Finding the Starting Line with @jenmalonewrites

Let’s play with an analogy today. Let’s equate Kidlit Summer School to running a 10k road race. You’ve signed up, you’re raring to get going. But of course, you won’t just show up on race day—you’ll train to build endurance. Over the upcoming steamy weeks, you’re going to pound pavement (okay, keyboards), learn tricks and tips from the pros for streamlining your techniques, and be cheered on by teammates who’ll help you dig deep for extra motivation when you need it.

And when race day comes, you’ll be cheered on from the sidelines by crowds of supporters. This is gonna be fun!

But wait. Back up just a bit. There’s a step that comes before any sweating begins, and it happens to be my favorite. You get to join the running club, shop for new springy shoes and super cute Lycra running shirts, and pencil in the training times in your calendar. You’re (literally) gearing up, building motivation, and giving yourself tools for success.

In NovelLand, we call this pre-writing… and it’s no less a part of the process than revision or drafting. It’s a time for allowing yourself to get excited and inspired. Your story is nothing but sheer possibility at this point, and you can play with abandon as you become acquainted with your characters and enter the world you’re creating for them.

It’s also a time to go from abstract to concrete, to begin zooming in closer and closer on the race map until, at last, you spot it: the starting line!

Try out any (or all) of these pre-writing activities to keep you energized while you wait for Day 1:

  1. Pinterest boards- create digital bulletin boards that help you get to know your characters (what does she look like, what would he wear, how is her room decorated), or their world (what is the scenery on his planet, how might the castle look or the monsters appear), or even one that simply evokes the mood of the story, to get you into the right frame of mind before a writing session. I’m an Author in Residence at a middle school and here’s an example one my students created when I had them do this assignment (using a similar program called Educlipper): educlipper
  1. Research the time, setting, or subject matter of your story through trips, texts, and personal interviews. I’m co-writing a novel set in the Gilded Age in Newport, RI and my co-author, Kris Asselin, and I spent a day walking the grounds of the mansion we’re using as our backdrop, snapped hundred of photos, and interviewed the caretaker at length. Since returning home, I’ve read a dozen books set in that time period and watched period dramas galore—this is hardly a hardship and I’m picking up the details that will make our descriptions as uber-rich as those high society types were.
  2. Interview your character. it can be a simple five questions or as detailed as an FBI background check, and there are tons of sample sheets online (Google: character worksheets) to get you started. Here’s a fairly basic one I have my students complete:JM image
  1. Make a timeline for your story. For my YA Wanderlost that just released and follows a teen on her own for the first time and charged with leading a senior citizen’s bus tour through Europe, I went to AAA and collected brochures for actual European bus tour itineraries so I could see how much time might be allotted at each location and which routes would be followed. Below is a snippet of the timeline I had open next to me as I wrote my 2017 YA, Changes in Latitudes, which features a girl sailing from Oregon to Mexico. The timeline ended up dictating much of the story, because I needed to know the sailing times and weather conditions between each possible port, so I could figure out where to set pivotal scenes and how to get her into place for those events. The amenities she’d have access to at each port dictated how she’d be dressed and what tasks she’d need to concern herself with at each point in the trip. Had I skipped this step, the revision process would have been intense!TL


  1. Draw a map of the story’s world. Even if what you’re writing is less Game of Thrones and more “takes place on one square block in NYC,” maps are incredibly useful tools and they don’t have to be fancy. This is one of my co-author Gail Nall drew for us to use while drafting the You’re Invited series, which was set on the (fictional) teeny-tiny island of Sandpiper Beach in North Carolina:sandpiper beach
  1. Create a playlist of songs that fit your story. I have a friend who blasts them on her drive home from work to get her in the world of the story, so even if you can’t write to music, it can be a helpful tool in your arsenal. This site has collected a series of authors’ playlists to give you some inspiration.
  2. Write your cover blurb. Last year during Kidlit Summer School I talked about how I always start my stories by writing the jacket flap copy.
  3. Send that blurb to friends and ask them to come up with five “what if’s” for twists and turns your story could take. People tend to underestimate how much of the book writing process relies on outside eyes and opinions to push things forward, and pre-writing is a perfect place to begin embracing that idea. You never know what jumping off points they might offer you!

