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

Idea Generation – Words and First Lines

Sometimes the ideas just don’t come. But one thing I know is ideas breed other ideas. As John Steinbeck said, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”

Here are a couple ways to get your mind working:

WORD LISTS

Make up long lists of….

  • specific places.
    • where you’ve been.
    • from childhood (include dramatic places where you or someone else was worried, afraid, injured, etc.).
    • places important to you now.
    • where you’d like to be (research probably needed).
  • specific nouns.
  • active verbs.
  • specific situations or problems.
  • talents and skills.
  • habits and quirks.
  1. Pick items from three or four lists and see what happens when you put them together.
  2. Do you come up with an opening for a story? Interesting ideas for a character or a problem? A way a character could solve a problem? A setting? An antagonist?
  3. Experiment with these ideas and see where they take you. Enjoy playing around.

OPENING LINES

Make up a list of first lines without worrying whether or not you’d actually want to use them. Make them compelling and interesting.

  1. If you need a starting point, look at famous opening lines and reimagine them.
    • You can search online and find many. Here’s one source: https://www.boredpanda.com/famous-books-first-lines/
      • Imagine how your character, if you have one already, might say something similar.
      • Imagine how a specific animal might say it.
      • Put it in picture book language.
      • Make something serious funny or vice versa.
      • Have fun—there are no rules.
  2. When you’ve got a good number, read through them again.
  3. Ask yourself questions such as…
    • Which ones catch my attention?
    • Which ones make me laugh?
    • Which ones make me want to know more?
    • Which ones make me sad?
    • Which are boring?
  4. Pick a couple of favorite opening lines. Can you expand them into a paragraph or more? If you find ideas are flowing, keep going to see how far it takes you.
  5. Set the list and the paragraphs aside.
  6. If any ideas keep “haunting” you, consider how to make them a complete project.
  7. Look at the list again at a later date. Do the same lines grab you or do different ones? If different lines grab you, expand those.
  8. Look at the paragraphs again at a later date. Does more scene unfold in your mind? Write and see where you go.

I ended up writing a whole novel inspired by a writing exercise. Others have inspired picture books. Yet, others sent me back to the writing desk to works-in-progress. And at the very least, they got me putting words on a page.

As Louis L’Amour said, “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the tap is turned on.”

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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 The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, Tools

Show/Hide, Etc.

If you’re not using this tool in your word processor when things go wonky with a Word document, you’re missing out.

I recently had a student send me her article. She was so frustrated with the text jumping from one page to the next. It left a huge white space at the end of one page. And no matter what she did, she couldn’t fix it. Turns out she had a Section Break (Next Page) creating havoc.

How did I know?

I turned on Show/Hide (¶). It’s on my Home toolbar menu represented by the paragraph mark ¶. If you can’t find it, use the Help on your word processor and search for it. In some word processors, Help is represented by a question mark. I’m using the most recent version of MS Word.

What does Show/Hide do?

It shows hidden characters created by the system. A single space, such as the spaces between my words, is a raised dot ·. End of paragraph is ¶. (Mine are blue to contrast with my text—yours may be a different color.) Show/hide displays the column breaks, section breaks, and page breaks, too. It lets you see what’s going on behind the text.

For this student, it also showed me that she was using five spaces instead of an indent at the start of paragraphs. If one uses the tab to indent a paragraph, most word processors “learn” that is what is wanted and all new paragraphs will be indented automatically saving the writer time and effort. Note: Indent on your menu moves the left margin of an entire paragraph to the right. Tab only goes to your first tab which is usually one-half inch.

I’ve used Show/Hide and found places where I had multiple spaces when only one was needed. A Find and Replace can take care of that issue. (Under the Edit menu. Find space space, Replace All space). No more duplicate spaces.

How to fix an unwanted break

Usually your cursor can be put after the full expression of the break (at the right) and then you backspace which will delete it.

Sometimes, it’s resistant. Then, I’ve copied the text around it, including the pesky break, and pasted it into a new document by using Paste Special. (Under the Edit menu.) When the window pops up with options, choose Unformatted Text. This will paste it in without any extra formatting. Copy that and repaste over the same section in your original document.

If all else fails, copy the entire document and Paste Special, Unformatted Text in a new document. You will lose headers, but you can go back and copy the original header and paste into the new document. You also may lose double-spacing, and blank lines at the beginning of your manuscript, but those are easily fixed.

How to add a break

Say you’ve reached the end of your article and you want to add the bibliography to your document. Instead of using return/enter until you reach a new page (which, if you make any changes earlier in the document, won’t leave the vertical spacing correct) use Insert Break. My version of Word shows Insert next to Home. I click on it and can choose Page Break. Or on the very top menu line, I can chose Insert and then Page Break. The same method works at the end of a chapter in a novel so the new one starts on a new page. Your word processor may have this option elsewhere, but most offer it. Again, use Help if you can’t find it.

One last important tool

The rulers. I always have this on. The top one—a horizontal ruler—lets me see what is happening with my margins and tabs. The one on the left, shows me where I am vertically on the page. It also shows the top and bottom margins. I find it under View, either as a checkbox or as the word Ruler which I check by clicking on it.

Yes, word processors can be frustrating. But if you learn to use the tools that are offered, they can be a big help.

Additional Notes:

  • You can always search youtube.com for a how to. For example, this is a recent video on Show/Hide: https://youtu.be/XK9lw-2Rrmg
  • Google docs does not have the same options that a Word document has. It’s compatible with Word. I do not recommend opening a document in Google docs if you are planning to make comments and send back to the original writer. Instead download it, and open in Word.
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Posted in The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, Tools

One Day Virtual Write-In

Our 8 member writing group has once or twice yearly writing retreats. We enjoy time together, eat together, and get lots of work done. We make it affordable by staying at someone’s house (or cabin) with everyone bringing food. We share in cooking and cleanup. This year our scheduled retreat was in May. Obviously Covid-19 canceled that.

We rescheduled for July. This time instead of totally cancelling, we agreed on a substitute–a virtual write-in. If it goes well, we will probably repeat.

I thought our schedule might be of interest to others.

ONE DAY VIRTUAL WRITE-IN SCHEDULE

8:30am              meet via Zoom
– PJs welcome.
– Bring a cup of coffee or tea, maybe a pastry or an egg, or some fruit.
– While we eat, we chat.
– Each one shares what project they will be working on this morning.

12noon            meet via Zoom
– Chat for a half hour.
– Then eat your own lunch and return to work.

4:00pm            meet via Zoom
– Talk about your day’s progress.
– Play game.

Children’s book question game:

  • All of us prepare a few children’s book related questions ahead of time.
  • Whoever raises their hand first and answers correctly gets a point. If no one guesses, the asker gets a point.
  • On to the next person until everyone has had a chance to ask three questions. (Prepare a few more in case someone uses yours!)
  • The winner gets a big hurrah from all of us.

In addition, the Zoom “room” will be open all day.

  • If someone wants to chat with someone for a bit, they could get on and see if anyone else is on.
  • Or text someone and ask them to meet.

We may decide to meet back after dinner and share some work for critique, or wait for our next Zoom critique meeting.

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