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

How to Score Well in a Writing Contest

I’ve judged a number of writing contests and always find those who have wasted their time. (And possibly entry fee.)

BIG MISTAKES THAT TAKE YOU OUT OF THE RUNNING

  • Wrong genre – don’t submit fantasy if they want mystery.
  • Wrong category – don’t submit short story when they want nonfiction.
  • Wrong audience age – don’t submit an article for preschoolers when the target age is 8 to 10-year-olds.

NOT FOLLOWING THE RULES – THE EASY

  • Word count – if rules says under 800 words, don’t send 801. Tighten your manuscript by at least two words to be 799 or under. Often, when you tighten word count you end up with cleaner, clearer writing.
  • Format – usually manuscripts are double-spaced. I’ve seen triple spaced, quadruple spaced, and even more blank lines. Don’t do this as it could cause an automatic rejection. And turn off spacing before and after paragraphs. Probably a judge will ignore this if it’s only 6 pt. But if they need a reason to decide between two close manuscripts, they’ll probably choose the one formatted correctly.
  • Font – sometimes submission rules specify what kind and size of font. If this isn’t specified, use a standard font, size 12.
  • File Naming Conventions – often what you name your document has a required format. It might be Last name dot story title. Or first and last name and the words contest entry. Whatever is requested, follow exactly.

NOT FOLLOWING SUBMISSION BASICS – ALSO EASY TO FIX

  • Paragraphs should be indented – whether you use a tab or use the automatic indent on word, this is usually ½ inch.
  • Paragraphing – it’s shocking how many manuscripts come with no paragraph breaks. Who wants to read a solid wall of text? When a new character talks start a new paragraph. Articles should also be broken into paragraphs.
  • Basic Punctuation – if you don’t understand the basics, get a book and learn them. My favorite is Errors in English and Ways to Correct Them by Harry Shaw. Or take online tests. Googling “punctuation tests,” I found this one: https://www.grammarbook.com/grammar_quiz/punctuation_pretest.asp.  At least run your text through a grammar checker such as  https://writer.com/grammar-checker/.

STANDING OUT – IT TAKES WORK

  • Fresh and original topic – avoid the obvious. For example, if it’s a holiday story, pick an unusual holiday. First day of school stories are common—would a last day of school story be more interesting? I can’t tell you how many new kid at a new school stories I’ve seen as a writing instructor. What would be different?
  • New twist to a common topic – approach it in a unique way. I’ve read lots of stories about kids wanting pets. Two stand out because they were different: Tammi Sauer’s Me Want Pet and Kirsten Pendreigh’s Luna’s Green Pet.
  • Make the reader feel – evoke emotions whether it’s a skin-crawling creepiness, a delight in some weird fact, or humor that causes a laugh out loud moment.
  • Use the tools of good writing – strong active verbs, sensory details, showing, voice, etc. Will a metaphor or simile give a better picture? Use one.
  • Revise to make it the best you can – even if it means starting your article over completely. Get feedback from other writers. Set it aside, then come back to it so you can see it afresh. Read your piece aloud and fix anything that doesn’t flow, is awkward, or confusing.

Before you submit, do a final run through of your manuscript looking for typos. An error free submission won’t guarantee a win, but will definitely give the judges less to mark down.

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

Action, Reaction, and Time

Reading others’ works-in-progress makes me ask the writers questions about characters such as: “What are they doing?” and “When is this happening?

The fix for the first? Add character actions during dialogue. There are two types.

People are rarely totally still. We scratch an itch. Shift in a chair. Cross or uncross our legs. Bump against the counter when handwashing dishes. (I often get water on my clothes when I do so.) During allergy season at our house, there’s sneezing, throat clearing, and occasional coughs. These are mostly involuntary or unplanned actions. They can be great tools to:

…sneak in what a character is wearing. E.g. She sneezed into the sleeve of her faux fur coat. He scratched his knee through the hole in his ragged jeans. The girl tripped over her untied shoelace.

…show someone’s discomfort with the conversation. E.g. Matt cleared his throat and hoped his mother would get the hint to change the topic. Theresa flinched. The boy let out an exclamation of disgust.

