Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Short Story Versus Novel

A short story usually has only one problem to be solved. And a relatively easily solved problem at that. Novels often have an overarching problem—something big, such as death of a parent, or not fitting in, a mystery from their past to solve, etc. But there often are other problems along the way. The character must keep solving in a novel. Not one and done as a short story does.

Your story can cover a short time period or a long period and still be a novel, but the longer the time period, the more likely the story is a novel. Short stories exist in a short time period, often one day or less. They are more like a snapshot than a two-hour movie. A short story can be one scene or a few. A novel will usually be many scenes.

Similarly, setting is often different between the two. It’s easy to have a short story resolve in one setting, one place. More difficult to do so with a novel. Think of how many novels, even if they aren’t about a journey, don’t stay in one room, or one house, but have indoor and outdoor settings, and often a variety of those. Of course that all affects how much description there will be.

In a short story, you won’t go as deep into your main character. You’ll probably show only one flaw in the character, not many. The same with skills, desires, dreams. The short story focuses on one aspect of a character’s life. One situation. A novel will do much more.

Think of a novel like a TV series. I’m watching one now. As I go along I’m getting tidbits of the character’s past. I want to know more of what’s happening in his life now, and in the past, so keep watching and get to learn both. In a novel and a TV series, I don’t get a full info dump of the character’s past—only what I need to know now for this scene. In a novel, I want to know more of both the character’s future and past so keep reading. In a short story I’m pretty content with what happens here and now with the character. I don’t need or want the depth. Lorrie Moore says, “A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.”

Short stories don’t usually have subplots and backstory on the page is very limited. Novels often have both. More characters can work in a novel where the same number would be overwhelming in a short story. It’s also unlikely for a short story to have multiple viewpoints.

I like this quote from Sophie Playle, “A novel is a journey – not only for the characters, but for the writer and the reader.” A journey takes commitment versus a short trip to the grocery store.

These reasons are why I’ll write on student short stories, “novel topic” or “This problem can’t be solved in a short story.” If you can’t personally imagine solving the problem in a short amount of  time, then your character can’t either, so think novel, not short story.

Posted in Craft, PB, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Creative Picture Book Formats

The other day I was helping a friend edit a fiction picture book and we were talking about how layout of the language can give a different feel.

To demonstrate I opened up my quote file and found this one by Tana French, “Don’t get discouraged if you’re hammering away at a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter, and it keeps coming out wrong. You’re allowed to get it wrong, as many times as you need to; you only need to get it right once.”

Look at it written as a poem:

“Don’t get discouraged
if you’re hammering away
at a sentence
or a paragraph
or a chapter,
and it keeps
coming
out wrong.
You’re allowed
to get it wrong,
as many times
as you need to;
you only need
to get it right
once.”

– Tana French

I loved the quote in the first place, but I love it as poetry even more.

Let’s think about this specifically in regard to picture books. Will a poetic format add to your story? (I’m not talking about rhythm and rhyme particularly, although that is a possibility.) Or is there another format that will benefit your story?

One that comes to mind is Gretchen McLellan’s No Party Poopers! where the story is only written in dialogue with no tag lines, beats, or description.

Or an oldie Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters from Obedience School by Mark Teague. The opening has a newspaper clipping, then come the hilarious letters. These books are called epistolary.

Author Doreen Chronin has a series of bug diaries. Will journal format work for your story?

I was stunned when I read Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse by Marilyn Singer where you read the poems one way and then the opposite.

Then there’s the cumulative story where each line builds from the line before. The poem “This Is the House that Jack Built” may have inspired this type of tale.

You might find Karin Lefranc’s list of picture book genres interesting.

I like stretching my mind about how stories can be written. If you know of different picture book formats, please share in the comments.

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Three Commonly Overused Words in Fiction

Overuse of “look” or as Deborah Halverson aka DearEditor says, “Stop Looking!” A character looks up, looks down, looks around, looks another character in the eyes, looks at his watch, looks in her mirror. Some try to replace “look” with “gaze,” “stare,” etc. But the problem is deeper than that.

Looking is not as descriptive as other possible actions. It’s fairly passive. It doesn’t provide sensory details. Sometimes, it is distancing the reader.

Here are a few examples:

  1. John looked out the window.
  2. Leslie glared at her daughter.
  3. I looked at the paper on my desk.

Stronger possibilities:

  1. Out the window the Ponderosa pines were swaying in the wind. If John is the main character, we will assume he sees this.
  2. Leslie’s eyes narrowed emphasizing the hated wrinkle between her eyebrows. If her daughter is present, it will be pretty obvious that Leslie’s not exactly pleased with her.
  3. The paper on my desk said, “Don’t come back.”

I always suggest using Find in Word (Control F for PC, or Command F for Mac) to see how many “look”s there are. Usually it’s a surprisingly high number.

Then start replacing them with more dynamic content. Of course, you don’t have to get rid of all of them, but changing many and getting out of the lazy “looking” habit will definitely power up your writing.

Too many feelings. Using “feel”, “felt,” and “feels” often are telling instead of showing.

