I have a double payoff today: A review of FROM THE GRAVE and a visit from the author, Cynthia Reeg.
Welcome to ALWAYS in the MIDDLE, Cynthia. I loved reading about the crazy creatures and many oddities in Uggarland.
Thanks for inviting me. I’m so glad you enjoyed visiting my wacky monster world. That’s the writer’s challenge—to create a place so mesmerizing that it sucks the reader in no matter how goofy it is.
How did you go about putting this all together? Did the world building, character creation, and story happen all at once or did you develop them separately?
First came the idea for a fairly simple chapter book, featuring misfit monster characters with silly unmonsterly quirks. These monsters would endure bullying and segregation and eventually prove they could monster in their own way. I wanted to approach the issue of bullying and prejudice from a different, unexpected perspective, so that students could explore the issue in a whole new light—but experience an enjoyable read as well.
However, a simple story and MY characters never seem to mesh for long. When my characters show up, they start taking over the story. Before long, their back stories and personal connections led to numerous subplots and intrigue and stuff too scary and intense for most younger elementary readers.
So I mapped out a longer book with a fairly simple outline (I HATE outlines but I hate getting stuck worse!) and I started writing.
I do some character analysis before I begin a story, but I truly only get to know my characters as I write them. When their voices and gestures start leaking from my brain onto the page, then the story takes off.
As for world building, again I think through a number of things before I start writing such as—the vegetation, the social structure, the community, the educational system, jobs, transportation—including witches’ brooms, of course. I did research on monsters, myths, and looked at lots of illustrations. Principal Snaggle became this saber-toothed creature after I saw a picture in a how-to-draw-a-monster book. I just knew this monster would make the perfect evil principal—not that I’ve ever met any evil principals, of course.
I think the key for any writer is to Be open. Be creative. Be unafraid. It’s very hard for me to explain exactly how my world building works. I guess I’m more of a panster than I thought. Although I’m much more unorganized than a well-trained librarian who used to file upteen millonions of catalog cards should be, I do try to keep track of the details of my characters and setting in a notebook.
If you and your readers would like to see an example of how I let my mind wander to go about creating parts of a fictional world, visit my blog post: WORLD BUILDING: Inside an Author’s Mind (A Morning at the Dentist’s Office)
So it must be apparent by now that I do a bit of character building here, then some plotting there, along with a lots of impromptu setting creation. I dump them all in a big black pot and start stirring, and tasting, and adding more of each as needed—and toadstool gills and red newt eyes for color and texture, repeating over and over again: “Double, double, toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble…”
But most of all—I have FUN! If I the writer am having fun, it will come through in my words and kids will enjoy my story. At the end of the day, it’s all about the kids!
I never expected a heartfelt story about monsters, but you pulled it off. What are your favorite themes from the novel?
Thanks again for the complementary words. As a writer (and maybe a regular person) I have trouble keeping my nose out of others’ lives. Like Malcolm has great hearing with his pointy ears, I’m pretty sensitive to other people’s emotional vibes. Creating approachable, vulnerable monsters was both a challenge and a passion for me. I wanted my readers to care about my characters as much as I do.
As for favorite themes in the book, I love the theme of believing in yourself. That’s always been rather hard for me. Even Granny Bubbie’s magic wouldn’t be enough for Frank if he wasn’t strong enough himself. Every writer needs to possess a strong dose of self-assuredness to carry her through.
The theme of friendship and family is also important to me. I’ve been lucky to have wonderfully supportive family and friends—a bonus for any writer. Friends and family are very important in the lives of middle grade readers as well.
But certainly the most important theme in FROM THE GRAVE is ending hatred and exclusion because of differences. To highlight this, I created a world of monsters where conformity and rule-following is extremely important. I wanted to show the absurdity of making mandates based on preferences and obscure reasoning. Each chapter in the story begins with a rule.
Some are nonsensical:
Monster Rule #33: Mayhem is appropriate only when those in authority determine it to be so.
Monster Rule #5: A monster is judged by his actions, so act up!
Some are simple:
Monster Rule #1: Follow the rules, or else!
Some are funny:
Monster Rule #55: Expect the unexpected and then eat it for lunch.
Some are alarming:
Monster Rule #71: Torture is often a necessary component of monster education.
All of them are rather extreme:
Monster Rule #13: Monster or die!
