Debut Author Interview: Chris Negron and Dan Unmasked Giveaway

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Happy Monday Everyone! Today I’m excited to have debut author Chris Negron here to share about his MG contemporary Dan Unmasked. It’s gotten great reviews and sounds so interesting with a focus on friendship, superheroes and baseball. I’m not a fan of baseball but I’m looking forward to reading this one.

Here’s a blurb from Goodreads

A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection and an ABA 2020 Summer / Fall Indies Introduce pick.

Whether they’re on the baseball field or in Nate’s basement, devouring the newest issue of their favorite comic book, Dan and Nate are always talking. Until they’re not.

After an accident at baseball practice—an accident that Dan is certain he caused—Nate’s stuck in a coma. Usually, Dan can rely on his and Nate’s superpower—the secret language that only they know, a language of raised eyebrows and subtle nose taps.

Now, if Dan ever wants to see Nate tap his nose again, he’s got to figure out a way to wake him up. But for all the time he’s spent reading about the adventures of Captain Nexus, Dan knows he’s no superhero. Heroes have powers—and without Nate, all Dan has is a closet stuffed with comics and a best-friend shaped hole in his heart. There’s no way a regular kid can save the day all on his own. Right?

Hi Chris! Thanks so much for joining us.

1. Tell us about yourself and how you became a writer.

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was probably about Dan Summers’s age in Dan Unmasked – thirteen years old. In fact, I can even remember playing basketball in a friend’s driveway after a Dungeon & Dragons session, and stating unequivocally that I was going to turn our adventures into a book one day. At the time I was obsessed with fantasy – it was as much what I was reading as what I was doing hobby-wise with those marathon D&D sessions. I think that driveway declaration was me giving myself permission to have this long-term dream to become a writer.

Ah, but long term was indeed what it turned out to be. From that day until now, I traveled a winding path that included studying Computer Science at Yale University, followed by entering the business world as an Information Technology (IT) consultant. In fact, IT is still my day job. Eventually, though, I stepped back into the version of me from that driveway. The one with the dream to become a writer as well.

It wasn’t until I started writing certain short stories that I realized I had a natural voice for the middle grade genre. After that, I started seeing how so much of the media I enjoyed could be considered “middle grade” too. I get really excited by stories like Super Eight or E.T., where bands of kids team up to solve a problem. Dan Unmasked was my first manuscript for kids, though it too traveled a long, twisting road to become the book it is today.

2. Glad you were able to follow that dream you had as a child. Where did you get the idea for Dan Unmasked?

That same year when I was thirteen was a very special one in my memory - 1984. When I look back on it, it seems like so many of my favorite things come from then, whether they be music or movies or – maybe especially so – comics. That year was also when the San Diego Padres – always and forever my favorite baseball team – made their first World Series appearance.

With all those favorites coming from that one year, it struck me that to be thirteen was – at least for me – to be at an age where you’re open to all sorts of good stuff, new stuff that seems to have been made just for you and becomes your immediate and lifelong favorite. On the flip side, though, I think that age can also be a time for a particularly strong vulnerability to the bad stuff, too.

I had a friend who was injured at a baseball practice, and I remember having a desperate urge to fix it, even though I wasn’t involved in the incident. Still, I remembered that emotion really well. And of course when I started working on Dan Unmasked, one of the things you do as a writer is ask yourself a ton of those “What If?” questions that lead to transforming something personal into something that perhaps takes on a more story-sized shape.

What if my friend’s injury had been more severe? What if I had thought the accident that caused it was somehow my fault? How much more desperate would I have been to find a way to fix what I thought I had broken?

So that’s the story I gave to Dan Summers, and it’s a big part of the inspiration for Dan Unmasked. I think I wanted to write a book for kids that spoke to the healing power of friendships – both old ones and new ones, to depending on teams, to being careful about blaming yourself too hard when accidents happen, and the rest of the story arose from merging Dan’s emotions about his best friend’s accident with those underlying themes. I hope, in the end, that the book delivers a tale that is equal parts action-packed and heartfelt, and most importantly, that it finds readers who connect with it the way I do with my own memories and emotions.

3. I’ve read that you do a good job of making Dan’s hobbies—superheroes and baseball—an integral part of the plot rather than just sides hobbies of your main character. Share a bit about your plotting process.

I’ve learned a lot about plotting since I moved into the middle grade genre. Probably the most
important tool that I employ now more than I did before is to start first with the main character of my books, understand what he or she loves or doesn’t love so much, and what their goals are. Then of course you have that inciting incident that may or may not connect directly to that character. It’s actually okay if it doesn’t, but probably best if it does, because it sort of becomes their origin story if you build it right.

After that, as the character is launched into the story by that first incident and we learn more about who they are and what they want, I really work hard to connect the rest of the plot points directly to the main character. Unlike the inciting incident, which as I said can be an either-or, the remaining plot points, in my opinion anyway, must come directly from the character’s internal goals. The interiority, in other words, drives the external events, and vice versa.

