Meet the Author: Mike Armstrong

   


          



by Gloria G. Adams

     Mike Armstrong has a simple goal for writing books for kids: “I want to do what so many children’s book authors did for my daughter - write books that children and parents will enjoy reading together. Books that will make them both laugh, help spark their interest in reading, and encourage them to seek out the next book. And the next one. And the next. “

     Before becoming a writer, Mike worked as a marketing professional, which involved traveling to other countries. The poverty and hopelessness he witnessed in some of them changed his career path; he became the director of several non-profit organizations that helped people improve their lives.

     When his daughter was born and Mike became a stay-at-home dad, he discovered the world of children’s books, which led him to a new career as a children’s author.

 

What inspired you to write Best Day Ever?

 I was a stay-at-home dad with my daughter for 10 years, and in the early years I took it pretty seriously. I felt like every moment was a crucial teaching moment, and so I had a tendency to over-schedule. But it was exhausting, and honestly, it wasn’t very fun for either of us. Then one day I was watching her play in the backyard with a stick, and she was having the best time ever. That’s when I realized that letting her spend time with her imagination was far more important – and more fun - than anything else I had planned. And that moment was the seed for Best Day Ever.

Tell us about how you found an editor who bought the manuscript and what the process was like from contract to publication.  

I think my path to publication was different than most. I had scheduled a critique with an editor at an SCBWI conference for another manuscript that I had been working on for two years. Then, at the last minute, I switched out the manuscript with something new I had just finished drafting (the reason why is a whole other story). After reading it, his exact words were, “I can fix this.” Not the most glowing of critiques, but he was interested in seeing more. He sent me home with some notes that I followed to the last detail, and he acquired the revised manuscript shortly after. But then he left the publisher. I was so worried it would get dropped that I flew to New York and meet with my new editor to make sure she was on board. She was. Then she left. Then I met with the next one. Then two more left. I’m now on my fifth editor, and each time I was convinced that my book was going to end up on the chopping block. And each time I would tamp down my excitement. So, I’ve been on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for the past two and a half years. And then, of course, the pandemic hits, my release gets delayed, and even more anxiety. But now it’s out, and it was totally worth it. I think.


What was involved in getting an agent?  

Basically, I parlayed my offer into representation. Once I knew that a publisher was interested in my manuscript, I put together a short list of agents that I thought would be good. Then, when the publisher eventually offered to acquire it, I sent out emails to my short list telling them that I had a pending offer and wanted representation. Fortunately, it worked.

 

Were you able to collaborate at all with your illustrator, Eglantine Ceulemans?

I was fortunate in that my publisher presented me with three different illustrators, and we ended up agreeing on the one I preferred. And I couldn’t be happier with Eglantine’s illustrations. My publisher also asked for my feedback on the illustrations several times during the process, but I never actually communicated with Eglantine. Honestly, I didn’t have very many comments. Illustrating is not my strong suit, so I figure it’s best to defer to the experts. 

 

I took your workshop on marketing and it was incredibly organized and thorough. How did your marketing plans work out in spring of 2020 when your book came out in the midst of a pandemic?  Which strategies do you think have worked best so far?

Thanks, I’m glad someone got something out of my session. And yes, COVID basically ended up trashing the marketing plan that I spent two years developing. I made tons of contacts at bookstores, libraries and schools, had over 30 readings and signings scheduled for the spring/summer, and was on my way to scheduling a bunch of school visits in the fall. All of it went out the window. I also had a few things in my personal life go sideways at the same time, so my marketing efforts weren’t nearly as robust as I had hoped. That said, I’m taking a hard look at virtual book marketing, and am beginning to seriously question the benefits of working within the confines of a traditional publisher.  


From where do you get your story ideas?

