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.

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

Storystorm 2021

This is my second year to participate with Storystorm—30 ideas in 31 days. And this time I joined the Facebook group which has already been helpful. Cindy Williams Schrauben shared how she lists her picture book ideas:

Main Character –
Problem –
Title –
Setting –

Because Susanna Leonard Hill always asks for up to three themes for “Perfect Picture Book Friday,” I decided to add Theme.

And then on Day 3, Ashley Franklin talked about feelings, so now I’ve added Emotion.

I’ve put these headings in a spreadsheet.

I know, I know. What does that have to do with coming up with story ideas? Day 1, Tara Lazar reminded us to write our ideas down. The method I used last year wasn’t so helpful—I think this will work better for me.

In fact, I think I might reorganize my ideas from last year the same way on a different worksheet. Maybe it will make one of those ideas pop. Or as Cindy suggested, something from my old list might mix or match with something on this year’s list of ideas.

Doing a challenge or activity like this can get us moving and thinking. If you haven’t registered for Storystorm, there’s still time. (And it’s not just for picture book writers.) Check it out here and make sure you subscribe to Tara’s blog to get the posts.

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

Trust Your Reader

In a recent student lesson, the writer was sharing the same information over and over in her short story. It was similar to saying as you’re getting your purse, “Honey, I’m going to the store” and when you put on your coat, “I’m going to the store, Honey.” And yet a third time when you opened the front door, “I’m off to the store now.” Most of us would get it the first time. And be annoyed by the repetition. Trust your reader to get what you write, too. Don’t annoy them.

Ruth E. Walker says, “Don’t poke your reader in the eye.” Yes, that’s how I felt reading that story.

Historical and fantasy author D.B. Jackson says, “Trusting your reader means, in essence, not slowing your narrative to explain things that don’t need explaining. It means trusting that you have done a good enough job showing your readers elements of plot, character, and setting that you don’t need to tell them as well.”

“More to the point, by explaining too much, by using those markers, I was denying my readers one of the great joys of reading:  That feeling of epiphany that comes when we figure things out along with the characters we’re following.” – David B. Coe

Besides repetitive information, what other warning signs show we aren’t trusting our readers?

  • The phrase “as if.”
    Example: He sagged and braced himself on the table, as if he had no energy to stand up. The first part of the sentence shows; the second tells. (I realize, I’ve used this one!)
  • Stating in dialogue and writing an action where both get the same information across.
    Example: “I don’t have any energy to stand up.” I sagged and braced myself against the table.
  • Overexplaining in dialogue. As you know Bob.
    Example: “Stacey, I’m just so upset. How could my father leave us like that? It’s been two weeks and he says he’s not coming back. It’s not fair to me or my little brother. And to choose that bimbo over Mom? It’s just wrong.”
    The main character’s best friend Stacey would already know the dad had left and why and that our main character is upset. The above is an info dump for the reader.
    More natural: “How could he do this to us, Stacey?” I held back a sob. “It’s like we’re not his kids anymore.”
  • Adverbs with “said” or “asked,” or explaining tone of voice.
    Examples: “Run!” he said urgently. “I’m sorry,” she said with compassion. “Please don’t go,” she said in a pleading voice.
    Each of those pieces of dialogue would stand on their own.
  • Introducing or qualifying with words like “no doubt” and “obviously.”
    Example: Ranger ran back to me and dropped the ball at my feet. “Good boy!” Obviously, he understood the game of fetch now.

Janice Hardy says, “It’s hard to know when it’s too much, but the tendency is to over explain, not under. When you find yourself thinking, ‘Will they get that? look back for the clues that will allow the reader to get it. If you find them, don’t worry about it. If you don’t, then add a few.”

So, where have you found yourself not trusting the reader? Please share in comments.

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

5 Tips for Writing Great Young Adult Stories

Guest post by Desiree Villena

From publishing phenomena like Hunger Games to The Hate U Give, there’s no doubt that young adult is one of the most exciting genres to write in right now, as YA authors tackle serious issues such as diversity, sexuality, racism, and identity in new and fearlessly engaging ways. So, if you, too, want to write powerful stories for teens to connect to, you’re in the right place.