Of course, we need guidelines to create a safe and livable environment. What I wanted to present was a society that had established too many unnecessary rules and regulations on how its inhabitants should look and act. The punishment for violating these monster rules is termination. In this fantasy society, rather than looking for the talents and potential in an unconventional monster, the creature is automatically excluded—unless it can somehow conform.
As might be expected, monsters shy away from change (Monster Rule #913: A well-educated monster knows not to ask any questions.) But I’m hoping FROM THE GRAVE will provide not only an entertaining middle grade read but also serve as a catalyst for discussion on discrimination and intolerance in our own society.
FROM THE GRAVE releases tomorrow (October 18, 2016) What was the hardest part about bringing the story to this exciting time of publication?
See theme #1: Believing in yourself. Believing that the story had merit and would appeal to middle grade readers. Revising and revising and more revising to make it even better. Searching for the right editor who adored monsters and humor. Hooray for TJ da Roza at Jolly Fish Press! He’s the real magician who unleashed my monsters on the world.
I see this is MONSTER OR DIE Book 1. Any hints as to when we can read the second book in the series?
Book Two will be here for October of 2017 with more mayhem and mystery and a few new monsters as well!
Any words of advice for writers to better their craft?
Attend as many writing classes, retreats, workshops, conferences as you can. Many great online classes are available if you don’t live close enough to attend them in person. Anastasia Suen’s classes are awesome. As are those taught by Darcy Pattison.
Join SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) so you can learn more about the world of writing for children and network with so many wonderful people. There you’ll find encouragement, support, camaraderie, and professional development.
Read, read, read and then read some more. Read for enjoyment. Read to study the craft. Read to keep current. READ!!!
Write, write, write and then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Learn to LOVE revision. It’s the key to success.
For FROM THE GRAVE, I made a random vocabulary list of spooky, creepy, scary words. This helped jumpstart my brain. Don’t be afraid to play with words—create new ones, pair together unexpected words, choose the write words to build your world. That’s the only way I know how to truly make magic—one word at a time!
Thanks you so much for taking the time during your busy launch week!
FULL PLOT (From Cynthia Reeg’s Website) Monster is as monster does, but Frankenstein Frightface Gordon is totally the wrong shade of ghastly green—pale, baby blue, in fact—and he’s more concerned with keeping his pants neat and tidy than scaring the pants off his victims. But when a new law is passed to rid Uggarland of misfits such as Frank, he must decide if he will become the monster his parents can be proud of or be the monster he can be proud of. Trusting the most monsterly monster he knows, Frank looks to the grave and his dead grandmother to make his choice, entering into an adventure that most likely will seal his doom.
Or prove he is truly monster enough.
PUBLICATION DATE: 2016 PAGE COUNT: 280 pages
MY TAKE: FROM THE GRAVE is a unique tale of misfit monsters and the decisions they make based on their past and present. The writing is crisp as the POV shifts from Frank, a blue Frankenstein neat freak, and Malcom, a bully type troll. Their backgrounds clash to a fitting conclusion with one major plot point dangling for Book 2.
It’s fitting this comes out before Halloween, but read it any time of the year. You’ll be turning the pages hoping the best for this odd group of monsters in a world of misunderstanding.
FIVE THINGS TO LIKE ABOUT: FROM THE GRAVE by Cynthia Reeg
- Kids who have ever felt hatred from those who fear differences will enjoy seeing it explored in this unique way.
- Oliver is a mummy who is always unraveling. He prefers the freedom without wrappings. I hope Oliver’s character continues to grow in future stories.
- The language of the monsters is marvelously creative and fun. New names for days of the week (MoanDay for Monday is quite fitting) as are new curses the characters use to describe their dilemma (Snotfargle and Ratzbotchin).
- You feel compassion for the main trio of misfits along with Malcolm, the mean antagonist. Good stories like this one make you feel attached to the characters even if they are monsters.
- The cover is a colorful hint at what is ahead. Bravo to the artist.
I scooted in my now squishy shoes, past several more rows jammed with abnormal students of all ages. Our Odd Monsters Only class was a mishmash of grade levels. Age didn’t matter – only oddness. With a huff, I plopped down beside my best friend, Oliver.
“Here,” he said, handing me a large pile of mummy wrappings heaped at his side. “Use these to dry off. At least they’re good for that.”
Make a comment below if you have time. I enjoy reading all of them.
Check the links to other Middle Grade novels over at Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.