So, while I’ll be cheering you all along the course (although, of course, writing is never a race. Bad Jen for even invoking this analogy!), I’m more excited to see you at the starting line, full of energy (and carbs) and wearing those cute, springy running shoes.

Have a blast gearing up!

Jen MaloneJen Malone writes fun and flirty YA travel romances with HarperCollins and humorous “girl power” MG adventures with Simon & Schuster. Her 2016 titles include The Sleepover (MG) and Wanderlost (YA).  She once spent a year traveling the world solo, met her husband on the highway (literally), and went into labor with her identical twins while on a rock star’s tour bus. These days she saves the drama for her books. You can learn more about Jen and her books at Find her on Twitter and Instagram @jenmalonewrites.


*Thanks to Jen for this excellent idea-generating post! Today is the last day to pre-register for KLSS and the pre-registration webinar is Wednesday, June 29. Click on this link for more details.


Week 1 Pop Quiz

KLSS 2015 BadgeNow that Week 1 is over, it is time to review what you learned and take a Pop Quiz. We know you’re all going to make scores that will make your teachers proud! So go ahead, take this quiz to see if you learned the basics during the first week of Kidlit Summer School! 


  1. In Monday’s post, Janice Hardy reminded us that every scene needs:

a) Conflict

b) Goals

c) Stakes

d) All of the above

  1. In Tuesday’s post, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen gave us a recipe for Chicken Plot Pie. Her directions include:

a) Use the six main ingredients

b) Find balance

c) Turn up the heat

d) All of the above

  1. On Wednesday, Jen Malone gave us three ideas to help us start at the end. Those are…

a) Brainstorm words

b) Write a one sentence pitch

c) Expand to a writing a full query

d) All of the bove

  1. In her post on Thursday, Kami Kinard shared tips for using calendars as plotting tools. These include

a) Using post-it notes on desk calendars

b) Using colored markers to help visualize plot threads

c) Using symbols or initials to show secondary characters

d) All of the above

  1. On Friday, Tammi Sauer encouraged writers to 

a) Push yourself to try something new.

b) Ask yourself the big two-word question: “What If…?”

c) When you find yourself at a dead end, give yourself a detour.

d) All of the above

  1. On Saturday, Amy Fellner Dominy reminded us that

a) Plot comes from the character.

b) How we act/react creates story.

c) To put our characters in predicaments

d) All of the above

So how’d you do? 100% right? If you’re unsure, go back and check out the posts from Week One! This is an open blog test! (And you don’t even have to turn it in. Grade yourself and then pat yourself on the back!)

Jen Malone: Let’s Start at the Very… End? Plotting Using Queries as Touchpoints and GIVEAWAY

Most authors classify themselves as plotters or pantsers, but I don’t consider myself either. I call myself a “pitcher”.  The very first thing that I do when I have a book idea is to… write the jacket copy. I know, I know. That’s supposed to come last, but go with me here.

Writing the jacket copy (or the query, which is essentially the same thing) shows me the real essence of the story: who the main character is and what makes her or him unique, what the conflict is, and what the stakes are. It sharpens my focus and gives me a reference point as I build the plot. If I can keep these touchpoints in place as I brainstorm or draft, I know I’m going to end up with the story I wanted to tell. It also helps me set the tone for the story—is it going to be fun and light (for me, yes, almost always!), creepy, dramatic, heartfelt? These are all decisions that crystalize while writing the jacket copy/query.

I happen to be one of those rare unicorns who likes to write queries, but if you hate them with the fire of a thousand suns, you can also short-cut this method by creating a word cloud.

map to the starsActivity One

Brainstorm words that relate to your story. These can be literal (location, hobbies of main characters), tonal  (romantic, sweeping, dark) or thematic (trust, assertiveness, self-awareness). Next, paste these words into Wordle to create a word cloud. Here’s one I created for my summer release, a Hollywood romance YA called Map to the Stars:

jen malone1

Pro hint: If you want certain words to show up larger than others, include them multiple times.  In the case of this story, both MCs need to learn to become their authentic selves in a Hollywood environment that doesn’t always honor that—I wanted that word front and center in my mind to influence all my plot decisions.

Tape this up in your writing space to reference as you draft or plot. Are you sticking with your key elements?