…show a character’s interest. E.g. He inched closer. She rested a hand on his arm. They drew in their breaths in unison.

What is your character choosing to do? Be specific about it. If she’s drinking a cup of tea, it’s not just any tea, but a British blend with milk. He’s into sports. What kind? Anything with a ball or rowing? The child is playing. Playing what? Pretending to be a police officer, or a cowboy riding the range? A kid isn’t just doing homework, but math homework. These specific details of what the character is actually doing will help ground the reader.

Conversations often take place during mealtimes. It really annoys me when characters on a TV show receive some great food, but never get to take a bite. If your characters are having a conversation during a meal, by the time it is done we should have some idea that they have eaten. For example: Jane swallowed her mouthful of orange soda before answering. Ben lathered butter onto his wheat roll. Cassie took the last bite of rare steak and angled her knife and fork across the paper plate.

Include character reactions to others (including animals). Our youngest daughter used to communicate that she was bored with a parental explanation by twisting her hair. A woman came to my door to deliver a package and backed off when my friendly dog appeared. How does that boy act when he sees a cute girl? Or what does he think? Someone hard of hearing may ask others to repeat. Or sometimes we’re concentrating so hard on what we’re involved with, we don’t hear someone speak.

Action can also provide subtext. Another benefit is that action can show the lie to the words said. It can carry on a separate conversation from the dialogue. It can illustrate what’s really going on in the character’s mind. Look at this movie example, No. 3 from Sense and Sensibility on this page. You may enjoy others too.

I love what Becca Puglisi says, “Nonverbal vehicles are like annoying little brothers and sisters, tattling on the dialogue and revealing true emotion.” Her whole article is great—read it here.

The fix for the question, “when is this happening?” Don’t neglect time. Is it midday or midnight? Let the reader know. A scene from the middle of the day moved to the middle of the night might have an intimacy that two o’clock in the afternoon wouldn’t. Is he eating a cookie at seven am? That’s probably more unexpected than dessert after dinner. A ramshackle abandoned cottage looks very different in bright sunshine than at dusk. Spring or fall? It could be humid during one season and cold during another—both will affect your characters.

Sometimes, all that is needed is a simple transition. E.g. Later that afternoon… After breakfast… Nothing happened until two weeks later. An actual clock or calendar can be used. E.g. Kasee checked the time. 10 pm. Where was he? – Sean opened his journal. Friday, May 1st.

Editor Beth Hill says, “References to time and day (or month or season or year) are necessary to keep readers linked with story events and hold them deep inside the fiction.” I like how she says setting props can help indicate seasons. Plastic Easter eggs scattered on the lawn is very different look from the rotting pumpkin left on the front stoop. Read more of her article here.

I’ve found it helpful to create a written timeline as a guide for my stories stories. I enter scenes and indicate when, where, what, and who. It helps me not have two Wednesdays or a six-day week. When a character refers back to “last Thursday,” I can check and make sure that really was the day the scene happened.

Help your reader keep track of when your characters are and what they are doing and your stories will feel more real.

Posted in Business Side of Writing, Craft

Advice to New Writers

“Writers are not born. They are made. Made through willpower and work. Made by iteration, ideation, reiteration. Made through learning — learning that comes from practicing, reading, and through teachers who help shepherd you through those things in order to give your efforts context.” – Chuck Wendig

Read, read, read what you want to write. Especially new books in the genre or age category. Learning what is out there—the styles, the lengths, the ways “things are done”—will improve your own writing.

Take classes, workshops, webinars, and go to conferences and retreats where you can learn craft and connect with other writers and with editors and agents. I always glean some nugget by participating in these events. I got some work-for-hire work because of word of mouth from another writer. If I’d stayed in my house, I wouldn’t have met her and heard about this opportunity.

Get in a critique group or do manuscript exchanges. I have learned so much from my critique partners over the years. Not only do I learn by what they say about my pieces, but I learn from what I see in theirs. We teach each other because we all have different areas where we excel. For example, I have a tendency to be an underwriter and my ciritque partners will ask, “What is she thinking here?” “How does she feel.” (I found most of my critique partners through SCBWI.)

