Making the Stakes Too High in Sequels

Posted by annastan on July 29th, 2014 | 2 Comments »

I often get skeptical looks from people when I caution against making the stakes too high in a story. That’s probably because a lot of writing advice tells you to “raise the stakes!” and to “give your character more to lose!” This is generally good advice, but we have to remember that the stakes need to FEEL like the end of the world to the character and not necessarily BE the end of the world.

end of the world eh?

I’ve noticed this trend of making the stakes too high in some book and movie sequels recently. In a YA sci-fi sequel I was reading, for example, the story started with a shoot-out and a chase. While this was exciting stuff, it didn’t match the stakes in the first book. That story had been very internal, full of secrets and mystery. To go from psychological tension in the first book to what felt like an action flick in the second book seemed like a huge jump, one that raised the stakes dramatically and created a different type of story. The series didn’t feel cohesive because of it.

Similarly, I recently rewatched the Anne of Green Gables miniseries. I loved the first two movies when I was young, so I definitely shed a nostalgia tear or two when I was watching them this time around. I didn’t realize that there was a third installment (made in 2000) and I was eager to watch it. I have to admit that I was disappointed precisely because of the stakes issue.

Now, I haven’t read all the Anne books, so I’m not sure how true the miniseries was to them, and thus I’m only going to talk about the movies here. At the start of Anne’s story, the focus is all on everyday, small stakes. Oh no, someone called her Carrots! Oh no, she accidentally got her best friend drunk! Even though the stakes are sometimes life/death in the first movie (a friend’s sister falling ill or Matthew having a heart attack) the focus is still on the home and the daily stakes of Anne adjusting to her surroundings.

In the third movie, though, Anne finds herself in wartime, searching for Gil in the trenches, disguising herself as a nun, and getting shot at by Germans. It all felt a bit silly to me, mostly because it didn’t seem like it could be part of the same story. The stakes were suddenly so high that they felt absurd, and I didn’t believe them anymore.

Now, of course the stakes in a series have to escalate from book to book (or movie to movie) in order to keep audiences interested, but it’s important to make those stakes still feel genuine to the character and his/her world. Maybe you do need a shoot-out in your story, but be very careful of how and when you bring it in. Just because there’s a gun in the scene doesn’t mean the audience is automatically riveted. Often, there are a lot more interesting stakes you can explore for your character that don’t involve whizzing bullets and high-speed chases.

The Gossip File Cover Reveal and Reading Highlights

Posted by annastan on July 22nd, 2014 | 3 Comments »

Since it popped up on Amazon, B&N, etc, I guess it’s okay to share the cover of The Gossip File (the third installment in the Dirt Diary series).

gossip file cover

Isn’t it fun? Look for the book in January 2015!

Speaking of news, I just found out that The Prank List is going to be part of the Scholastic Book Club, along with My Very UnFairy Tale Life and The Dirt Diary. I grew up with the Scholastic Book Club/Book Fairs, so the fact that my books are part of it is just awesome.

And finally, here’s a snippet of a nice review from VOYA Magazine:

“The Prank List hooks readers with snappy dialogue from the beginning… Rachel is a likable character for middle school readers, who will relate to her problems.”

Now, on to some reading highlights! I’ve been in the midst of writing deadlines and book events, but I’ve managed to sneak in some fun reading. Here are my three most recent:

Talker 25 by Joshua McCune

This book was so intriguing, especially in its world building. It read almost like an alien invasion story except with dragons instead of little green men. It was gritty and brutal, and it left me very curious to read the sequel.

Compulsion by Martina Boone

The atmosphere of this story drew me in right away. The story is set on an island in the South, one that’s full of family history and ancient secrets. The characters and setting really drew me in and kept me reading.

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

This is basically two books in one: a story about a teen author who gets her first book deal, interspersed with chapters of the novel she’s working on. It was an ambitious project that really could have gone awry, but somehow it all worked. This was one of the most satisfying books I’ve read in a while.

What have you been reading?

