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

Moment-by-Moment

I was recently reminded of the importance of being in the moment. If a scene is important enough to write, shouldn’t the reader get to feel as if they are with the characters while it is happening? I’d say a big resounding YES!

But what does that look like? It’s showing what is happening with action, sensory details, dialogue, thoughts, etc. No glossing over or summarizing, but being on scene with the character. Think immersion experience versus someone telling a story.

Say a fifth grader is walking into his new school cafeteria for the first time. Is this a good, bad, or neutral experience for him? What is he thinking? What sensory details are striking him? How is he reacting? Is he going to meet the guy who’s going to be his best friend or his enemy? Is he going to be invisible or draw everyone’s attention? There are so many possibilities and a generic: “He walked into his new school cafeteria” isn’t going to cut it.

Let’s try a few possibilities:

Or how about this one?

Similar situations, right? But so different because we have a clear picture of what each individual character is experiencing. They and their situations are unique. We learn more about each character than that they are eating lunch in a school cafeteria. Readers want those specifics.

Leave summarizing for transitions or things that aren’t important. For example: He got undressed and went to bed. The next morning after breakfast…

To end, I’d like to share this reminder from Kathryn Sant, “Strong action verbs actually allow our minds to feel the action as if our bodies had performed it.” So, don’t forget to include strong verbs in your moment-by-moment scenes.

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

Show Your Character’s Character

What’s more interesting to you? How someone looks? Or what they are really like? Sure a beautiful vivacious person might grab our attention, but if that’s all there is, I doubt we’ll be friends. I like warm genuine personalities. I like a sense of humor. I like imperfect humans who are willing to show vulnerabilities. And I bet you do too.

So, how do authors get that across? My “go to” is always to look at examples. I’ll start with some middle grade novels.

From the graphic novel When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed: “Walking with Hassan sometimes takes a while. He stops to greet every neighbor we meet. If he sees someone pushing a wheelbarrow, he likes to help out. He says hello to the donkeys pulling carts.” Don’t you like how that shows Hassan’s heart? Of course, with a graphic novel we do have images of what the boy looks like, but the words go deeper than the pictures. Later on you find out about the narrator Omar because of what he says and does.

Listen to this one: “I’m allergic to trouble. It makes my hands itch. But today in science when Mr. Levy starts calling out lab-partner assignments, I don’t even get the lightest tingle. I just sit there, barely breathing, waiting for him to assign me to the perfect lab partner.” When Shayla hears who she gets, here’s her internal response: “No. And I mean no. This is the opposite of perfect.” (A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée) Do you like her? I do. She’s eager about science and she likes to avoid trouble. But now things are not going her way.

Here’s one that quickly creates sympathy in me for the character: “No luck that day for my pocket-pick hands, and I hadn’t managed to filch my supper or a bit of copper to buy it with. I was hollow with hunger. I might have tried somewhere else, except the Underlord had a word out on me, and his minions would beat the fluff out of me if they could.” (The Magic Thief by Sarah Prineas—I love the whole series!) Not only do I feel sorry for Conn, but I’m curious why the Underlord is concerned about him. I like how Conn speaks, too, and know he isn’t from my time and place..

Now for a few young adult examples:

From The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg, in the main character’s point of view: “For a brief moment, too brief even for a security camera to catch it, I close my eyes, release my grip on the cool aluminum handrail, and dare myself to wonder if this is what it feels like to fly. Weightless. Breathless. Free.” The next sentence reveals her name, Ana. I know hardly anything about the character except that she is being watched and she isn’t free. But I want to know why! This short section implies unhappiness and hints that something is going to happen, so of course, I have to keep reading.

“Why did I volunteer to do this stupid presentation? Public speaking: not my strong point. Let’s be honest, public anything: not my strong point.” And then a few lines later: “I suddenly feel very small, like my classmates have shrink rays attached to their eyes. Shrinking Violet. This makes me laugh—now I look unhinged as well as nervous.” (The Fandom by Anna Day) I can sympathize with Violet’s discomfort but she also has a sense of humor which is appealing.

So, what do we see in common in these examples? There is so much internal to the characters. Someone else in the same situation would not think, feel, say, or react the same. I don’t care about their hair, skin, eye color or other exterior features. I’m hooked by who they are.

I like this quote from Cat Rambo: “Characters must shape the story. They need to influence the action and make the narrative one that could only happen to them.”