Write, and keep writing! If you want to be a writer, that means you have to actually write. This is where the will and hard work comes in. Schedule a time. Put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and put something on the blank page. Any kind of writing is better than none, but it’s better if you have some kind of goal and meet it. E.g. “Today, I’m going to get one scene written.” “I’m going to write for a minimum of one hour.” “I’m going to complete the first draft of my short story.” I love this quote from Jack London, “Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.” Yes, the act of writing itself can inspire you. Putting thoughts down will make more thoughts come.

Rewrite. Isn’t it a relief that you don’t have to get your writing exactly right the first time? You can revise and rewrite and edit it as many times as necessary. I find it helpful to have space between the time I wrote something and when I come back to edit. That helps me see it afresh and discover what isn’t working so well, or is overdone or incomplete. Reading aloud helps me hear errors and see missing or wrong word. Only when it is the best I can make it, do I submit.

To sum up there are: “Three Rules for Literary Success: 1. Read a lot. 2. Write a lot. 3. Read a lot more, write a lot more.” – Robert Silverberg                            

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

Ground Me

I’ve critiqued novel manuscripts and found myself asking again and again, “Where are the characters?” Often writers have good dialogue and interesting problems, but I can’t place myself with the characters. There’s no sense of place or setting.

By contrast, I think back to the first novelist I fell in love with—Mary Stewart. She made me see the flowers glow under the streetlights, hear the swish of the tires on pavement, taste what her character was eating. The locations were all very real. I’ve had similar experiences with fantasy authors whose writing made a place so tangible I wanted to visit places that didn’t even exist! Hogwarts anyone? We want our writing to feel that true.

One fellow writer explained it this way, “Don’t have your characters standing in front of a white board.” Specific details of what’s around the characters help ground the reader. But it’s not simply telling.

So, how do we add these details of setting in in a meaningful way?

Start the scene in a place. It can be simple or complex, familiar or strange.

“Before you agree to have Joseph come live with you,” Mrs. Stroud said, “there are one or two things you ought to understand.” She took out a state of Maine Department of Health and Human Services folder and laid it on the kitchen table.” – from Gary D. Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter:

“I pushed the world’s oldest vacuum around the shaggy speckled carpet from the Stone Ages, taking care to make straight, even lines. The first time I vacuumed Larry’s trailer…” – Coyote Queen by Jessica Vitalis.

“In my fifteen years, I have stuck my arm in a vat of slithering eels, climbed all the major hills of San Francisco, and tiptoed over the graves of a hundred souls.” – Outrun the Moon, Stacey Lee.

“Sophronia intended to pull the dumbwaiter up from the kitchen to outside the front parlor on the ground floor, where Mrs. Barnaclegoose was taking tea.” – Etiquette & Espionage, by Gail Carriger.

Introduce when the scene is taking place. It may be stated out right or be more subtle. It may be prosaic or fantastic.

“Earth year 2041
“Lunar day 188
“Smack in the middle of the night
“Let’s get something straight, right off the bat: Everything the movies have ever taught you about space travel is garbage.” – Space Case, Stuart Gibbs

“It was 5:42 a.m. on May Day, 1983 in the West of England, and a sliver of the sun had edged above the ridge.” – The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, Garth Nix.

“When I left my office that beautiful spring day, I had no idea what was in store for me.” – Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls.

Mix setting in with conversation, and a reader won’t have to guess at where characters are. It doesn’t have to be complex.

            Straightening his basketball jersey, Aaron slipped into the gym behind his teammates.
            “Where were you?” Michael whispered.
            “Had to stay after in math class.” He rolled his eyes. “I thought I was going to miss practice.”

Think about how your character(s) react to the setting. That’s much more interesting than simply stating a fact. For example, a flat statement: It was a windy day. Including the character in a distancing way with saw, heard, watched, etc. isn’t an improvement: Lila looked out and saw it was a windy day. How does the wind affect Lila?