Prank List Launch Recap

Posted by annastan on July 17th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

The Prank List blog tour continues with an interview in which I share the “secret” of writing quickly, an interview about creating a baking landscape, an interview that includes tips on writing humor, and a guest post about having multiple writing personas.

In other news, check out this snippet from a lovely review of The Prank List from VOYA:

The Prank List hooks readers with snappy dialogue from the beginning… Rachel is a likable character for middle school readers, who will relate to her problems.”

Yay! And finally, I’ve dipped my toe into Tumblr. I’m still figuring it out, but it looks like it could be fun.

So, this past weekend was the launch for The Prank List at Blue Bunny Books in Dedham, Mass. It was a great time, and I think my book was happy to have a birthday party. Here is the obligatory “book commercial” shot:

blue bunny 3

I started by talking about the book and doing a short reading, then we did a Q&A. After that it was time to decorate cupcakes!

blue bunny 4

One of the great things about the Blue Bunny, besides the fact that it’s an awesome indie bookstore, is that they sometimes have an actual bunny on the premises. It wasn’t blue, but it was still cute!

blue bunny 6

And this picture proves the scientific theory that if an author sees her books in a store window, she will pose beside them.

blue bunny 5

The celebrating continues this Saturday at Wellesley Books where I’ll be decorating cupcakes and signing books from 2-4pm. After that, I’ll be focused 100% on fine-tuning a draft of I’m With Cupid before it’s due to my editor at the beginning of August. And after that, I’ll be sneaking away on vacation and doing some serious relaxing! :-)

How to Write When You Don’t Feel Like It

Posted by annastan on July 8th, 2014 | 5 Comments »

This week on the PRANK LIST blog tour: I share my messy bookshelves with the world (including my Star Wars ones) and I talk about using picture book techniques in novels

I’ll be honest. There are days when I should be writing but just don’t feel like it. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s experienced this particular phenomenon, right? But the trick is, I’m on deadline for my next book right now which means I HAVE to write, even if it’s the last thing I feel like doing.

I’d like to say there’s an easy solution to this problem. And I suppose there is. Stop whining, sit down, and write.

But sometimes tough love isn’t enough, so here are a few others techniques that have been helping me plug along with my project.

Formulate a plan

I’m not an outliner, but I do write a synopsis of the story that helps me figure out the overall narrative and the character’s emotional arc. Having this synopsis worked out beforehand–even if it’s pretty general–gives me a map to follow as I’m drafting.

Create a spreadsheet

I like to make a spreadsheet of each chapter, including length, POV character, major events, and anything else that seems relevant. This helps me flag chapters that are too long or short, too boring or too cluttered, etc. It also helps me see which chapters I need to write next. (I don’t always make this spreadsheet when I’m drafting, but I always make one before I start revising.)

Make a list

Write down what’s fun about your book, or list the scenes you’re looking forward to writing. This can help make the process of writing the project feel less like a chore and more like the exciting creative endeavor it was when you first started.

Use another book as a guide

When I was having trouble getting into the mood of the second UnFairy Tale book, I went back to one of my favorites, Whales on Stilts, to help get me in the right mindset. Analyzing the book also helped me to figure out why my project felt like it was lagging.

Reward success and forgive failure

Sometimes a reward method is a good motivator–if I finish this chapter, I get to eat a cookie. Sometimes having a daily or weekly word count goal can help keep you accountable, especially if you get others to cheer you on. But if you miss a day or even a week, don’t beat yourself up. Just write out your “what makes this project fun” list and find a way to get back into it.

Do you have a technique that helps you keep going? Share it in the comments. Happy writing!

Twitter Contest Winner

Posted by annastan on July 2nd, 2014 | 1 Comment »

Thanks so much to everyone who took part in the #pranklist Twitter contest yesterday and shared their favorite pranks. It was a tough choice, but I think the winning tweet was by Louise Galveston:

 ‏@LouiseGalveston In 7th grade I put a frog lung (from dissection) in a piece of my foe’s macaroni. Evil, I know. #pranklist

Isn’t that hilarious? She clarified that the foe didn’t actually eat the lung, but I still laughed a lot. Congrats, Louise! You’re the winner of a signed copy of The Prank List!

