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

How Do I Scare My Readers?

scaredsilh.pngBruce Hale aka the Writer Guy was asked these questions:
“I would like to hear from you, what tips can you give me for horror stories, whether novel or short story? How do I bring that horror feel to life? How can I keep my readers from sleeping for a few nights? How do I achieve the fear factor?”
And is allowing me to share his answers here:
Having just finished a horror series for kids (The Monstertown Mysteries), this topic is fresh in my mind. Creating a sense of horror is all about the expectation of something awful happening. As Alfred Hitchcock said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
From early on in your story, you should plant the seed in the reader’s mind that all is not well in this world, and then with each turn of the page, you bring that horror closer and closer. How? Here are four techniques:
1. Hide the monster
Take a tip from scary movies, and have the *effects* of the creature/ghost/whatever turn up much earlier than the creature itself does. You’ll notice we don’t see the shark in JAWS until well into the film. There’s a reason for that. Spielberg knows that the longer we delay the actual monster sighting, the more punch it will pack.
2. Mislead the reader
Be sure to employ a few red herrings, spots where you make us think that the creature is about to appear but it turns out to be the cat, a neighbor, or whatever. This can also be used if your hero is trying to figure out what’s behind the spooky happenings. Have them initially suspect the wrong people.
3. Hook ’em over and over
Horror is all about hooks. Your concept should hook your reader from the get-go. But that’s not the only hook to employ. Rather than having chapter endings resolve an issue, have them hook as well. End each chapter on a cliffhanger note of suspense, the equivalent of “and then…” in a picture book. Try this technique and you’ll have your readers flipping pages like mad.
4. Play on your fears
Have the source of horror in your story be something that particularly frightens your hero. If they’re clown-phobic, have them face sadistic clowns. If they’re kitten-phobic, have them encounter Evil Fluffy. Bonus points if you can draw from your own fears when building your hero. Because the more you feel it when you’re writing, the more your readers will feel it when they read.

MantisCover4.jpghat-club-fedora.jpgBruce Hale is the author-illustrator of over 45 seriously funny books for young readers, including the Clark the Shark tales (one of which ended up in a Happy Meal — not the way you think) and the award-winning Chet Gecko Mysteries. Find out about his newest series, the Monstertown Mysteries, online at:

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

Raise the stakes, honey!

image by kfjmiller on
men hanging from ladder

Raise the stakes, honey!

Guest post by Kathi Appelt

I have been a writer my whole life long, beginning with writing on walls as a toddler to writing professionally as an adult. In that life-long career, I have written articles, picture books,
non-fiction, poetry, essays, short stories, a memoir, and even a song or two.
But for years and years the novel was a form that absolutely eluded me.
For a long time, I told myself that I didn’t need to write a novel. After all, I had plenty of published work to stand on, and I had plenty of ideas for new works.
But I was kidding myself, because in my heart of hearts, it was a novel that I wanted to write. So, I took courses, I bought how-to books, I went to workshops. I did all of the required groundwork. Why couldn’t I crack this genre?
In the meantime, I had drawer after drawer, boxes stacked upon boxes, of half-finished novels that were just that: half-finished.
It seemed like I could create wonderful characters, interesting landscapes, and great, colorful details. My characters, despite their goals, just didn’t seem to make much progress. I’d get about half way through and then my story would lose steam and whimper into oblivion.
It wasn’t until I took an on-line course with master teacher Dennis Foley that I realized that the essential element missing from my work was tension.
Now, plots are plots. I knew how to create plots. They involve a character who is moving toward a goal. And as Dennis so aptly puts it: “a goal is nothing more than whatever your character is trying to achieve, overcome or acquire.” Easy peasy.
Yeah, right!
How could it be that I could have a character, in search of a goal, with all of the other elements in place, but still come up short?
As it turns out, in order for a reader to care about your story, the stakes have to be raised. You can have a character overcome incredible odds and obstacles, but if there’s nothing at stake, then there’s no reason to pull for that same character.
Let’s consider an example. Say we have a great guy named Phillip who is a cross-country racer and whose goal is to win the regional track meet. We’ll put Phillip at the starting line and pull the trigger on the starting pistol. Kapow! Off he goes.
If we use a basic plot, with three obstacles of increasing difficulty, we can first have Phillip develop an annoying blister on his heel. But because Phillip is tough, he runs through the pain. Next, it starts to snow. Now Phillip is having trouble seeing the track because of the snow, and his blister is getting worse, so the odds against his winning are increasing. Finally, he stumbles and turns his ankle. The entire pack is well ahead of him and Phillip is trailing badly.
We’ll leave it there. Whether Phillip wins or not doesn’t really matter. But what is missing from this story is the why of it. Why is it so important that Phillip win this race?
You see, there’s nothing wrong with this plot, nothing wrong with the obstacles, nothing wrong with the character. But we have no idea what the stakes are and why it matters so much to Phillip to win that race. Is a college scholarship at stake? Is he racing to prove something to his family, something about honor, about perseverance, about stamina? Is he racing to win enough money to buy medicine for his little daughter?
What will be irrevocably lost if he doesn’t win? Why is it so important to Phillip?
And that’s the key word – important. The stakes have to be so important to the main character that if they don’t achieve, acquire or overcome their goal, we the reader will care. If not, then it’s just a race.
Winning or losing doesn’t matter unless the stakes are high.
Raise ’em, honey. Otherwise, nobody will care.

