PitchWars 2018 Wish List: Middle Grade

Hi, I’m Margaret Dilloway! I write both contemporary realistic and fantasy middle grade; I’m also the author of three women’s fiction. I’m an Aquarius, born in the year of the Tiger, on a Wednesday. For fun, I like to do long-form improv, hike, play with my dog, and bake.

What Am I Open To?

  • Contemporary realistic
  • Contemporary fantasy
  • High fantasy
  • Historical

Possibly also magical realism– it just depends on the work.

What Am I Not?

Novels in verse are not my thing, editing-wise.


Heart: I need it. Break that heart and put it back together.

Voice: Please sound like a middle grader and not like an adult putting words into a middle grader’s mouth.

No, “It was then I realized that skateboarding was indeed the most dangerous of all sports, and I wisely took my mother’s advice and tossed that cursed board into the fireplace.”

Style: I want to see the kind of book that people will enjoy reading even if they don’t typically read middle grade. I want to read the type of fantasy that anti-fantasy people will be helpless to resist.

That might seem kind of vague, but I think this basically means it has well-drawn relationships, a compelling story (inner journey of the hero/plot events), some humor, and beautiful writing.

Me when I read your fabulous book (headgear included):

High-Concept: Something compelling and timely, that feels like it URGENTLY needs to be told. It is probably not going to be a book about someone buying lettuce at the grocery store, no matter how lyrical.

Humor: Did I say that already? I’ll say it again. Humor gets me through the darkest times, so I love to see some sprinklings of it even if the subject matter’s dark.

A few other tidbits:

*Would love to see narratives concerning kids from diverse socio-economic classes

*#OwnStories WELCOMED.

*Writing with a message (aka conscious messaging) is welcomed but must be seamlessly integrated into the story (i.e. not heavy-handed). 

What Can I Do for You?

The sum of my background, which is also my entire résumé and will be on my gravestone and which I should probably add to my business cards:

I taught a creative writing elective to middle schoolers who did not want to be in creative writing, and every single one of them actually became invested in the class and wrote.

After that, mentoring a full grown human who WANTS to write is…easy.  I mean, it’s not as easy as, say, doing your taxes, but it’s comparatively easy. I’ve done it for acquaintances who then went on to be published. I’m in critique groups with published authors, and I’ve also taught novel writing to adults.

I’m not solely concerned with craft. Writing’s an art, but publishing’s a business. You not only have to create a beautifully written book, but also one that the industry thinks people will buy. I am not perfect at this, but I have sold eight books. (Nine, if you count the Dummies book I wrote like 17 years ago that sold and got canceled.) I’ve worked with ten + different editors and agents. I’ve benefited from their wisdom and learned not only what makes a novel good, writing-wise, but what may make the marketing people kind of happy.

(but what if it doesn’t work out?)

I know this post is to kind of sell myself, but I want to answer this question, because I’m also a realistic person.

What if we do all this work and you don’t get an agent? Are your publishing dreams finished forever?

No. Listen, getting an agent doesn’t mean you’ll be automatically be published. Every agent has had a project that didn’t sell.

And getting a book deal doesn’t mean you’ll be rich and famous.

This whole creative life thing…it can be a slog. But it’s never over unless you want it to be.

If we don’t get you representation, we’ll figure out why not and try again. I’ll work my editorial and agent and writer contacts and brainstorm a solution. I shall not abandon ye.


    1. How to Be an American Housewife (John Gardner Fiction Award Finalist, IndieNext; Putnam)
    2. The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns (ALA Literary Taste Award for Best Women’s Fiction, Pulpwood Queens Bonus Book of the Year, IndieNext; Putnam)
    3. Sisters of Heart and Snow (Putnam)
    4. Tale of the Warrior Geisha (e-novella; Putnam)
    5. Momotaro: Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters (Asian/Pacific American Librarians Honor Award for Middle Grade Fiction; sold rights to Fox Animation; Disney-Hyperion)
    6. Xander and the Dream Thief (Disney-Hyperion)
    7. Summer of a Thousand Pies (Balzer + Bray)
    8. (In progress untitled book for Balzer + Bray)























Powered by… Mister Linky’s Magical Widgets.



This book is the most personal I’ve ever written, because it’s based not only on me, but my daughter. And improv! It doesn’t focus on the bits but on the emotional impact of the scenes and being on a supportive team.

In the cover copy I wrote that Ava has a “Technicolor inside but a black and white outside” and that’s what the artist was inspired by.

The art director is David DeWitt, and the cover artist is Yaoyao Ma Van As who was my first choice.