Here are 5 tips to help you write a great YA story.

1. Get the age of your character right

The first thing to know is that the children’s book industry takes their genres pretty seriously. Children’s book genres are meant to delineate age-appropriate fiction for people to read as they grow up, and the age of your protagonist is one of those defining characteristics.

In YA fiction, nearly all protagonists are teenagers, which makes sense — teens want to read about other teens doing things. This means your protagonist should ideally be between the ages of 14 and 18. Once your protagonist passes the age of 19, you’re flirting with New Adult territory, which is another genre altogether.

It’s important to first get the age of your character right because it will determine a load of things that will really make or break a YA novel, such as plot and theme. Which leads me to my next point.

2. Identify powerful themes to carry your book

Whether you’re writing a dystopian YA novel (a la Hunger Games), a fantasy YA novel (a la Percy Jackson), a romance YA novel (a la The Fault in Our Stars), or any other kind of YA novel, one thing will remain universal: your themes.

Themes are of the utmost importance in YA fiction. Generally, they’re specific to YA fiction’s age range and revolve around self-discovery. Here are a few of the common ones you’ll find in the genre:

  • Identity
  • Sexuality
  • Family conflicts
  • Self-discovery
  • Coming of age
  • First love

How you approach and explore each theme is where your plot will come into play. And don’t fret about whether or not your content is “too dark” for teens — you’d be surprised at how much they can handle. What they really want is to see characters and life experiences they can connect to. Speaking of which…

3. Focus on writing three-dimensional, memorable characters

You’ll hear the word “authenticity” tossed around a lot when it comes to writing YA fiction. Whether or not you actually achieve authenticity will come down to the strength of your characters.

Naturally, the first step towards authenticity (outside of getting your character’s name right) is to avoid stereotyping. That’s right. Give those dumb jocks and mean girls a break, and write them instead with depth. Just because you’re writing teen characters doesn’t mean your characters should be any less complex, three-dimensional, and multi-layered than adult characters. If you’ve ever met (or been) a teenager, you’ll know that their inner lives are just as profound and intense as any adult’s — if not more so.

Don’t worry if you don’t get the characters right in the first try. Sometimes it’ll take until your revision process for the characters to speak to you.

For inspiration, turn to the books you loved as a teenager. Which protagonists were you drawn to? Which spoke to you? Try to deconstruct them to understand how the author made them so memorable. Notice how they were developed, what their character arcs were — and how the author translated their voices onto paper.

But don’t just stop at your childhood. Take a look at current YA to see what kind of characters the teens love nowadays. Great characters are timeless — and chances are, you’ll find a lot of similarities when it comes to the way that great authors in any era develop them.

4. Find the perfect voice

Think about the most distinctive YA protagonists you’ve read. What made them stand out to you?

Most likely a big part of it was the protagonist’s voice. Executed effectively, voice can make characters come to life like nothing else. As you’re figuring out your own protagonist’s voice, pay attention to:

  • Sentence structure
  • Word choice
  • Vocabulary
  • Syntax

And don’t forget to pick the right point of view (POV)! Many YA novels these days are written from the first-person viewpoint, but that doesn’t mean that you should discount the strengths of the third-person POV entirely. (Harry Potter, anyone?) Play around with it — when it sticks and the voice rings true to you, you’ll know.

5. Don’t write to trends

Don’t give into the temptation to write to trends. Many an author will spot a trend (say, wizarding boarding schools) and think that they surely, too, have a higher chance of getting published if they also write a book about wizarding boarding schools. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

It’s pretty much impossible to guarantee your book is “on trend” while you’re writing it. As Electric Literature says, trends move fast — and publishing, unfortunately, doesn’t. The truth is it’s very likely the trend will probably be over by the time you finish your book and try to query it to disinterested literary agents. Which means you’re stuck with a book you wrote simply for the sake of the fad.

At the end of the day, that’s what it boils down to: you should write your YA novel because you want to write it, not because you think something “trendy” will be easier to publish. And if you do write what you love, who knows? You might be the one to start a new trend yourself.