I steal all my ideas from fellow author and “writing nemesis”, CJ Penko. I’ve never met anyone with so many ideas. She’s a machine, and she’s going to publish a ton of books. Otherwise, the ideas really come from everywhere. I think that the more you write, the more you see potential story ideas floating past throughout the day. That said, lately I've been trying to meditate on themes I’m passionate about. I have a few things that I really want to write, so I’m trying not to get distracted by new ideas. Because new ideas are always more fun to think about than old ones. New ideas can be the mortal enemy of final drafts. 

 

Tell us about your writing process.

My process is a mess, honestly. I try very hard to be methodical and follow a process of 1) identifying a theme, 2) creating a character, 3) developing a plot, and then outlining the whole thing. But it never works out that way. So basically, I’m saying I have nothing of value to offer here. That said, I think that different processes work for different people. And at the end of the day, the important thing is that you write.

 

Can you tell us what other books are in the works?

I’ve got a couple more books with Anna and Will that I’d like to get published. After that, I want to write a story about one of my favorite Buddhist parables. From there, who knows? Maybe I can steal something new from CJ.

 

What is the best part for you about being a children’s author?

Without a doubt, it’s that it inspires my daughter, and that she sees a viable path toward something that I never thought was possible for me. She’s nine, and she wants to be a writer/illustrator. For Easter, she gave to two fully-formed, hand-written graphic novels – roughly 10-12 pages each – as a gift. She spent months working on them. Before that, I used to think I had stuff that was important to me. Now I have stuff that’s important to me.

 

What is one piece of advice that you would give to writers?

Your ego is your enemy. Don’t let it stop you from sharing your work with anyone who will listen, or from hearing the feedback you get from those people.

And, sorry, I really want to know, is William YOU?

William is definitely a part of me. He’s the part of me that takes things too seriously, who doesn’t need anyone’s help, and forgets to enjoy life. And although I love William, I’m working hard to be less William and a little more Anna.

Here’s the weird thing, though. I never spoke to Eglantine about the character’s appearances, nor did she ever see a picture of me. And yet, William kind of looks like me. More than one person has mentioned it. Go figure.


  Short and Sweet:

 Plotter or Pantser?  A plotter who longs to be a pantser.

       Guilty Food Pleasure? Wheat Thins. Also, anything that isn’t nailed down when I’m trying to                  write after 9PM.

       Favorite Hobby? Writing

       Dog or Cat person? Dog

      Who would you like to have dinner with (living or dead)? Oscar Wilde

       Do you do your best work in the morning, afternoon, or evening? Evening

 

                      Check out Mike’s website, https://www.michaeljarmstrongbooks.com/

        And don't miss this special interview with his daughter: https://youtu.be/DbQgaddAfWk


SIX Self-Editing Tips

By Lisa Amstutz

Finishing a story you’ve worked hard on is something to celebrate! Now it’s ready for submission—right? Not so fast! You’ve missed an important step: the self-edit. Once a few days have passed and you can look at your manuscript clearly, take time to revise before sending it out. You’ll want to do this again and again as you continue to get feedback from critique partners and others.

Below are six steps I always take when editing my own work, along with that of my critique clients and mentees. Hopefully they will help you too!

1.     ASSESS YOUR ARC. Before you worry about tweaking words here and there, look at your story as a whole. Is the story arc compelling? Does it evoke some emotion in the reader? Has your main character made several unsuccessful attempts to solve their problem before succeeding? Does the main character solve their own problem? Is the main character relatable to your intended audience?

 2.    PEP UP YOUR PACING. Once you’ve nailed down the story arc, look at the pacing of the story. Have you rushed through some parts, or spent too much time on others? For a picture book, break down the story into spreads (facing pages). Make sure you don’t have too much or too little text on each spread.

 3.    STUDY YOUR SCENES. Are your scenes complete and visual? Do they have a character, setting, and action or turning point of some kind? If it’s a picture book, can you envision different illustrations for each one? This is important for visual interest.