What I find is, when I follow that approach, there’s almost always this sort of magical moment when you’re stuck, and thinking about who the character is and what they would do solves whatever plot problem you’re facing in this really astonishing way. After that, things start snapping into place and feeling very connected, and that’s what you want in a cohesive plot that doesn’t have holes. The events have this sort of inevitability and yet are still surprising. I think that’s when I know I have something that could be special – when it seems like nothing else could’ve happened but the reader is still shocked or thrilled by it when it does.

For me, I absolutely need to understand the underpinnings of a story before I start writing it. That includes what I’m writing about – call it theme if you want, but it’s really the question of the book in my mind, and I also need to know the ending I’m writing towards, as well as all those plot points that progress the story in that direction I mentioned earlier.

It doesn’t mean they can’t change as I’m drafting, and sometimes things do change significantly enough that I have to stop and go back into planning (more like re-planning) mode. I also wholeheartedly agree with the “writing is re-writing” concept. I can’t tell you how many revisions my books tend to go through.

However, while it’s true I’m not big on the dreaded word “outline” that gives so many other writers the shivers, I’m also not a big proponent of the “pantsing” method I see so many writers attacking book-length works with. I’m really an advocate of having as much of a plan as possible (I like to call them “blueprints”) – even if it has to change later. My opinion is that it’s critical to understand those underpinnings of your project before starting to put actual words on the page.

4. Dan sounds like a compelling character that will pull at readers’ hearts. I think that’s harder to capture when a boy is the story’s main character. Did you struggle with his character development at all or did he come to you fairly well developed?
Because I was one myself and I’m therefore able to be very authentic about it, writing a boy character of a certain age – notably middle school – comes really naturally to me. I think it’s where I finally found my voice, so I didn’t struggle much with Dan’s voice, character, or inner feelings at all. Quite the opposite, actually, this novel flowed very easily for me from a voice perspective, though I did have a lot of work in revisions for sure to get the plot points just right.

On a more technical level, I think any character can be “easy” (or, easier, anyway) to write if you understand what they’re obsessed with – that’s where the comics and baseball aspects really helped with Dan, for example. I knew who he was because I knew what he loved, and they were things I also love. Also characters become much easier as well if their goals are clear. If either of those elements are muddled at all in the writer’s brain, problems in both voice and plot can quickly arise.

From the “writing boys” perspective, and in particular a book that at times is a “sports” book, I’m really proud that people I trust – my editor and agent among them – have said that the heartfelt aspects of this book pulled them in and, for example, made them care about what happens in Dan’s tournament even though they aren’t necessarily baseball or sports people at all. I remember when my agent signed me, she said one of the things she loved about the book was that it was “sporty but emotional.” A fellow 2020 debut author even described Dan Unmasked as “the opposite of toxic masculinity in every way”, feedback I’m really proud of.

5. Those are great tips on plotting. I read that you also write short stories and had 10 published in 2015. Has writing short stories helped you in writing a longer middle grade story? How?

It all started when one of my critique partners – the wonderful Emily Carpenter, a gothic suspense novelist everyone should definitely check out – and I sort of challenged each other back then to writing a bunch of flash fiction, kind of an accountability thing.

Working on lots of stories that typically had to begin and end in less than a thousand words helped my writing a tremendous amount. It taught my normally long-winded self how to be more succinct and to the point, and it really gave me a lot of prose-level lessons in trimming and cutting, because you have to be sort of ruthless about that sometimes to meet the word count requirements of the flash fiction publications we were submitting to.

Not to mention one of those ten 2015 stories was about a group of young baseball players reminiscing about their friendship in the outfield during a practice, and when she read that one, Emily told me I had a voice for characters that age – particularly boys – and that was the seed I needed to start working on the middle grade novel that eventually became Dan Unmasked. So I guess you could say we’re here today talking about this book because of those short stories, and that one in particular.

6. Your agent is Alyssa Jennette. Share how she became your agent and what your road to publication was like.

Yes, and she’s fantastic! Alyssa really pushed me during the query process. I think she had me do three revise-and-resubmits before signing me as a client. That extra work she encouraged me to do on the story really brought this book home, and Dan Unmasked definitely wouldn’t exist without her guidance.

When we started to submit to publishers, I discovered an equally valuable side to Alyssa – a relentless tenacity. Long past the time when I might’ve gotten discouraged and started looking toward smaller publishers, Alyssa continued to be confident my book would find a match with some editor at the Big Five, and it ended up she was right. It didn’t happen immediately, though, and neither did my signing with an agent. I went through tons of rejections in both processes first.

For writers on the submission trail now, I would just advise you to really establish the proper distance with your work to be able to be receptive to the feedback you receive in these “almost” encounters with agents and editors, because you will have them, and what you do with the information hidden away in each of those responses goes a long way in determining if you will eventually find a match, in my opinion.

I can honestly say that I used a ton of the recommendations from agents and editors who ultimately said “No” to make this book what it became. I really think that’s a crucial part of the process.

7. I saw on your website that you have partnered with FoxTale Book Shoppe for an online virtual party. Tell us a little bit about what you have planned for it and how you set it up.