48 Hour Film Project

My amazing improv team, Big Shoes, formed a 48 hour film festival team this year. Two of our members, Mark and Randy, had done the fest in northern CA and Tijuana, respectively. Austin’s brother Mason flew in from Austin (ha ha) with his camera equipment and extensive knowledge (he also composed music!). And the team members with time all wanted to help.

On a Friday evening, a team member pulls two categories. We got Mystery or Road Trip. We picked Road Trip. We spent Friday evening planning out the movie and “writing” it (i.e. plotting out the story/tone/characters etc, but not writing dialogue because that’s kind of hard to memorize so quickly and hey– IMPROVISERS!). Saturday was spent filming at Stacey’s house and then editing into the night. Sunday was more editing.

On Wednesday the 29th of May we had the premiere. They split the films into groups. It was so cool to be there when the audience saw it for the first time and LAUGHED where they were supposed to– then grow quiet at the emotional turn (sniff).

And then– the film won the Audience Choice Award for our group!

Diane, Mark, and Tristan did such a lovely job acting in this.

Austin, Tristan, me, Stacey, Mark, Paul, and Randy, missing Diane, who was out of town; and Mason, who lives out of town.

Minding Your Own Business

Dear People of the World: MYOB.
I just saw this article about how these parents who live in a beach condo received an anonymous note criticizing their choice to live there with 2 kids. As if billions of other people in the world don’t live in far worse conditions. As if there’s NOTHING to do so close to the beach. As if kids can’t share a room. I don’t need to list the reasons this note-writer is wrong (OK, I did a little bit!); anyone with a modicum of sense can tear apart this feeble argument. How sad is someone’s life that they have nothing better to do with their time?
I wanted to post this because it reminded me of a recent chat I had with my kids about not worrying over what other people think about you. Because sometimes worrying over others’ reactions or perceptions can lead to shame, or social avoidance. What if I get judged? What if I say the wrong thing? As a writer, I run into negative judgement on a daily basis, almost. I get emails. I get comments from people to my face. 
I see a lot of viral posts about people feeling shamed because someone made a comment in the grocery store/side-eyed their partner/said their Goldendoodle wasn’t a real breed. It is true that people should keep their mouths shut, but it is also true that we will never be able to control what other people think or say.
The truth is, 99% of the time, what other people say or think about you has everything to do with them, and nothing to do with you or your actions. Someone is always going to have something negative to say about you, no matter how much you do right. It is far easier for someone to post a negative comment or make a lazy remark than to be constructive. 
When people are jerks, you have a choice.You  can let them get into your head and think about it dozens of more times, reliving it relentlessly. That doesn’t seem like a good deal for you!
If you care, you can engage and try to state your side, but most of the time it’s not worth it for a brief interaction with a stranger.
So you can shrug, think, “Sheesh, wonder what’s happened to that sap that he turned into such a bitter figure?” and mind your own business— continuing on with your fabulous life. Mentally tear up the note– or in the case of these folks, physically tear it up– and throw it in the trash.

Teaching Kids How to Meditate in 4 Easy Steps

Image from New York Nursery and Child’s Annual Hospital Report, 1910


I’ve seen this article shared a bunch of times on Facebook about how using meditation has improved behavior at a school.  I’ve actually used a similar technique in the classroom and I can attest to how well it works. I learned about this meditation technique from a hypnotherapist that was recommended by my pediatrician to help with anxiety. This method takes it a step further by teaching the kids how to immediately return to that calm state of mind no matter where they are—even if they’re about to take a test, for example.

Last year, I taught creative writing to kids who did not necessarily choose creative writing as an elective, and therefore were very resistant to it.  Basically, if they didn’t choose an elective or their parents and didn’t submit the form, they were put into my class. Thus, I had some kids who were defiant or who simply could not stop talking, especially the seventh grade group who came in amped up right after lunch.

Teaching creative writing is difficult enough with kids who want to do it, but more so with kids who don’t. I needed a way to calm them down and hopefully teach them something they could continue using.

  • Tell the kids to shut their eyes and visualize a safe, calm space. The kids do this in their own heads and keep it to themselves. You could tell them, “It could be anywhere– outer space, a beach, your bedroom– wherever you like.” Tell them to picture the scene’s details fully—what are they hearing? Smelling? Who’s with them, or are they alone? And so on.
  • After a few minutes, tell them to open their eyes.
  • Instruct them to choose a secret signal, such as thumbs up, or crossing their fingers or toes, or whatever they want.
  • Now they do their secret signal and go back to visualizing for a few more minutes.