This article appeared in Bruce Hale‘s January 2014 THE INSIDE STORY
– used by permission. Go here for more from Bruce.

kathi-225x300.jpegKathi Appelt is a National Book Award finalist (for THE UNDERNEATH), and the author of over 20 books for kids and teens. Her tales have won numerous national and state awards, and she serves on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Children’s Writing program. Catch up with her online at:

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

The Hero’s Journey for Magazine Writers

Jan Fields.jpgGuest Post by Jan Fields
Increasingly editors are interested in two things in fiction (1) adventure and (2) something a boy might read. But many writers are stuck when it comes to thinking about adventure. What makes up an adventure and can you do it well in 2000 words or less (sometimes a lot less). Sure you can. After all, Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is a perfect adventure story in 336 words.
The adventure story is the basis for so many classic myths and legends – so much so that “The Hero’s Journey” has become almost a guidebook for adventure. So how could the circular structure of the basic “Hero’s Journey” help us craft a magazine adventure story? Let’s begin by looking at a simplified version of the Hero’s Journey structure, keeping in mind that for magazine fiction, the story must will focus on the main character (MC):
Ordinary World – Stories begin just before the thing that ultimately changes the MC.
Call to Adventure – A need arises, the MC has a challenge.
Refusal/Commitment – the MC resists the challenge, doesn’t want to undertake the task but ultimately accepts that the challenge cannot be avoided.
Approaching the First Ordeal – The MC begins to understand the size of the challenge and the stakes are raised.
Ordeal – MC faces a serious challenge and overcomes.
Reward – a time of rest for the MC, sometimes a false sense of completion.
The Road/Resurrection – more complications, when things look much worse than expected and the biggest challenge met.
Mastery – The adventure resolves, often a sense of coming full circle. The MC has changed.
Okay, how might that play out in a magazine story? Let’s look at how it could play out in a short story synopsis:
genstore.jpgOrdinary World – A boy heads home from a day at the pool and stops in a store for a cold drink.
Call to Adventure – Unexpectedly, the beloved store owner isn’t there and in his place is a hostile woman whose attention constantly shifts to the backroom door.
Refusal/Commitment – The boy hurries through his purchase to get away from the unpleasant woman. Once outside, he sits down to sip his drink and notices a lot people coming and going through the back door of the building – something he’s never seen before. He begins to wonder what’s going on.
Approaching the First Ordeal – The boy watches the store, even creeping close enough to the back door to hear what sounds like a scuffle. Could the woman be doing something illegal and holding the real store owner prisoner. The boy runs to alert a trusted adult.
Reward – The boy returns to the story with the trusted adult, expecting to save the story owner. But the woman tells the trusted adult a believable story and even opens the door to the backroom, where everything is quiet. The boy has now lost the support of his trusted adult.
The Road/Resurrection – The MC sits outside, determined to find out what is really happening. At first everything is quiet, then someone comes out of the backroom door, sees the boy and chases him away. The boy sneaks back, finding a better vantage point to watch the shop. He’s caught and this time the bad guy decides to hold onto the boy until their goal is met. The boy is locked into the shop bathroom with the beloved store owner (now slightly injured).
Mastery – Because of his small size, the boy can escape through the cramped bathroom window, though not without some minor injury. He runs to his trusted adult, this time with “proof” – the real store owners ubiquitous cap – now with bloodstains. The trusted adult calls the police and the store owner is saved!
In real life, the trusted adult might have stormed over to the store and given the woman some real conflict, not giving up easily. But then the story would have shifted from being the main character’s adventure/challenge to being the story of the actions of a side adult character. To work as a story, the main character has to commit to the challenge and overcome the obstacle on his own.
Author’s Brief Bio
Since my first magazine publication in the 1980s, I have been steadily writing for money in some form. Today I have over twenty books in print and still more in the pipeline – books for children and adults. I’ve also written for magazines, educational publishers and even a toy company! Writing is the only thing I’ve ever done really well that didn’t eventually become more like work than fun.
Read more about Jan at
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Posted in Business Side of Writing, Guest Post, Market Prep, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