Sure, yes, Atlanta has so many fantastic local bookstores. FoxTale is one I’ve been visiting for years now, especially for various events they’ve held with other local author friends. Originally, I had planned on having an event at an arts center in my specific town, and Gary Parkes at FoxTale – a sweetheart of a guy – had agreed to come and man the door with books for sale on site. However, as COVID-19 advanced and it became clear that in-person events were going to be impossible, we switched to an online, virtual format. Of course I stuck with FoxTale as we already had arrangements and also because they’ve been doing a fantastic job with their virtual events throughout the quarantine period.

My sister Lisa McClendon is a fifth-grade teacher in Naples, Florida, and, along with Gary, she’s going to moderate/interview! The plan so far is for her to ask me a couple of questions straight out of the Common Core-aligned Curriculum Guide we have for Dan Unmasked (more details on that below) and then we’ll do some giveaways.

The tiny quizzes to win the giveaways will be comic- and baseball-related, so readers should arrive to the launch wearing those particular thinking caps. After the giveaways, I hope we’ll have plenty of time for a Q&A session, also.

8. That's a great idea to be interviewed at a virtual party celebrating your book release. How else are you planning to promote your book in light of COVID-19?

First and foremost, I’m doing a lot of virtual events beyond the book launch. I have a workshop for kids I’ve developed, the “Build-A-Superhero” workshop, which is a fun way to engage young people in filling out a questionnaire on creating their own superhero, while also sneakily teaching them a little about how to create characters in novels, too. At the end of each of these workshops, it’s always my hope kids will understand a little better how important especially the main character is, and how much the character you end up creating serves as a driving force for the kinds of stories you tell about them. Even before Dan Unmasked was released, I had already given this workshop at a number of schools and during a public event hosted by my local library. I’m planning to do more of these virtual events in the coming months.

I’ll be appearing at the first ever MiddleGround Book Fest on August 1st as well, talking villains on a panel stacked with other great middle grade authors at 4 pm EST.

I’ve worked with an expert in the field to have a Common Core-aligned Curriculum Guide developed for Dan Unmasked. Just like the other details for my workshops and school visits, it will be available on my website. The guide has a series of penetrating post-read questions that teachers can use to align a reading of Dan Unmasked with the CCSS ELA Literarcy guidelines for grades as low as third and as high as seventh, though fourth through sixth is probably the sweet spot for this particular book. The guide also has lots of fun activities that reference the book’s content as well.

Finally I have some folded cards that have pre-defined panels on the inside that can be used to draw your own comic. I send these cards out to groups whenever I can, for example to schools who tell me they’ll be reading the book. I even have some super powered sticker packs (POW! and ZAP!) I include when I mail these cards, to give the students a chance to add a little zing to their comics.

So while there have certainly been many challenges to everything being virtual, the lack of in-person school visits and bookstore events, most or all of the book festivals being canceled or very limited, I’ve still been having a lot of fun putting together these sort of “care packages” to connect Dan Unmasked with kids and other readers from afar.

9. What are you working on now?

My second book, tentatively scheduled for July 2021, is The Last Super Chef. It’s in copy edits now, so we’re nearly to the finish line! It’s about an eleven-year-old named Curtis who’s not only a mega fan of the most popular cooking show on TV, “The Super Chef”, but is quite an accomplished junior chef himself. He also has a secret: the Super Chef is his long-absent father. When an opportunity opens for kids to compete in the last televised contest the Super Chef will ever host, Curtis decides he must make the list. But when he gets to New York, Curtis learns the Super Chef has some secrets of his own. He also finds even stiffer competition to win than he expected. He’ll have to cook his heart out if he wants to go home with the big cash prize – and maybe even more importantly, the truth.

Thanks for sharing all your advice, Chris. You can find Chris at:

Giveaway Details

Chris has generously offered a hardback of Dan Unmasked for a giveaway. To enter, all you need to do is be a follower of my blog and leave a comment by August 22nd. If your e-mail is not on your Google Profile, you must leave it in the comments to enter the contest. Please be sure I have your email address.

If you mention this contest on Twitter, Facebook, or your blog and/or follow me on Twitter, mention this in the comments and I'll give you an extra entry for each. You must be 13 years old or older to enter. This giveaway is U.S.

 Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is hosted by Greg Pattridge. You can find the participating blogs on his blog.

Upcoming Interviews and Giveaways

Here's what's coming up:

Monday, August 17th I have an interview with debut author KayLynn Flanders and a giveaway of her YA fantasy Shielded

Monday,  August 24th I have an agent spotlight interview with Veronica Park and a query critique giveaway

Tuesday, September 1st I'm participating in the September to Remember Giveaway Hop

Wednesday, September 2nd I have an interview with debut author Andrea Contos and a giveaway of her YA thriller Throwaway Girls

Monday, September 7th I have an agent spotlight interview with Carlisle Weber and a query critique giveaway

Monday, September 14th I have an interview with debut author Rebecca Coffindaffer and a giveaway of her YA space opera Crownchasers

Wednesday, September 16th I have an agent spotlight interview with Erin Casey and a query critique giveaway

Hope to see you on Monday!

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