The idea is that they practice visualizing while they perform their signal. Then, if they need to be calm, they do their signal (thumbs-up) and their mind is automatically taken back to that place of calmness. The more they practice, the better they will get.

I was surprised at how well this simple exercise worked. Kids even told me they used it to help them calm down and focus in other classes.

Try it out.


Happy December! Where have you been, you ask? Besides recuperating from my 4th procedure since July, I’ve been (drumroll) teaching! Yes, teaching creative writing to the sunniest, easiest age group of kids that ever was…middle school.

A glutton for punishment, you say? Perhaps.

I was hired a couple days before the school year began, and couldn’t teach until my background checks and things were complete. Then I was informed that a great many of the students in my class had NOT chosen creative writing as an elective. So they kind of threw everyone who didn’t respond to the call for electives/was late in responding into my class.

So me stepping in after a few weeks of subs + kids who didn’t pick writing + me equals not the greatest equation for writing success. It’s difficult to get kids to write in general, let alone kids who don’t want to.

Plus, I had no idea of how to use the systems in the classrooms/online, and I created my own curriculum, and basically it was all very sink or swim.

But, after everything calmed down (and after my long hospital stint, another kink in the system!) the kids and I have reached detente. Well, it’s actually much better than detente.

They write. And revise. (Which I hated to do until I was like 25, so I’m particularly impressed. Every writer knows that revision is where the story becomes fully-formed).

Even the kids who don’t want to work have somehow mostly come around to the idea that this scribbling can be kind of fun. That they can work through problems or invent worlds (or both!). That revision is worthwhile.

I find that I like being out of the house. I enjoy having something else to concentrate on besides this sometimes wacky publishing business, day in and day out. So it’s win-win.

Is it always easy? Yes. (Ha!) Nope. Of course it’s not.

But I enjoy the kids. I enjoy seeing what their minds produce. I enjoy it when a kid busts out a second-person perspective story and it WORKS. Or when a kid who’s failing most other classes gets a story idea and grins. Or when I gasp in surprise at some kid’s turn of phrase and the kid gets pink-cheeked and skips away. Or when a kid turns inomething that is all TELLING and I explain how to SHOW and then revises it into something great. That is all pretty cool.

How Did I Get Here?

I’m lying on my back looking up at the fluorescent lights and the acoustic tile ceiling at the gym (seriously, do they purposely make the lighting that bad so you look horrible and keep returning in the vain hope that one day you’ll catch sight of your reflection and appear normal?) when it hits me. I’ve been in this room, in some permutation, since I was 16 years old.

That was when the gym was a TJ Maxx. It was the only place within reasonable walking distance—a mile—and I applied there regularly for six months to a year before they hired me. The reason, the manager said, was because I was persistent.

Anyway, I always thought I’d move far far away from San Diego, never to return. I hated high school. I found the area to be dull. My family has no particular ties to the area, my dad being from the east coast. Growing up, we didn’t socialize with other families. We didn’t do community stuff. My roots were shallow. I always thought, One day I’ll move somewhere and it will feel like home. Because this area never did.

So as I’m lying in the gym, I wondered if I’d betrayed my 16 year old self by not moving away for good.

How did I get here?

I married my husband.

The Dilloways are fairly well-known in the area. Even now, when I whip out my credit card to pay for something, the cashier might say, “Dilloway? I know a Dilloway…” and if they know a Dilloway from San Diego, then chances are excellent that I’m related to them. Or maybe even 100%.

Those Dilloways were always doing community work. Coaching Little League, umping Little League, leading the local Scouts, showing up at community council meetings.

And their roots go back even further. My MIL grew up in El Cajon, back when it was farm country and she took the trolley to school at age 4. She and her brother had horses and shotguns.

Both my parents-in-law went to local high schools and SDSU. They’ve attended the same church for over 30 years.

Their roots run deep.

The other day, my husband and I were leaving my inlaws’ house and an SUV stopped going the opposite way, the driver waving frantically. He rolled down the window. It was a guy from one of the Little League teams, in town, who remembered my inlaws and wanted to come by and say hi. My husband hadn’t heard from him since high school. They swapped memories for a few minutes.

This kind of thing happens fairly frequently. People coming back to say hello, to say, “I wanted to tell you how much you meant to me and how much fun I had with you guys.” Sometimes, to my MIL, “I wanted to thank you for forcing me to be polite in your house and take off my hat because I got a job/impressed my girlfriend’s parents.” Because those roots, that sense of community, affected people in ways the Dilloways never knew about.