 4.    POLISH YOUR PROSE. Polish your language and make it really sing. Replace passive verbs (e.g., was walking) with active ones (e.g., walked, strolled, sauntered, etc.). Look for adverbs and adjectives and replace them with stronger nouns and verbs whenever possible. Find and simplify “double tags”—places where you’ve used both a dialogue tag and an action. Only one or the other is needed. Look at ways to make your reader want to turn the page in a picture book, or start the next chapter in a longer book.

 5.    READ IT ALOUD. Reading the text aloud is extremely important for picture books, which are intended to be read aloud, and for rhyme. It can also be helpful for longer books. Listen to yourself: are there any places you stumble? Sentences you could make more lyrical or exciting? It may be helpful to have someone else read your text aloud as well.

  6.  PROOFREAD! Before you send your manuscript out, be sure to proofread it and check the formatting. You want to present yourself as a professional, not as someone who will create extra work for their editor or agent. While an error or two will probably not affect an editor or agent’s decision, a manuscript riddled with spelling and grammatical errors will reflect poorly on you. If you use Word, review your spelling and grammar settings. Not only can the program flag potential spelling errors, but you can also set it to catch things like passive voice and extra spaces between sentences (one space is now standard). If grammar and spelling aren’t your strong suits, or if you are not writing in your first language, ask a friend to review the manuscript too.

Self-editing can only take you so far—at some point, you’ll want to get feedback from critique partners or a professional editor—but it will give you a solid start, and learning these skills will help you at each step along the way.

Happy editing!

 Lisa Amstutz is a freelance editor and the author of 150+ books for kids. For information on her editorial services and mentorships, see www.LisaAmstutz.com.

A WORLD OF YOUR OWN: SIX Tips for Fantasy World Building

 By Gloria Adams


Creating your own world for your story is one of the most enjoyable activities for a writer. At least, that’s what I’ve found. 


While I usually limit this to my adult short story writing, I am currently having a wonderful time building a fantasy world for my middle grade novel. But even when you’re “making stuff up” you need to make sure your world makes sense.

Here are Six Tips for successful world-building that will make that happen:

1.   Write out everything you can about the world you want to build before you begin. This will provide a great base to which you can refer as you write your book. And even though some things may change as you write, and, let’s face it, that’s when the magic happens, your original plan will still provide a resource to help it change logically and accurately.


2.   Be consistent. This is vitally important. Since your world is fantasy, there is no collective reality from which your readers can draw like there is in realistic fiction. If one of your characters can only discern where they are by their sense of smell, make sure you never have him or her (or it) looking at something. Or, if you create a world where certain flowers only grow in the snow, make sure no one is picking them in the summertime.


3.   Make your setting work for you. Your setting can add to the mood of your book, create obstacles that must be overcome, or be the reason for the premise. Does it take place in a dark, damp cave? A scary forest? Somewhere over the rainbow? Is there an insurmountable mountain? Forbidden rooms? Do your characters live in an undersea world that is being threatened by pollution or a world that is about to explode?


4.   Pay attention to the details. What kind of government does your world have? How do people communicate? What about transportation? Do they use money or barter or neither? What do they eat? Where does their food come from? Are people separated economically, socially, physically or not at all? What’s the weather like? What about ethics or morals? Their mythologies or world view? Make sure all these issues get addressed, or at least the ones that you want to include in your story.


5.   Don’t info-dump. While you need to let your readers understand your world, make sure you don’t explain everything in chapter one. or worse yet, a prologue. Determine what is absolutely necessary to get your story going and what can be woven in throughout the next few chapters.


6.   Make it a destination where your reader wants to go. Who doesn’t want to go to school at Hogwarts, ride a dragon in Pern, or open a door in the back of a closet and step into Narnia? Use your setting to keep the reader in your story. What about it will make the reader want to stay there or come back and visit it in your next book?


What kinds of worlds will YOU imagine?

For a great resource, check out Randy Ellefson’s series, The Art of World Building.