            Lila stepped out the front door of the apartment building. The wind tossed her long black hair around her face and she shivered.

See how there’s a bit more setting now? Plus, we have one small action. We’ve also learned two new things. It’s cold enough for her to shiver and we have a description of her hair. Combine such details with her dialogue and she’ll feel more real.

Whenever your character is outside or even checking the temperature on her phone, she’ll probably react to the weather in some way. A bright sunny day makes me feel cheerful, but a character might prefer cloudy days that remind him of home. A gardener might be grateful for the rain falling on the freshly planted garden—even if it means he gets wet dashing to the mailbox. A skier might be glad for predicted snow, while someone preparing for a long trip could be disappointed, and go dig out the tire chains. A house might be unappealing in a rainstorm but look like a picture for a postcard when surrounded by bright sunshine.

Details of weather and temperature can help with the overall mood of the story as well. I remember a writer talking about how her character’s story was set during a drought. The dry empty landscape helped emphasize the lack in the character’s personal life.

Don’t forget the indoors. Where does he live? Where does she sleep? Is it a messy bedroom that smells of unwashed clothing scattered on the floor, a shared bedroom with tape on the floor to separate the two sides, the musty basement bedroom with concrete walls and a window well that only allows a glimpse of the sky? Does her home feel welcoming or is it a place he escapes as quickly as possible? Does it smell like dogs or cats or good cooking or burnt food? Is it loud or quiet? The reader doesn’t need to know all this—especially all at once—but working bits in will make the setting more real.

Andy Maslen says, “Sense of place is the feeling your readers get as they read your novel that they have left their place behind and entered yours. It’s a transporting feeling that makes the world of the book they hold in their hands as real, if not more so, than their own.”

I hope you’ll dig in and ground your characters in their setting. I think you’ll find it helps your story bloom.

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

But That’s How People Talk

I’ve seen dialogue from new writers that was too realistic. It included every um, uh, and other fillers that we use when we speak. It rambled. Things were mentioned that no one cares about. It didn’t make sense. When I suggested cuts and tightening, the response was, “But that’s how people talk!” Yes, it is. When we talk we can all be pretty boring at times. Our thoughts aren’t always organized. We go off tangent. We use filler words. We see something that sidetracks us. Squirrel! We forget what we were talking about. We talk over others.

But writing fiction isn’t a record of the real world. In some ways, it is better as it leaves out the dull parts. In fiction, every piece of dialogue has a purpose. It might be character development or plot related. It moves the story forward. It’s intentional. It doesn’t bore the reader. We don’t need all the greetings and good-byes in a story. Nor simple pleasant chats. We want tension and disagreements. We want age-appropriate flirting and romance. We want questions and comments that make us laugh or think or worry. “The dialogue is generally the most agreeable part of a novel, but it is only so long as it tends in some way to the telling of the main story.” – Anthony Trollope

Does that mean a fictional character can never stumble or go off track? Of course not. Used judiciously these are all appropriate. Um, er, and other pauses can show a character’s nervousness or uncertainty. It might indicate lying. A character going off track might be changing the subject deliberately. A character might ramble due to tiredness, or drug or alcohol influence. One character might be extra chatty. Other characters may interrupt.

Readers will stick with characters they care about. Our job as writers is to make it easy to care. If we bog down dialogue with extraneous words, it’s easy for readers to give up on the story.

“Dialogue is like a rose bush–it often improves after pruning. I recommend you rewrite your dialogue until it is as brief as you can get it. This will mean making it quite unrealistically to the point. That is fine. Your readers don’t want realistic speech, they want talk which spins the story along.” – Nigel Watts

For further information on writing dialogue for children, check out these articles: “Children’s Dialogue: They Don’t Talk Like Adults” by Jessi Rita Hoffman and  “Writing Great Middle Grade Dialogue” by Jan Fields. And for teen dialogue: “Writing Authentic Teenage Dialogue” by Ellie Blackwood (written when she was a teen) and “Creating Teen Dialogue when Writing Young Adult Fiction” by Deborah Halverson and M.T. Anderson. And, of course, listen to kids the age of your characters.