So now we live just a couple miles away from where I grew up. A couple miles away from the rest of the family. My kids attend the same high school where I went.

And somehow this place has turned into home.

Now I meet people in the stores who recognize me from places in our shared past, not just from my name.

And I’m still going back to TJ Maxx, in its new life.

Kid Milestones: Unlocked!

My youngest turned 10 a couple of days ago, but this morning it really hit me. We have NO kids in the single digits anymore.  Milestone unlocked. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s bittersweet– she’s our BABY, she’s not supposed to AGE!– but we all know how the days are short but the years are long already, don’t we?

Anyway, this got me to thinking about milestones. Raising kids comes with a bunch of obvious ones—potty training, driver’s license—but here are some slightly less obvious yet still completely grand milestones that make parenting worthwhile.

The Light-Packing Milestone. You hit this the day you go on a family outing and you only have maybe a backpack with snacks in it. No strollers, no diapers, not even a wipe. You might not even bother carrying hand sanitizer. And then the milestone-upon-milestone is when you go on a family outing and all you have is your own regular purse with your regular stuff in it, and if the kids want juice/water/snacks they carry them their own damn selves.

The All-Our-Kids-Can-Bathe-Themselves Milestone. No more assistance required for soaping up hair or directing the shower spray so it doesn’t drown them. You don’t even need to turn on the hot water so they don’t scald themselves. They do it all. AND they hang up their towel afterward.

The Feed-Themselves Milestone. Yesterday Cadillac and I went out for dinner, shouting, “We’re going out! Be good! Find something to eat!” as we darted out the door. And they did. And the angels sang.

The Get-Up-By-Yourself and Get-Ready-for-School-Solo milestone. The kids have alarms and they wake up and get ready. I think that the youngest only achieved this in the last two years. When I tell people about this milestone, they seem impressed. It took a lot of being on top of them before they did it, but once they get into a routine (bathroom-breakfast-get dressed-brush teeth) it’s pretty simple.

The Put-Yourself-to-Bed Milestone. I’m not just talking about not reading stories or singing songs anymore. It happens like this—you’re hanging out watching TV and not even paying attention to the time because this show is so good. Then your kid looks at the clock and knows it’s bedtime and says good-night and you feel like the biggest doofus parent ever because honestly you totally forgot about bedtime. But it’s quite a relief, to know that somehow, someway, this bit of responsibility sank into your child, even if you are personally a slacker.

The Do-All-Homework-Without-Intervention Milestone. Another one that takes most of elementary school to unlock. In first grade you’re practically doing the big projects for your kids, you have to hold their hand so much. Read a biography of George Washington and make a poster of him with illustrations? Huh? You have to show them how to break it down into chunks.

By fourth they’re mostly on their own (except for the Common Core math, which always requires ten emails to the teacher and a box of tissue shared between me and the kid). In middle school, I rarely intervene unless support is obviously needed or asked for. Why? Because I want them to be accountable, not me—in 6th they need help with some time management and planning, granted; but once they figure how to use a calendar and plan their projects, they receive the assignment and figure out how to execute it. If they fail in middle school, it’s not a huge life-changing deal—and they’ll have to face the consequences we impose. Has this happened to our kids? Yup. It happened one time and this kid did not enjoy the iron fist of oversight that descended, nor the lack of electronics. Ever after, the kid handled projects appropriately.

It’s better to let them fail in middle school and learn their lesson than it is to micromanage them all through high school so they fail out of college, doncha think? Besides, it’s a huge confidence booster for the kid to discover how his own hard work translates into achievement, and how he can overcome obstacles without parental intervention.

The I-Remembered-Sunblock Milestone. Another one that gets ground in via repetition. I notice that the teens always remember, and so do their friends. They get out the spray sunblock before getting in the pool. The ten year old does not.

The I-Saw-a-Full-Trashcan-and-Emptied-It Milestone. This one still hasn’t been fully unlocked. When will my kids see a full trashcan, a clean dishwasher, a basket of clean clothes and, of his or her own volition, take care of it? It’s happened, but not often. Well, I guess don’t always take action when I see a full dishwasher, either, so maybe this is expecting too much (Cadillac: No, it isn’t. Me: If you stayed home you’d sing a different tune. There’s too MUCH to always do).

Reasons I’m Glad I Had My Kids Young

One of the biggest decisions you’ll make as a woman, if you want kids, is when exactly you ought to reproduce. Straight outta college? After a career is established? In our community, I am on the younger side for having a 16 -year-old, so obviously I fall on the younger. I had my first at the grand old age of 25- on purpose.

