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.

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.