How to Start Querying an Agent

letterbox.jpgguest post by author Jan Fields
First, of course, you need to find an agent you feel good about and learn what the agent wants. My favorite place for this is by Casey McCormick. If you look on the left-side column on Casey’s site, you’ll see agents grouped by what they represent. She’s spotlighted many agents and looked at what each agent represents and how the agent wants to be contacted. It’s really a treasure trove of help.
Now, after you’ve picked an agent. Try a Google search with just that agent’s name. Sometimes you can pull up even more information to help you really know what the agent wants to see from you (and sometimes the agent even has a blog where she/he puts queries that really snagged his/her attention. These are really priceless examples because they show how to effectively pitch to that agent. If the specific agent you’ve chosen doesn’t have that…poke around in Casey’s list to find some who do. It’s invaluable to check out examples.
Now, in the query/pitch itself, you can find wonderful, wonderful help on Nathan Bransford‘s site. Nathan isn’t agenting anymore but he has spent a massive amount of time helping writers to do this stuff right.
Here’s his query formula.
His good examples.
Even help with formating an email query.
Really, you’ll find a ton of help on Nathan’s site.
Former agent who has given tons and tons of help is Mary Kole who has a site called There she has: help with queries and more.
Agent Jennifer Laughran has a great bit about your author bio that goes in your query.
So, that’s a good bit of reading but it should really get you going on your agent hunt. Good luck!

Jan’s Brief Bio

“Since my first magazine publication in the 1980s, I have been steadily writing for money in some form. Today I have over twenty books in print and still more in the pipeline – books for children and adults. I’ve also written for magazines, educational publishers and even a toy company! Writing is the only thing I’ve ever done really well that didn’t eventually become more like work than fun.”
To read more go to Jan’s site.
Jan is also the editor of the Children’s Writers eNews. If you aren’t getting it, you’re missing out!

Thanks to Clarita on for the above image.

