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.

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

Springflingkidlit 2023

It’s a contest–read about it here for spring-inspired stories under 150 words! The organizers are author Ciara O’Neal and agent Kaitlyn Leann Sanchez. There are prizes to be won and a short window to submit: April 1st thru 3rd. And it’s free to enter.

This year I thought it might be fun to participate. It’s one way to get my writing out there. So the image above is a gif* that is required to go with the story.

I’m not comfortable pasting my whole story here, but will paste the opening:

A Squirrel Did It

“Noah, did you leave the bamboo gate open?” Mama asked.
“I think a squirrel did it.”
“Noah, did you dig a hole in the gravel path?” Mama asked.
“No, a squirrel did it.”
“Noah, did you put leaves in the fountain?” Mama asked.
“I bet a squirrel did it.”

The story in total is 107 words. (For the contest entry, the judges will get to see the whole story.)

Why do we want to write short? There’s always room for shorter stories, whether in magazines or in picture books. I like what the Arapahoe Library says on their “Children’s Books with Few Words” page: “Your child can feel successful when reading these books that have very few words.” The page has links to staff chosen books.

But it’s not just for those learning to read. Parents often like a few short choices. Some kids have short attention spans. But also sometimes “less is more”–fewer words can have a stronger and lasting impact.

Short can be moving, hilarious, quiet, and more.

Here are some short picture books I love:

Caring for Your Lion by Tammi Sauer (261 words)
From Here to There by Sue Fliess (287 words)
Ghost Cat by Kevan Atteberry (200 words)
The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld (296)
When Pencil Met the Markers by Karen Kilpatrick (223 words)

(You can find the word count of many books at Accelerated Reader Bookfinder.)

So, I challenge you to try writing short. You might like it.

*Gif found at

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

What’s the Weather?

Recently in my WIP I realized I hadn’t paid much attention to the weather. The novel is set in the Seattle metro area in March and weather can be very variable. We joke about it raining all the time there—and it does rain a lot—but there are often lots of gray days and wonderful bursts of sunshine with fabulous blue skies.

Why does weather matter?

It will affect my character. And not just what she is wearing. Recently, the area had unexpected snow. Schools may either be delayed or be closed—both are usually causes for celebration for kids.

Dripping rainy days can feel depressing. Maybe if your character is depressed, the weather isn’t helping. Conversely, bright sunshine can be cheering.

Thunder and lightning doesn’t happen often in western Washington, but if your story is set somewhere else, it might. And even rain can be different from place to place. In Kansas it often comes down in torrents. And the wind is definitely stronger there.

Back to attire.

Many Seattle area residents wear waterproof jackets with hoods instead of worrying about umbrellas. People may wear rubber boots—in fact, I remember seeing some pretty cute little kid ones. (And at the nudist park in Issaquah that might be all some are wearing!) I never did wear rubber boots, so the hems of my jeans often were damp. And sometimes muddy. Each of these weather-related clothing experiences offers a chance for sensory details to use for your character.

When the sun comes out Seattleites often break out shorts, sandals, and sunglasses.

How else can weather affect my story?

In midMarch we had plum and cherry trees that bloomed with white and pink blossoms. Yellow forsythia, dark pink quince, and many different colored camellias come to mind for bushes. Flowering bulbs might be crocus, daffodils, tulips, and/or hyacinths. Your character may or may not notice these but for many of us those splashes of color are a welcome sign of spring.

And don’t forget sunrise and sunset times. Right now where I live (another degree north of Seattle) we’re getting about 11 hours of daylight, but late December and early January it’s barely over 8 hours. Ughh!

What else happens in spring?

Birds return or are more active as they build nests and lay eggs. Chirp, cheep, caw are very common sounds my character might hear. And the honking of migrating Canadian geese flying north.

If your character lives in a rural area, they might hear the baaing of new lambs, the bawling of calves, or the bleating of kids. One of my favorite sounds of spring in the Seattle metro area was  the Pacific tree frogs croaking.

The slug eggs hatch and the older slugs that have been buried in leaves and detritus come out and leave sparkling slime trails. Slugs live in and near forest vegetation, so an apartment dweller in Seattle is not going to step out their door and see one, but someone who lives amongst cedars and firs will. And there’s more than one type of slug. Banana slug, anyone?

What are you smelling?

This can be weather related too.

Spring brings all kinds of scents to our noses. Scotch broom is pretty in spring but I hate the smell and it is an allergy trigger. And many trees are releasing pollen, too. Does your character have allergies?

