Posted in Business Side of Writing, Craft

Advice to New Writers

“Writers are not born. They are made. Made through willpower and work. Made by iteration, ideation, reiteration. Made through learning — learning that comes from practicing, reading, and through teachers who help shepherd you through those things in order to give your efforts context.” – Chuck Wendig

Read, read, read what you want to write. Especially new books in the genre or age category. Learning what is out there—the styles, the lengths, the ways “things are done”—will improve your own writing.

Take classes, workshops, webinars, and go to conferences and retreats where you can learn craft and connect with other writers and with editors and agents. I always glean some nugget by participating in these events. I got some work-for-hire work because of word of mouth from another writer. If I’d stayed in my house, I wouldn’t have met her and heard about this opportunity.

Get in a critique group or do manuscript exchanges. I have learned so much from my critique partners over the years. Not only do I learn by what they say about my pieces, but I learn from what I see in theirs. We teach each other because we all have different areas where we excel. For example, I have a tendency to be an underwriter and my ciritque partners will ask, “What is she thinking here?” “How does she feel.” (I found most of my critique partners through SCBWI.)

Write, and keep writing! If you want to be a writer, that means you have to actually write. This is where the will and hard work comes in. Schedule a time. Put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and put something on the blank page. Any kind of writing is better than none, but it’s better if you have some kind of goal and meet it. E.g. “Today, I’m going to get one scene written.” “I’m going to write for a minimum of one hour.” “I’m going to complete the first draft of my short story.” I love this quote from Jack London, “Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.” Yes, the act of writing itself can inspire you. Putting thoughts down will make more thoughts come.

Rewrite. Isn’t it a relief that you don’t have to get your writing exactly right the first time? You can revise and rewrite and edit it as many times as necessary. I find it helpful to have space between the time I wrote something and when I come back to edit. That helps me see it afresh and discover what isn’t working so well, or is overdone or incomplete. Reading aloud helps me hear errors and see missing or wrong word. Only when it is the best I can make it, do I submit.

To sum up there are: “Three Rules for Literary Success: 1. Read a lot. 2. Write a lot. 3. Read a lot more, write a lot more.” – Robert Silverberg                            

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

Ground Me

I’ve critiqued novel manuscripts and found myself asking again and again, “Where are the characters?” Often writers have good dialogue and interesting problems, but I can’t place myself with the characters. There’s no sense of place or setting.

By contrast, I think back to the first novelist I fell in love with—Mary Stewart. She made me see the flowers glow under the streetlights, hear the swish of the tires on pavement, taste what her character was eating. The locations were all very real. I’ve had similar experiences with fantasy authors whose writing made a place so tangible I wanted to visit places that didn’t even exist! Hogwarts anyone? We want our writing to feel that true.

One fellow writer explained it this way, “Don’t have your characters standing in front of a white board.” Specific details of what’s around the characters help ground the reader. But it’s not simply telling.

So, how do we add these details of setting in in a meaningful way?

Start the scene in a place. It can be simple or complex, familiar or strange.

“Before you agree to have Joseph come live with you,” Mrs. Stroud said, “there are one or two things you ought to understand.” She took out a state of Maine Department of Health and Human Services folder and laid it on the kitchen table.” – from Gary D. Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter:

“I pushed the world’s oldest vacuum around the shaggy speckled carpet from the Stone Ages, taking care to make straight, even lines. The first time I vacuumed Larry’s trailer…” – Coyote Queen by Jessica Vitalis.

“In my fifteen years, I have stuck my arm in a vat of slithering eels, climbed all the major hills of San Francisco, and tiptoed over the graves of a hundred souls.” – Outrun the Moon, Stacey Lee.

“Sophronia intended to pull the dumbwaiter up from the kitchen to outside the front parlor on the ground floor, where Mrs. Barnaclegoose was taking tea.” – Etiquette & Espionage, by Gail Carriger.

Introduce when the scene is taking place. It may be stated out right or be more subtle. It may be prosaic or fantastic.

“Earth year 2041
“Lunar day 188
“Smack in the middle of the night
“Let’s get something straight, right off the bat: Everything the movies have ever taught you about space travel is garbage.” – Space Case, Stuart Gibbs

“It was 5:42 a.m. on May Day, 1983 in the West of England, and a sliver of the sun had edged above the ridge.” – The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, Garth Nix.

“When I left my office that beautiful spring day, I had no idea what was in store for me.” – Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls.

Mix setting in with conversation, and a reader won’t have to guess at where characters are. It doesn’t have to be complex.

            Straightening his basketball jersey, Aaron slipped into the gym behind his teammates.
            “Where were you?” Michael whispered.
            “Had to stay after in math class.” He rolled his eyes. “I thought I was going to miss practice.”

Think about how your character(s) react to the setting. That’s much more interesting than simply stating a fact. For example, a flat statement: It was a windy day. Including the character in a distancing way with saw, heard, watched, etc. isn’t an improvement: Lila looked out and saw it was a windy day. How does the wind affect Lila?