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

I, I, I – Writing in First Person

It’s so easy when writing in first person to start too many sentences with “I” or a form of the word. A recent student had a whole page where every paragraph started with “I,” “I’ve,” or “I’m.” I suggested different methods of changing up sentences. These include adding time, rearranging, and removing “I” entirely. Let me show you with a simple one sentence example.

Instead of:
I added to the list in my notebook.

Mention time (or place) first:
All day I added to the list in my notebook.
Off and on throughout the morning, I added to the list in my notebook.
In my bedroom, I added to the list in my notebook.

Rearrange:
The list for what I need is saved in my notebook.

Remove I:
There’s this long list in my notebook.
We have this long list in my notebook.

Other options to cut the number of “I”s are to combine sentences, add a modifying phrase, or change a statement into a question.

Instead of:
I woke up when the dryer buzzed. I sat up and brushed hair out of my face.

Combine sentences:
When the driver buzzed, I woke up and brushed hair out of my face.

Add a modifying phrase:
The dryer buzzed. Waking up, I brushed hair out of my face.

Take from statement to question:

Instead of:
I knew he was coming here.
Ask:
Wasn’t he coming here?

Another way to cut the number of “I”s is to avoid, “I thought,” “I wondered.” Trust your reader to get it. In the opening of Hunger Games, Katniss has this thought about her sister: She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. It’s obvious from context without the words, “I thought.”

One of the big dangers of writing in first person is filtering or distancing the reader. Warnings of this problem are, “I saw,” “I heard,” “I watched,” “I noticed,” etc. Simply state what’s happening and the reader will assume the main character is seeing, hearing, observing, etc.

Instead of:
I watched the car turn off the main road onto a rutted gravel road.
Write:
The car turned off the main road onto a rutted gravel road.

In a similar manner, don’t state emotions with a simple “I,” such as “I felt.” In Wish by Barbara O’Connor, Charlie doesn’t say, I felt worried or I worried. Instead, she says, The worry clutching at my heart, told me my mama might never get her feet on the ground.

My final suggestion if you’re feeling as if you’re drowning in “I”s, is add someone else to the scene. As James Scott Bell says, “Don’t leave your lead character alone very long. Two or more characters, plus conflict, animate scenes.”

Perhaps you have other suggestions for caging wild “I”s—please post them in the comments.

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

So, You Want to Write a Book…

I periodically get asked, “How do I get started writing a book?” My first response is questions. “What kind of book? Novel or nonfiction?” Then I ask, “For children or adults?” If for children, I ask for what audience age. For a novel, I may ask what genre. For example, fantasy, contemporary, adventure, romance, sci-fi, mystery, historical, etc.

Until I know the answers to these questions, I can’t help as much. But I can make these suggestions:

  • Imagine where your book would be on the shelf in a bookstore or library. This will help you know what kind of book you will be writing.
  • Read books similar to what you want to write. This helps you know the genre. There are rules for many genres, and you need to know them. And it helps you absorb good writing when you read lots and lots of books.
  • Read books published within the last five years. This helps you understand what publishers are currently publishing in the genre or age category.

For this post, I’m going to focus on writing fiction.

My next suggestion would be to write the pitch for your story. Sometimes called an elevator pitch, sometimes a book summary or a logline—no matter the label it can help you know where you want your story to go. It includes WHO, WHEN, WHAT, and WHY.

I love this article aimed at children’s book writers from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators: “Preparing for Online Pitch Contests: How to Write a Killer Logline”by Laurie Miller. Another great resource is this one from a literary agent that has simple examples: “A Pretty Much Foolproof, Never-Fail, Silver-Bullet Query Openingby John M. Cusick. Both of these are specifically aimed at getting attention for your book when trying to sell it. However, it can really help you focus as you write. You can also see samples in pitch contests on Twitter. For example, #PitMad. Check out the website. Next one is March 4th.

If you’re having trouble with the pitch idea, write a character problem statement. For example, Main Character wants to overcome the bullies in his life. It can be posed as a question. Will Main Character be able to overcome the bullies in his life without himself becoming a bully? Here’s a good article with examples: “How to Define Your Characters’ Story Goals” by Kristen Kieffer.

