I can, but it is out of my comfort zone, for sure. I submit for book festivals, and spend time on social media. I’ve tried to build relationships with other writers, librarians, teachers, and hope they will put in a good word about my books once in a while. Share other writers’ news. Be generous. But you can’t count on other people doing the same for you. I share a blog with two other nonfiction writers and I have a website that is chronically in need of updating. Marketing is hard. A good marketing team at the publisher can be uplifting. Sometimes you have to ask for what you’d like to have. Be kind, thoughtful, respectful, but ask.

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?

I think you should start before you get an agent—after all an online presence may help you get that agent.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

For some authors, yes, but it certainly doesn’t translate for all authors. I see people fretting about the number of followers they have. Don’t. Instead, have generous interactions with a smaller number of followers who are actually interested in what you do. These are the people that will support you and share your information. 



Jess Redman On Turning Questions Into Middle Grade Fiction

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today’s guest for the WHAT is Jess Redman, whose middle-grade debut, The Miraculous, will be published by FSG/Macmillan on July 30, 2019. Her second middle-grade novel, Quintessence, will be out on July 28, 2020. You can find her at www.JessRedman.com, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book? 

I didn’t have a specific point, but rather lots of different inspirations from all over the course of my life. I think this may be especially true because this is my debut. This story has been a long time in the making.

The Miraculous is a middle-grade contemporary about an 11-year-old miracle-collector named Wunder Ellis who stops believing in the extraordinary and the magical after the death of his newborn sister.

When I was around Wunder’s age, I faced several losses. In the grand scheme of life, they were smaller losses, but I found myself asking a lot of questions about death and life and meaning—you know, those Big Questions. 

Then, in the year prior to writing The Miraculous, there were lots of losses—and near losses—in my friend group and in my own life. And those questions, always in the background, came up again in new ways.

The Miraculous is about grief, but it’s also about community and love and connection and memory and mystery. And more than anything, I think, it’s about asking questions—even when answers aren’t easy or clear—which is what I hope readers will do.

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

I don’t have a lot of time to write, so I don’t do a lot of pre-writing.

Instead, I do a lot of thinking. This is my FAVORITE part of the process.

Mostly, I like to think about the characters. When I’m stuck, it’s usually because I don’t know my characters well enough. When I really know them, know them through and through, then I don’t have to wonder what they would say or do next. The story flows and the characters can lead it. 


Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

All. The. Time.

I tend to start by sticking my characters in very complex, word-consuming storylines. And then there isn’t enough time and space for their internal development. So then I have to cut and cut and condense and condense until I’m left with something almost manageable. And then I have to cut some more.

Luckily, I have gotten a little better at eyeballing my outline and determining how many words I will realistically end up with.

And then there are changes that come because the characters are not going to do the things I had planned for them. Their dialogue feels phony, their motivations ring false, and then I know that the plot needs to shift.

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

In my experience, the more I look for stories and the more I tell myself stories and the more I listen to the stories around me, the more I find to write about. Which seems obvious, but I just mean that sometimes a storyteller mindset is all you need. There is no lack of stories in this world.

I am not an idea a day person, however. I could not write multiple books a year. But I think I will have enough stories to last for a lifetime of writing (at a fairly slow pace).

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

That can be really hard! My contract was for two books. I had one older completed manuscript and two new ideas that I was tinkering with. I ended up outlining and writing about 50 pages of the new ones and submitting all three to my editor. Then I let her make the call!

She chose Quintessence, which is a middle-grade contemporary sci-fi-fantasy about falling stars and astronomy and alchemy and features a main character with an anxiety disorder. It’s full of magic and feeling, and I love it deeply! It publishes on July 28, 2020, and you can already add it on Goodreads.

Eventually, I hope to complete (and publish—fingers crossed!) all three stories. But I also have plenty of false-starts and half-written messes stored away in files and notebooks that I will probably never touch again.

I have 5 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

I have a cat, a fish, two small children, and a husband, and my preference is to have none of them around when I’m writing!

Well, the fish is okay. She’s very quiet. And she never crawls on my keyboard or asks me to make her a snack.