Here are a few examples:

  1. His legs shake and he feels an overwhelming blanket of anxiety stifling his mind.
  2. She felt sad. What does that look like?
  3. I felt sweaty and the mosquitoes were biting. Definitely telling!

These could become the stronger:

  1. His legs shake and an overwhelming blanket of anxiety stifles his mind.
  2. Her shoulders drooped to match the shape of her mouth. Now that I can picture.
  3. I licked sweat off my upper lip and smashed a mosquito on my jeans.

The fix. I do a search in Word (Control F for PC, or Command F for Mac) for the correct verb tense of “feel” in my story.

I change them one of two ways:

  • Rearrange the sentence to share the same info without the word “felt.”
  • Make it more active by helping the reader experience what is happening.
  • Show and add sensory details.

You may ignore it in dialogue.

Write seemlessly (pun intended). Avoid “seem,” “seemed,” “seems.” Often used with “to.” You are the writer and creator of the story, so you know whether something happens or not. You should be sharing what happened—not guessing what happened. “Seemed” indicates uncertainty.

Here’s a simple example: It seemed to be raining. It’s either raining or not raining, isn’t it?

Look at these two:
She seems to remember many of the other cousins and there were a lot of them.

The walls seemed to lean toward me.

The fix. Remove “seem” forms in your narration and correct the verb tense. Tighten if necessary. The two above could become:

She remembers many of our numerous cousins.

The walls leaned toward me.

A possible exception. Sometimes a character expresses an opinion in dialogue or even in their thoughts. “You seem unhappy,” Jon said. If that’s how Jon talks, fine. Or perhaps he might say, “You look unhappy” or You sound unhappy.” But if Jon has an attitude and is more concerned about appearances that actual unhappiness, he might say, “Wipe that frown off your face!” It depends on Jon’s personality and the situation.

Of course, there are other commonly overused words and you may have some unique to your own writing. But go on a search and destroy mission with these three and it’ll give you a good start on self-editing.

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Chronology in Fiction

I always have to laugh at myself when a critique partner points out something in my writing that I usually catch in others’ writing. In this case, it was sentence chronological order. (Or time-order sequence.)

Usually it is clearer to write in a cause and effect order. Examples: The car behind us honked and Dad let up on the brake and drove off. When the dog barked to be let in, she opened the door. In each of these cases, the first action resulted in the person doing the second action. Pretty obvious.

But sometimes when we write, it’s easy to mess up. Here’s what I wrote in a picture book text: She started with Grampa Joe. She fixed up her hair special, put on her best outfit, and popped into his room. I told what the character was going to do—start with Grampa Joe—but showed what she did first before going into his room. My critique partner* wisely suggested: She fixed up her hair special, put on her best outfit, and popped into Grampa Joe’s room. Chronological order not only made the story stronger by reducing telling, but reduced word count from 21 words to 17. (Definitely an important factor in a picture book.)

I think chronology can especially become a problem when using the connecting word “as.” Example: He waved as the school bus pulled away. A reader will assume this is a simultaneous action. But look at this one: Snow fell from the tree as the wind blew. It could be simultaneous. However, thinking cause and effect, probably the wind made the snow fall. In a short sentence like this it may not make much difference, but I think it’s always worth considering whether a sentence or paragraph should be in chronological order.

Does that mean we should never write out of chronological order? Of course not. You’ll see beginnings of novels that foretell terrible things are going to happen. There will be flashbacks, especially in novels for teens and adults. Sometimes stories are written in multiple viewpoints and we see what happens in one character’s life, then move on to what happens in another’s life at the same time. Nonchronology may be used for the purpose of suspense, to reveal character backstory, or for worldbuilding.

But I think for the most part a sentence or paragraph should show the sequence of events in the order they happened.

*Thanks, Carol!

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, Writing Life

Quitter or Go Getter?

Which label would you prefer to chose for yourself? Quitter or Go Getter? Most of us would probably prefer to be listed in the latter category. But quitter isn’t always negative. Let’s get the negatives out of the way first.

            Quitter – this person quits writing when…

…writing is hard
…he receives negative feedback
…marketing is work
…she doesn’t follow the guidelines and everything is rejected
…life is too busy

            Go Getter – this person persists in writing, but…

…she thinks feedback doesn’t apply to her
…is unwilling to make changes
…doesn’t keep adding to knowledge of the craft of writing
…he doesn’t read material for children
…may rush into submitting before ready

Neither camp is a win. But the positive side of each is.

            Positive Quitters – know when…

…a short story, article, picture book, novel just isn’t working and are willing to start over or set it aside
…the story they are working is not one for them to write. (E.g. cultural appropriation)
…they’ve queried/submitted a story with no takers and it’s time to move on
…it’s time to take a break from a project

            Positive Go Getters – know…

…to take feedback and revise
…to try a new genre or audience or category
…to be willing to rework and revise to make a story better, again and again
…to keep learning more about the craft of writing in various ways
…to read material written for children, especially in areas where they write
…when it’s time to submit or resubmit and will do so appropriately
…not to give up too easily

Being positive quitters and positive go getters will help writers continue forward on their paths.