  1. Having kids young means you’re too naive to know all the things that could wrong, and that makes you as brave as a gung-ho young man volunteering for war. Things go awry with jobs, with health, with everything. I count this as a good thing, because if I knew what I know now, at age 41, I might not have ever had kids. I’d be too scared.
  2. I was already used to being poor. Having a baby is costly, and so is going down to one income, even temporarily. If we had time to get used to solo vacations and buying everything we wanted all the time, it would have been mighty hard to get used to not having those perks. Besides, since I was already a struggling young mother, it was pretty easy to become a struggling writer.
  3. People think my daughter and I are sisters. And they think my husband might be my father or my sugar daddy. (Actually that was only one person who thought that about my husband, but it was pretty entertaining. For me, anyway. My husband wasn’t particularly amused).
  4. Middle age makes you tired. I’m 41 and I honestly don’t know how my friends with babies do it. I can barely muster the energy to tell my 16-year-old to drive to Starbucks and get me a latte.
  5. “Having it all” is a myth anyway. Every path requires compromise and sacrifice.
  6. It would have been physically impossible for me to get pregnant in my mid-30s, according to my OB/GYN. And this family heart condition can make pregnancy unstable. So if I hadn’t have had my kids young, it is highly likely that I would have no kids at all. And my kids are pretty awesome, and I’m not just saying that because I want them to take care of me in my golden years.

So when should you have babies? Nobody can decide for you. I’m not you. But I guess there’s one thing I’ve always known, from when I was little. Tomorrow is not guaranteed for anyone. There’s never a “perfect” time.

Saturday Night

Tonight is Saturday night. Tonight I wrestled down a copse of dead trees standing between us and the neighbors. I’m sitting here with a hair full of bark and glasses full of sawdust. I’m not sure what kind of trees they were. They were tall, providing privacy; now they’re just branches sticking into the earth. So easy to push over that all I had to do was wedge myself between the fence and the trees and give it a good nudge. Boom. Timber! Then I sawed the branches with an electric reciprocating sawinto manageable pieces, until my hands tired and I feared I’d cut off my leg. Cadillac was impressed with my brute force and said I should have taken a photo, but my camera was upstairs and I was too dirty to traipse across the house.

Meanwhile, Cadillac is replacing the garbage disposal. He’s handy, that Cadillac. He comes from a line of men who work with their hands. His grandpa was a carpenter, who built many of the houses around here after he emigrated from England in the 1940s, after the war. His dad was an electrical/mechanical engineer, an executive at power companies, but still did and does as much of his own car/yard/house work as possible. When Cadillac’s dad was young, he and Cadillac’s grandpa built a boat in their backyard– a seaworthy vessel that, for all anybody knows, is still moored someplace. So Grandpa passed this do-it-yourself ethic to his son who passed it to his own sons. Thus, even if we had loads of money, Cadillac would likely do most of this kind of work himself, because he can and it’s almost anathema to him to let somebody else do it.

I was thinking about his grandpa. About how he fought in WWII and Cadillac’s dad didn’t see him for six years, except for a few periods of leave. About how he and his little family just chugged on over from England and made a new life here. About my paternal grandfather, how he was a coal miner who lost a leg and had seven children in a tiny two-bedroom townhouse. About how the struggles we face today pretty much pale in comparison to the struggles our grandparents had. About how lucky we are to live where we live, instead of being born in a country full of Ebola or constant civil war or drug cartels trying to kill us. How much of this life is out of our control, and how generous the universe was to my family, I think. I must be grateful for what I have.

So some people might think I’m having a crappy Saturday night, full of chores. I’m really not. I’m pleased to have trees I can chop down, because they’re MY trees now. I’m glad to have a reciprocating saw, instead of chopping the trees by hand like Laura Ingalls Wilder. I’m grateful to have a garbage disposal to install, because we can afford to buy a new garbage disposal without worrying about it.

This mantra of gratitude has come grudgingly to me in the past. Don’t we all think, Oh, I should be out doing THIS and THAT, I should be actively worrying about a thousand things that are actually not in my sphere of influence. I’m getting better at letting all that go. Perhaps this is how one can be happy.

After Cadillac’s done installing the disposal, we’ll sit on the couch in my office/grown-up hideaway and drink gin and lemonades and maybe watch a movie on Netflix. And then I’ll go to bed, my muscles sore for once from actual labor, and hope that I sleep soundly.