Here are a couple honorable mentions:
@PCzajak  #pranklist replace mayo in jar with vanilla pudding then eat it like a snack in front of those who hate mayo

Hopefully, I didn’t just give any of you ideas for mischief. :-)

The Prank List Is Out Today!

Posted by annastan on July 1st, 2014 | 1 Comment »

The Prank List blog tour continues with a post on making multiple protagonists distinct, an interview about the book and my upcoming projects, and a post on the difference between middle grade and young adult books.

Book birthdays are a funny affair. Of course it’s ridiculously exciting to know that my book is officially out in the world, but it’s hard to wrap my brain around that when my day is pretty much business as usual. Luckily, I’ll be at a summer reading carnival at the Shrewsbury Library this afternoon to help make the day feel a little more out of the ordinary. (Maybe I’ll see you there?)

Okay, let’s get this party started! Prank List, welcome to the book family.

prank list cover 2

How about you blow out a candle to make your birthday official?

Darn, if only I’d written in some lungs… :-)

If you’d like to win a signed copy of the book, swing by Twitter today where I”ll be doing a fun contest with the hashtag #pranklist.

EMLA Spotlight: Revenge of the Flower Girls

Posted by annastan on June 24th, 2014 | 5 Comments »

The blog tour for The Prank List continues! I was interviewed by Vonna Carter about creating the story, I shared the inside scoop on the inspiration behind the book, and I did an interview that includes a giveaway of a signed copy.

Back in May when I was at my agency retreat, I was reminded of how lucky I am to have so many talented agent-mates. After I got home, I vowed to put more of their books on my summer reading list. First up is Jennifer Ziegler‘s hilarious new book, Revenge of the Flower Girls, about triplets who have to stop their sister from marrying the wrong guy.


This was exactly the kind of light, fun read I needed this week. The story is full of funny misadventures and general shenanigans, but what I particularly loved about it was the voice. Plus, the triplets have such a great relationship with each other and with their older sister that you’re rooting for them to break up the wedding, even if that means watching them do some pretty crazy stuff. This is the perfect summer tween read.

What’s on your reading list this summer?

Upcoming Events: Cupcake Edition

Posted by annastan on June 17th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

The Prank List blog tour continues with a look at the business side of writing: “I Sold My Book: Now What?” and “What to Expect After the Sale.” And I talk about the process of writing The Prank List, including some terrible jobs I’ve had in my life.

Also, if you’re need of a creative boost, come by The Writers’ Loft this Saturday at 2pm for our “Improv Comedy for Writers” event.

Look what arrived on my doorstep the other day. A whole box of copies of The Prank List. Woohoo!

prank list box

Now that the book is almost out–the release date is only two weeks away!!!–I’ve started putting together some fun events to help celebrate. If you’re in the area, I’d love to see you!

Tuesday, July 1st

I’ll be at the Shrewsbury Library Summer Reading Carnival from 4-6pm along with oodles of other children’s authors.

shrewsbury carnival

Saturday, July 12th

In honor of the release of The Prank List, I’ll be hosting a cupcake decorating party at the Blue Bunny Bookstore in Dedham, Mass. at 11am.

Monday, July 14th

I’ll be reading, signing books, and doing crafts at the Peabody Library in Peabody, Mass. at 11am.

Saturday, July 19th

I’ll be decorating cupcakes and signing books at Wellesley Books in Wellesley, Mass. from 2-4pm.

Cupcake, anyone?

Cookie Dough Cupcake

Revision Takes Bravery

Posted by annastan on June 10th, 2014 | 9 Comments »

The Prank List blog tour continues! This week, I talk about the Dirt Diary series and share three of my favorite food-related books.

I will be the first to admit that I’m not a very brave person. I usually hate taking risks and stepping out of my comfort zone. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what you have to do when you’re revising a novel. And over the past couple of weeks, I had to get mighty brave when my editor pointed out some things that weren’t working in the final Dirt Diary book.