            Lila stepped out the front door of the apartment building. The wind tossed her long black hair around her face and she shivered.

See how there’s a bit more setting now? Plus, we have one small action. We’ve also learned two new things. It’s cold enough for her to shiver and we have a description of her hair. Combine such details with her dialogue and she’ll feel more real.

Whenever your character is outside or even checking the temperature on her phone, she’ll probably react to the weather in some way. A bright sunny day makes me feel cheerful, but a character might prefer cloudy days that remind him of home. A gardener might be grateful for the rain falling on the freshly planted garden—even if it means he gets wet dashing to the mailbox. A skier might be glad for predicted snow, while someone preparing for a long trip could be disappointed, and go dig out the tire chains. A house might be unappealing in a rainstorm but look like a picture for a postcard when surrounded by bright sunshine.

Details of weather and temperature can help with the overall mood of the story as well. I remember a writer talking about how her character’s story was set during a drought. The dry empty landscape helped emphasize the lack in the character’s personal life.

Don’t forget the indoors. Where does he live? Where does she sleep? Is it a messy bedroom that smells of unwashed clothing scattered on the floor, a shared bedroom with tape on the floor to separate the two sides, the musty basement bedroom with concrete walls and a window well that only allows a glimpse of the sky? Does her home feel welcoming or is it a place he escapes as quickly as possible? Does it smell like dogs or cats or good cooking or burnt food? Is it loud or quiet? The reader doesn’t need to know all this—especially all at once—but working bits in will make the setting more real.

Andy Maslen says, “Sense of place is the feeling your readers get as they read your novel that they have left their place behind and entered yours. It’s a transporting feeling that makes the world of the book they hold in their hands as real, if not more so, than their own.”

I hope you’ll dig in and ground your characters in their setting. I think you’ll find it helps your story bloom.

Posted in Craft, PB, So Many Good Books, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Fractured Fairy Tale Picture Books

Since I recently was the judge for a Fractured Fairy Tale Contest aimed at ages 8-10, I thought it might be interesting to look at some recent fractured fairy tale picture books. The descriptions below are from the publishers. (I’m hoping some of the contest winners and other contestants will revise their stories and submit either as short stories or picture book manuscripts, depending how the manuscripts are written.)

Goldie Fox and the Three Hares

Publisher: Clavis Publishing, 2022
Author: Bonnie Grubman
Illustrator: Katrien Benaets

“Goldie Fox would like a nice dinner of hare. With a clever plan, she tries to lure the Hare family into a trap. But Mama Hare soon realizes what Goldie is up to. Can the Hares outsmart her?”

Princess and the Peas

Publisher: Charlesbridge, 2022
Author/Illustrator: Rachel Himes

“Ma Sally cooks the best black-eyed peas in Charleston County, South Carolina. Her son, John, is a highly eligible bachelor, and three local women vie for his hand in marriage by attempting to cook as well as Ma.”

Too Many Pigs and One Big Bad Wolf: A Counting Story

Publisher: Tundra Books, 2022
Author: Davide Cali
Illustrator: Marianna Balducci

“In this clever counting book, the big bad wolf doesn’t want to tell a long story. He wants to get to the eating part. But the reader has other ideas. From a pig soccer team to a pig for every letter of the alphabet to 101 pigs in an animated movie, the stories get more and more fantastical . . .”

After the Fall (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again)

Publisher: Roaring Brook Press, 2017
Author/Illustrator: Dan Santat

“Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat’s poignant tale follows Humpty Dumpty, an avid bird watcher whose favorite place to be is high up on the city wall—that is, until after his famous fall. Now terrified of heights, Humpty can longer do many of the things he loves most. Will he summon the courage to face his fear?”

Once Upon a Goat

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2019
Author: Dan Richards
Illustrator: Eric Barclay

“A twisted fairy tale about a king and queen who wish for a child of their own . . . and end up with a baby goat.”

The Little Blue Bridge (Little Ruby’s Big Ideas)

Publisher: Scholastic Press, 2021
Author: Brenda Maier
Illustrator: Sonia Sánchez

“Ruby’s mind is always full of ideas. One day, she spies some blueberries across the creek and invites her brothers to pick some. Unfortunately, the bridge is blocked by scary Santiago. “I’m the boss, and you can’t cross… unless you give me a snack,” he demands. One by one, the brothers scamper across, promising Santiago that the next sibling has a better snack. When at last it’s Ruby’s turn, she refuses to be bullied and creates her own way to cross the creek.”