Story Elements for Fiction

Most of us learned about basic story elements in grade school. We probably learned more in middle school and high school. When writing our own story, we may forget some. So, let’s review. Story elements include: Character, Setting, Conflict, Plot, Point-of-View, and Theme. Some lists add Style or Literary Devices. Others add Tone.

You as the writer must know:

  • who your character is (although you may learn more as your write) and what she wants
  • where you are setting the story (our world in contemporary times or historical, fantasy world, etc.)
  • what external and/or internal conflicts the main character will experience (again you may not know all, but should know at least one before you start writing)
  • what will happen in the story (outliners’ plan this out, but even if you don’t outline, you should have some general idea)
  • whose story it is and in what POV will it be told (although authors sometimes write in 3rd person and switch to 1st person in later revisions—just be consistent in the story)
  • the universal ideas in your story (e.g. good wins over evil).

The style you write your story in or the literary devices you use may develop as you write. Ditto with the mood you establish, but if you know tone ahead of time, great!

Writing for Children

I’m going to focus now on writing books for children which can include for young adults.

Here’s a very helpful article on the process: “How to Write a Children’s Book in 12 Steps (From an Editor).” I do disagree with point 6—it depends on the book. And none of his examples seem to be children’s books.

Make sure you know what kids today are like! They are your audience. And especially if writing contemporary, you must show realistic kids for today’s readers. Here’s a great post by author K.M. Weiland: “Necessary Tips for How to Write Child Characters.”

Next? Finish Writing the Book!

First drafts are just that—your first ideas. Revising and editing will come later, if you finish. Here’s a wonderful quote: “Get those ideas down without wondering what will become of them. It’s the habit, not the single idea, that will set you on a creative journey you can’t even anticipate.” – Angela Burke Kunkel.

I’ll end with a link to another helpful article: “6 Tips to Help You Finish Your Book” by K.M. Weiland.

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

Picture Book Problems

I often am asked to review books—frequently by self-published writers. I explain I’m a book recommender and will only share the book if I like it. If the author is willing to accept that, and the book sounds interesting, then I say “send me the book.”

Perhaps some lessons could be learned from two I got this past month.

One was a darling story. It had fun art. I liked the twist in the ending. But sadly the picture book had some pages that didn’t make sense. (One was the character seeing something she could only feel. Another was the animal in the art and text didn’t match—one hoofed mammal can’t be replaced by another.) There was bad grammar and the overused idiom “all of a sudden.” Another page looked as if the artist drew the background then forgot to put the character in. One page randomly had text all in caps and in a different font.

An editor and an art director would have caught these issues. I don’t usually share my opinion in detail with an author, but in this case…I did because the book isn’t in print yet. I’d really like to see this book have a chance.

The other book got a “no” almost immediately. The art looked amateurish. And the first page had forced rhyme. I started skimming. The story continued with forced rhyme. I found alliteration with adjectives and nouns that didn’t add. An “all of a sudden.” It was preachy. Another character solved the problem for the main character.

First, let’s talk idioms. It’s not that they can’t be used, but they should be used with purpose. Look at this collection of picture books that use idioms—they use humor to explain the phrases. To me, “all of a sudden” is like writing, “hey, reader, pay attention something exciting is going to happen.” Instead, consider using a sound effect. E.g. “Wham! George crashed into the tree.” Or simply show the reader what happened. “The cat dashed out behind the couch.” Here’s a list of phrases and words, you might want to consider avoiding, plus suggestions on what else to use.

Preachy or didactic. How many of us like being told what to do? When a story is too obvious about the message, it isn’t entertainment. And fiction picture books are meant to entertain, comfort, challenge, stoke imagination, and yes, even sometimes teach. But that’s not why kids want them read over and over and over. I like this post on mistake two in “5 terrible, horrible, no good, very bad children’s book mistakes.”

Main character doesn’t solve problem. Our job as adults is to teach children to become adults who know how to solve their own problems. It’s never too early to start. Don’t you remember how proud a small child is when he or she could say, “I did it myself!” Don’t take that away from picture book characters either. Here’s a list of picture books—new and classic—about characters solving problems.

Grammar mistakes. Even the best grammarian can make mistakes. Don’t go it alone. If you aren’t sure of something, look it up. Get others to read your material and check your grammar.

Eyes on your work is good for art, too. Each spread should have something interesting going on. Art is supposed to enhance the text, not just be a filler.

In general, critique groups can help improve your manuscripts, and hopefully avoid errors like the ones mentioned in this post.