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

Nancy I. Sanders on Writing Nonfiction

June 5 SandersI keep running into writers who want to write nonfiction and have more questions than I can answer, so here’s an interview with Nancy I. Sanders who is well-established in this area:
What led you to write nonfiction?
In my book, Yes! You Can Learn How to Write Children’s Books, Get Them Published, and Build a Successful Writing Career, I explain a strategy I call the “Triple Crown of Success.” For this I always recommend writers be working on three separate manuscripts to meet three separate goals:
1) the goal to get published,
2) the goal to earn income, and
3) the goal of writing for personal fulfillment.
As I started to build my writing career, I discovered I could earn nice income writing nonfiction so I always try to be working on at least one nonfiction project while I’m working on manuscripts to meet my other two goals.
How do you usually get to write nonfiction books? Do you come up with the idea first or does the publisher? Or does it vary?
Sometimes a publisher sends an idea my way. The way I got the idea to write Frederick Douglass for Kids, however, was very typical of the way I come up with ideas for nonfiction books. I was browsing through a current catalog of this publisher and exploring the titles of their “For Kids” series. I noticed they had various famous Americans in their series such as George Washington for Kids and Benjamin Franklin for Kids. I realized they had a hole in their series and didn’t yet have a title on Frederick Douglass, one of the greatest leaders in America. So I queried the publisher and asked if they’d like to see a proposal on a potential new title called Frederick Douglass for Kids. They said “Yes!” and the rest is history.
What chances does a nonfiction children’s writer have of writing another book about a topic that already has numerous books written about it?
Actually, the chances are quite good, if you do your homework.
First, check the product line of the publisher you’d like to target. If they already have a book on this topic, perhaps they’d like one written with a fresh, unique angle.
And if your publisher doesn’t yet have a book on the topic you want to write about…chances are that if it’s a common topic, your publisher would like to have a book in their product line written on that topic, too! That was the case with this book.
In the books you write, do you use both primary and secondary sources?
It depends on each project. For this book, I used numerous primary sources that included Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies as well as many little-known books written by African American solders who fought during the Civil War as well as African American women who supported the troops as nurses or spies. I found amazing facts and stories I’d never read in any other history book about the Civil War! Plus I had lots of secondary sources of more current books that helped give an overview about the history of this era.
Do you have any favorite “go to” sources when you start a new project?
I like to gather other children’s nonfiction books on my new topic. This helps me develop my outline by referring to the table of contents in these books. Children’s books capture the top ten essential ingredients about a topic, so they’re great resources for developing an outline and a proposal in a short amount of time.
Then, if the proposal is accepted, I gather encyclopedias and primary sources on my topics to really dig in depth. Since I specialize in writing African American history for kids, I own over 200 research books in my own personal library that I’ve built over the years. It’s so helpful when I start a new project because I already have these resources at hand. My favorite resource is numerous books by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. including his encyclopedia set I own, African American National Biography.
How do you organize your research notes? On 3×5 cards, a notebook, on your computer?
The system that works best for me is that I first sit in a comfortable chair to read research books and jot down notes by hand on paper for about an hour to start my day.
Then I move over to my computer and type these notes into an ever-growing working outline. Then I print out these notes and other important notes such as information I’ve found and printed out from the Internet that day. I store these notes each day in a file folder, one file folder per chapter (or section within a chapter for a really long book). I store all these file folders in a pocket folder for handy reference when I need something from a specific chapter that I’ve printed out. This usually takes me another hour.
Then I sit at my computer and type new material for my book project for another hour or so, based on the research I just did.
This gives me at least 3 solid hours of writing each day.
Do you have any advice you’d give to someone who is just starting out and wants to write nonfiction?
Don’t be a “Lone Ranger” writer. Learn how to be a “piggyback” writer. I explain all about how this works in my book for children’s writers, Yes! You Can Learn How to Write Children’s Books… In a nutshell, if you want to experience breakthrough as a nonfiction writer, study publishers’ catalogs and look for series that are written by multiple authors and the copyright to each book is in the author’s name. Brainstorm 3-5 ideas for topics that can fit within that series. Then send a query to that publisher asking if they’d like to see a proposal on any of those topics to fit into their current series.
Not only does this help you land a contract to write a nonfiction book, but when your book comes out, everyone who is already buying the other books in the series will buy yours too, and you’ll see great sales! This is what I call being a “piggyback” writer. It’s in stark contrast to what I refer to as a “Lone Ranger” writer who just tries to find a publisher for her own idea and if it does get published has to try to market it on her name or that title alone with slow sales as a result.
What are you doing to celebrate the release of your book, Frederick Douglass for Kids?
I’m hosting a two-week virtual Book Launch Party! There are prizes to win, fun facts to learn, and lots of inside peeks and helpful tips about how a book is born. Stop by my site today to join in the party.
FrederickDouglassCoverBook Synopsis
Few Americans have had as much impact on this nation as Frederick Douglass. Born on a plantation, he later escaped slavery and helped others to freedom via the Underground Railroad. In time he became a bestselling author, an outspoken newspaper editor, a brilliant orator, a tireless abolitionist, and a brave civil rights leader. He was famous on both sides of the Atlantic in the years leading up to the Civil War, and when war broke out, Abraham Lincoln invited him to the White House for counsel and advice.
Frederick Douglass for Kids follows the footsteps of this American hero, from his birth into slavery to his becoming a friend and confidant of presidents and the leading African American of his day. And to better appreciate Frederick Douglass and his times, readers will form a debating club, cook a meal similar to the one Douglass shared with John Brown, make a civil war haversack, participate in a microlending program, and more. This valuable resource also includes a time line of significant events, a list of historic sites to visit or explore online, and web resources for further study.

More About Nancy
Nancy I. Sanders is the bestselling and award-winning author of over 80 books including America’s Black Founders, A Kid’s Guide to African American History, and D Is for Drinking Gourd: An African American Alphabet. She teaches other writers how to launch their career to the next level based on material found in her book for writers mentioned above. Nancy’s writing buddies, Sandman and Pitterpat (who just happen to be cats–see picture above) help bring laughter to her days. You can visit their site for practical tips, writing worksheets, and a light-hearted look at the writer’s life.
See what’s happening at Nancy’s launch party.

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