The Poisoned Apple: A Fractured Fairy Tale

Publisher: Page Street Kids, 2020
Author/Illustrator: Anne Lambelet

“Sometimes bad decisions come back to bite you… The princess is too sweet, too kind―but the witch knows just how to handle a princess like that. One bite from a painstakingly made poisoned apple should do it! Once the apple is in the hands of the princess, the plan is in motion. But when the kindhearted princess gives the apple away, the witch watches as her plot spirals out of control. Can she get the apple back before it’s too late? Who will end up with a happily ever after?”

Why look at these recent books (and others)? To make sure yours will stand out. To see what stories are already out there. To look at publishers who publish these kinds of books. And, to read closely to see if these books can be mentor texts for your manuscript.

A mentor text is an already published book, preferably published in the last 5-6 years, that can guide you as your write. Mentor texts can help you with theme, point of view, text structure, voice, language, and more.

This research can also help you find comp or comparative titles for your query letters. “My manuscript has a similar tone to title 1 and invites readers to step into their imagination as title 2 does.”

I hope you enjoy reading these and other fractured fairy tales.

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

But That’s How People Talk

I’ve seen dialogue from new writers that was too realistic. It included every um, uh, and other fillers that we use when we speak. It rambled. Things were mentioned that no one cares about. It didn’t make sense. When I suggested cuts and tightening, the response was, “But that’s how people talk!” Yes, it is. When we talk we can all be pretty boring at times. Our thoughts aren’t always organized. We go off tangent. We use filler words. We see something that sidetracks us. Squirrel! We forget what we were talking about. We talk over others.

But writing fiction isn’t a record of the real world. In some ways, it is better as it leaves out the dull parts. In fiction, every piece of dialogue has a purpose. It might be character development or plot related. It moves the story forward. It’s intentional. It doesn’t bore the reader. We don’t need all the greetings and good-byes in a story. Nor simple pleasant chats. We want tension and disagreements. We want age-appropriate flirting and romance. We want questions and comments that make us laugh or think or worry. “The dialogue is generally the most agreeable part of a novel, but it is only so long as it tends in some way to the telling of the main story.” – Anthony Trollope

Does that mean a fictional character can never stumble or go off track? Of course not. Used judiciously these are all appropriate. Um, er, and other pauses can show a character’s nervousness or uncertainty. It might indicate lying. A character going off track might be changing the subject deliberately. A character might ramble due to tiredness, or drug or alcohol influence. One character might be extra chatty. Other characters may interrupt.

Readers will stick with characters they care about. Our job as writers is to make it easy to care. If we bog down dialogue with extraneous words, it’s easy for readers to give up on the story.

“Dialogue is like a rose bush–it often improves after pruning. I recommend you rewrite your dialogue until it is as brief as you can get it. This will mean making it quite unrealistically to the point. That is fine. Your readers don’t want realistic speech, they want talk which spins the story along.” – Nigel Watts

For further information on writing dialogue for children, check out these articles: “Children’s Dialogue: They Don’t Talk Like Adults” by Jessi Rita Hoffman and  “Writing Great Middle Grade Dialogue” by Jan Fields. And for teen dialogue: “Writing Authentic Teenage Dialogue” by Ellie Blackwood (written when she was a teen) and “Creating Teen Dialogue when Writing Young Adult Fiction” by Deborah Halverson and M.T. Anderson. And, of course, listen to kids the age of your characters.

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

Springflingkidlit 2023

It’s a contest–read about it here for spring-inspired stories under 150 words! The organizers are author Ciara O’Neal and agent Kaitlyn Leann Sanchez. There are prizes to be won and a short window to submit: April 1st thru 3rd. And it’s free to enter.

This year I thought it might be fun to participate. It’s one way to get my writing out there. So the image above is a gif* that is required to go with the story.

I’m not comfortable pasting my whole story here, but will paste the opening:

A Squirrel Did It

“Noah, did you leave the bamboo gate open?” Mama asked.
“I think a squirrel did it.”
“Noah, did you dig a hole in the gravel path?” Mama asked.
“No, a squirrel did it.”
“Noah, did you put leaves in the fountain?” Mama asked.
“I bet a squirrel did it.”

The story in total is 107 words. (For the contest entry, the judges will get to see the whole story.)

Why do we want to write short? There’s always room for shorter stories, whether in magazines or in picture books. I like what the Arapahoe Library says on their “Children’s Books with Few Words” page: “Your child can feel successful when reading these books that have very few words.” The page has links to staff chosen books.

But it’s not just for those learning to read. Parents often like a few short choices. Some kids have short attention spans. But also sometimes “less is more”–fewer words can have a stronger and lasting impact.

Short can be moving, hilarious, quiet, and more.

Here are some short picture books I love:

Caring for Your Lion by Tammi Sauer (261 words)
From Here to There by Sue Fliess (287 words)
Ghost Cat by Kevan Atteberry (200 words)
The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld (296)
When Pencil Met the Markers by Karen Kilpatrick (223 words)

(You can find the word count of many books at Accelerated Reader Bookfinder.)

So, I challenge you to try writing short. You might like it.

*Gif found at