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

The Breaks of Paragraphing

When my daughter was in seventh grade, the English paper she’d written was a wall of black text. Not a single paragraph break. I made a point of explaining “one topic per paragraph,” etc. I’ve had adult students who didn’t understand the idea any better than she did, with some going the complete opposite direction and having

a

paragraph

break

for

every

single

sentence.

So, what are the rules? Well, they’re “…more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” (Pirates of the Caribbean – see the movie clip here: https://youtu.be/k9ojK9Q_ARE) Especially for fiction.

Author Fred D. White says, “Remember that paragraphing is more an element of individual style than of grammar. You are in charge of what a paragraph should do or what shape it should take.”

However, paragraphing breaks with dialogue (or action) makes it easier for readers to tell who is speaking/acting.

Start a new paragraph with each speaker (or person acting). Fiction Editor Beth Hill says, “Consider a paragraph as a frame for a specific amount or section of information. In fiction this may be description, dialogue, action, exposition or any combination of these elements. The paragraph acts as a boundary or fence for related items.” (Emphasis mine.)

That frame/fence image is so helpful. When one character speaks, acts with and within his setting, etc., we usually keep it inside one box or paragraph. We get a new paragraph, when a second characters adds to the conversation with her thoughts or asks questions. And again, a new one when the first character answers. This helps create white space which makes for easier reading.

Example:
Joe stepped up to the counter and asked the woman serving coffee, “How’s it going today, Sarai?”
            “Busy.” She brushed her thick black hair back from her face. “The usual?”
            “Please.” Joe scanned the room. “You seen Monty?”
            Sarai paused before reaching for a disposable cup. She opened her mouth, but Joe stopped her.
          “Hold on. When you can’t answer right away, it’s a dead giveaway you’re phrasing how to lie to me.” His eyes narrowed. “I don’t like being lied to.”

We also start new paragraphs…

  • when a character’s speech is lengthy – Say Joe in my example above is sometimes longwinded. Special punctuation would let us know he is continuing to speak in the next paragraph. (No closing quote at the end of the first paragraph of dialogue.)
  • to show a physical change in location or time or both. When paragraphs of description are needed, think one paragraph per topic. For example, if a character is walking in the dark woods, in this fence of paragraphing is the description of the woods. But when she comes across the house, that would be another box opened before the reader’s eyes.
  • when the subject under discussion changes – Remember the movie UP? Dug, the dog is talking along, when something catches his eye. He says, “Squirrel!” which interrupts what he was saying.
  • for emphasis – Dug’s “Squirrel!” is again an example. “Sometimes starting a new paragraph or allowing a single sentence to stand on its own is a great way to emphasize a key point, get a laugh, or otherwise control the pace of the story to your advantage.” – David Cathcart
  • when a new character enters the scene.
  • when something unexpected happens – E.g. a horn honk, the clash of the garbage truck, the lights go out, etc.

That’s a lot for a simple indented new line to do. To sum up, these guidelines aren’t hard rules, but mostly a pattern that when followed provides clarity. If paragraphing breaks are hard for you, take a story you like and type out a few pages for practice.

Here’s an exception to the break guidelines. We don’t start a new paragraph for each person when we are summarizing the action. E.g. The final bell rang. Rachel and Milo stuffed their math books into their backpacks and dashed out the classroom door. They caught up with their friends at the bus. Rachel gave Anaya a high five.

Paragraphs also serve other purposes.

Paragraphs affect pacing. Paragraph and sentence lengths can either slow or speed the action. Long paragraphs slow—short ones speed. So, you use the former for when things are calm, but the latter in the midst of action. Here’s an interesting thought from Leah McClellan: “In a novel, as the action winds down and the scene ends, longer sentences, longer paragraphs, and more description let readers catch their breath.”

Paragraphs can show moods, too. “Shorter staccato paragraphs can convey that a character is tense, worried, short-tempered or taciturn. Longer paragraphs can indicate a character is in a good mood, long-winded, relaxed or prone to deep and rambling thought,” author Jennifer Ellis says.

Back to my seventh-grade daughter. She learned paragraphing techniques and ended up in advanced placement English in high school. Writing in paragraphs is natural for her now. With some practice, it can be so for you too.

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