I realized she was totally right, but in order to fix the problem, I would essentially have to start over. Oh my goldfish–as my character Rachel would say–I was supposed to restart a book when it was due in 2.5 weeks??

After a day or two of total panic, I realized I had no choice. I couldn’t label the book as “good enough” and let it go. I had to get brave and dive in.

So I opened a new document and went through the old version, cutting and pasting the scenes that worked and omitting the ones that didn’t. When I was done, the book was about half its original length and it didn’t have a climax. Then I started to brainstorm and rewrite, and brainstorm and rewrite some more.

A week later, I was stuck halfway through the manuscript, feeling like it still wasn’t working. When I went down to NYC for Book Expo America, the revision was so much on my mind that I actually sat in a corner of the expo and started a list: “What makes this book fun?”

That’s when I had a breakthrough. I wasn’t having enough fun with the book! And I realized that I was focusing too much on minor characters and adult problems rather than the main character’s struggles and her tween concerns. In order to make all of that work, I had to start over–again.

Eek A Mouse

Luckily, I had a chance to sit down with my editor for a few minutes at BEA and talk out the new direction I was thinking. She reassured me that I was on the right track and encouraged me to keep going with it.

Then the real work began. Let me tell you. It was terrifying to know I had a deadline coming up and no manuscript to show for it. But if I wanted to make the book the best that I could, I had to be brave.

Finally, after a week of struggling, a day came when revising actually felt doable. That’s how I knew that I was finally going in the right direction. Suddenly, I started making connections in the manuscript that I hadn’t noticed before…and I was having a little fun with it!

Fast forward to yesterday morning when I sent the manuscript off to my editor and breathed a huge sigh of relief. The book I sent her is completely different from what she read a few weeks ago. Heck, it’s a completely different book from the one it was a week ago. Last night, my editor emailed me and said she absolutely loved what I’d done. I can’t tell you how good that made me feel.

As insane and stressful as the process has been, I’m glad I forced myself to be brave. Revision isn’t about making something just okay. It’s about pushing yourself until the story is better than the one you thought you were capable of writing.

Book Deal News!!

Posted by annastan on June 3rd, 2014 | 8 Comments »

The unofficial blog tour for The Prank List has begun! I was interviewed last week as part of Middle Grade May, I did a post on thinking visually in novels yesterday, and today I’m over at Janet Fox’s blog talking about creating a believable tween voice.

I’ve been dying to spill the news, and now I finally can! My agent just sold a brand new tween series to my editor at Sourcebooks! Here’s the announcement from Publishers Weekly:

Aubrey Poole at Sourcebooks has signed three tween novels by Anna Staniszewski, author of the My Very UnFairy Tale Life series and The Dirt Diary. The new series, Heart and Souls, kicks off when a teen cupid and a teen reaper are dared to kiss at a party and accidentally end up swapping powers. Publication of the first book, I’m with Cupid, is set for summer 2015. Ammi-Joan Paquette of Erin Murphy Literary Agency negotiated the deal for world English rights.

Since I love hearing about the inspiration behind other people’s books, here’s a little background on how this series came about. As with many tween novels, the initial inspiration came from classic British literature. I was teaching a course on science fiction and fantasy this past fall, and one of the books on the syllabus was The Children of Green Knowe by LM Boston.

There’s a part in the story where the characters see a play. Here’s the description of it from the book:

Cupid and Death had put up at the same inn, and while they were sleeping, the arrows in their quivers were changed over, so that afterwards whoever was shot by Death, instead of dying, fell in love, while whoever was shot by Cupid, instead of falling in love, died. This was all very amusing, because Death shot the old people, who as lovers were ridiculous; and laughing Cupid was vexed and perplexed when all his young lovers died. On the whole Death had the most fun, but he took it gloomily.

I loved the “Freaky Friday” feel of the narrative, and I wondered what would happen if I retold this story with modern tween characters. Once the idea clicked in my head, I couldn’t wait to write the story. I’m beyond thrilled that my agent and editor were as excited about the concept as I was.