Activity Two

Write a one-sentence pitch for your story. It all boils down to this: what is the central concept that will hook your reader?

youre invitedHere’s an example from You’re Invited, a MG series I co-write with the lovely Gail Nall:

A Babysitter’s Club for the next generation, You’re Invited follows four tween friends as they start a party planning “company” out of their abandoned-sailboat clubhouse… only none of the parties go to plan.

Check back in as you plot: Is that concept staying front and center in your story?

Activity Three

Expand to the full query. For example’s sake, below I’ve posted the “fake cover copy” I wrote before starting The Sleepover, a middle grade standalone I have coming out next summer. Using this copy as a touchpoint while I wrote allowed me to stay focused and on target enough so that, when my editor sent me the final cover copy this week, I had to laugh at how much of that original, before-I-wrote-one-word-of-this-story concept stuck in place throughout the entire process.

Original Pitch for The Sleepover:

In this (PG-rated) tween version of The Hangover, Meghan, Paige, and Anna Marie are super excited for the Best. Night. Ever. The sleepover they’re planning can be nothing short of EPIC. There will be junk food, there will be crazy-scary horror movies, and there will be karaoke smack-downs. Not even the last minute addition of Anna-Marie’s socially awkward, soon-to-be-stepsister Veronica can dampen their spirits.

But nothing prepares them for the scene that greets them when they awaken the next morning: the basement is a disaster, Paige’s left eyebrow has been shaved off, Meghan’s “pillow” is the prized-possession skateboard of the class rebel who lives next door, and- heavenly heckweasels!- what is the deal with the slew of baby chicks in the bathtub!?

Worst of all, Anna-Marie is missing. As in completely and totally gone-zo. Now the remaining girls have to piece together what exactly happened the night before, in the hopes it will lead them to their missing friend before the parents arrive for pick-ups. If she’s not waiting safe and sound when that doorbell rings, heads will roll and their social life as they know it will cease to exist. Trouble is, none of them can remember anything of the prior evening past that hypnotism trick performed by the two-bit magician Veronica arranged in an effort to impress the other girls.

The clock is ticking, the clues are weird and weirder, and one thing is certain: last night got a lot wilder than karaoke and make-your-own-sundaes…

Final Cover Copy for The Sleepover

Twelve-year-old Meghan and her friends Paige and Anna Marie are ready to have The. Best. Night. Ever. There will be junk food, crazy-scary horror movies, and karaoke smack-downs! Not even the last-minute addition of Anna Marie’s awkward, soon-to-be stepsister Veronica can dampen the girls’ spirits.

But nothing prepares them for the scene that greets them the next morning. The basement is a disaster, Meghan’s left eyebrow has been shaved off and she has the Class Bad Boy’s hoodie, plus there’s a slew of baby chicks in the bathtub! Worst of all, Anna Marie is missing.

Now the remaining girls have to piece together what happened the night before. There’s just one tiny problem: they can’t remember anything past the two-bit act by the hypnotist Veronica hired as the party’s entertainer.

Can they find Anna Marie and pull off the ultimate save-face . . . all before parent pick-up time?

Check back in as you plot. Obviously you can veer off course as needed, but is the main character “want” and why he/she can’t have it staying in place?

at your serviceHomework

For more variations of beginning your process with logline or story pitches, check out these plotting resources: (writing one sentence pitches is discussed)

Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder (Blake’s early screenwriting process is discussed, included pitching his story concepts to strangers in coffee shops to figure out which pieces they are and are not responding to before putting pen to paper.)

Jen MaloneJen Malone writes books for tweens and teens, including this summer’s releases: book one of a new middle grade series, You’re Invited, with Simon & Schuster, and the young adult Map to the Stars with HarperCollins. She’s a former Hollywood marketing executive who once spent a year traveling the world solo, met her husband on the highway (literally), and went into labor with her identical twins while on a rock star’s tour bus. These days she saves the drama for her books. You can learn more about Jen and her titles at Jen also puts her marketing background to work developing marketing plans for traditionally-published kidlit authors at

Jen is giving away to FIVE lucky winners their choice of the following: a query critique (for a finished or a not-yet-begun story!) or a twenty-minute book marketing consultation. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win one of these prizes, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Jen’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

If you haven’t registered for #KidlitSummerSchool yet click HERE.