When the ground is very dry and it rains, there’s a special earthy scent called petrichor. Sometimes people say, “it smells like rain.” Scientists say we recognize the ozone in the air and expect rain to follow. Some may recognize that snow is likely due to olfactory experiences as well.

How much of this information do I use?

Probably not all of it. It also depends on your character and their situations. But if your character goes outside, it’s important to use some details to ground your reader. And how do you know what will benefit your story if you don’t have any sense of these specifics yourself?

One word of caution–work the facts in in bits and pieces instead of writing big chunks of description.

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

Tidying Up

While tidying the house, I remembered a comment the buyer (male) said to my brother-in-law about their home, “How does she keep it so clean?” Like it’s only my sister’s (or the man’s wife’s) responsibility? Grrrr.

But writing is a bit different. Everything in my novel manuscript IS my responsibility. Yes, my critique group can help find mechanical errors or ask good questions such as “What’s the purpose of this chapter?” or “Why would your character do that?” However, I need to do my own homework first.

What does that include?

For me the first step is setting a new chapter aside for a week or more. That allows me to reread it with a fresh eye.

When rereading I check for big picture items first:

  • Does it make sense?
  • Do the characters actions feel realistic? Is their motivation clear?
  • Is there a good balance of action, thoughts, description, setting?
  • Does the chapter move the story forward?
  • Are the stakes clear? Or do I need to ramp them up?
  • Do secondary characters have lives of their own?
  • Is the ending a page turner?
  • What’s the emotional tone? Or how does it change?

What big picture questions or comments do you hear from your critique partners? Is it that there’s not enough sense of setting or character’s thoughts? Or too much telling? Recently, one for me was about emotions being all over the place, hence the latter set of questions.

Next, I tidy up line-by-line items:

Think about those things you often hear from your critique partners. Is it run-on sentences, or misplaced modifiers, or too many adverbs? Add those to your checklist and challenge yourself to find them yourself.*

After I fix any problem areas, I read it again. I may let it sit another week or more and repeat the above before presenting it to my critique group.

The Critique Process

During my verbal critique, I often find there are issues critique partners bring up that really resonate with me.

  • They may be easy fixes than can be changed immediately.
  • Others take more time and consideration. For example, I get what the person is saying, but either I’m not sure how to rewrite or it’s going to take time to make all the changes affected by this one change.

Some, I may disagree with. However, if more than one partner brings it up, I know I must do something about that issue.

Often, I make a few changes before I get the written feedback emailed to me. But more work happens when I open the critiques and consider each comment. This is usually a few days later.

  • I compare opinions and suggestions.
  • I rewrite and reread and ponder if the changes addressed the problems.
  • If I’m stuck on something, I set that suggestion aside and come back to it later.

If the chapter has major changes or additions, when it’s ready I probably have my group critique the rewrite before moving on to the next chapter. Which causes additional revision.

I reread and revise my material countless times. As author Michael Crichton said, “Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it…”

*If you have trouble finding grammar issues yourself, try some of these options:

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

Dialogue Heavy

Have you ever been told your writing is “dialogue heavy?” What does that mean? Is it just that the characters are talking too much? Maybe. But often it means there’s very little sense of setting, sensory details, and action. The dialogue is in a vacuum and the reader can’t tell where the characters are or what they are doing. They may not even know when there are.

I recently was at an evening high school volleyball game for a friend’s daughter. My friend and I talked, but some of what she said was drowned out by the teens or crowd cheering. And we were distracted by the game. We yelled, “good job” or “go Bulldogs,” and my friend knew all the team members, so encouraged them by name. We stopped talking to applaud when “our” team won a volley against the other team. We moaned when “our” team served into the net or missed blocking a spike.

What else did I notice at the game? The smell of homemade rolls baking. Leftover from earlier that day? I don’t know. But I wanted a homemade roll slathered in butter. The older couple in front of us had brought seat pads—I wished I had too as those wooden bleachers are hard. A member of the teen cheer team walked by carrying a sign that read, “If you’re not cheering, go sit with your mother.” That made me laugh.

Was our talk just filler? No. We actually discussed something very emotional and important. And, yes, we had everyday talk that wouldn’t be important in a novel.

Did I have any thoughts during the game and conversation? Definitely! Some were mundane but others would show my character, and/or my thoughts about other people—both useful for showing thoughts in a novel.

“Details are what helps your reader see and feel the story, as if they are the character,” says Lauryn Trimmer. Read her article “My Characters Talk Too Much.”

So, check out your dialogue and make sure you are including a sense of setting and time of day, sensory details, action, and thought. Your readers will appreciate feeling grounded.