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

Creating during Anxious Times

Yesterday, a student who deals with depression and anxiety and, like all of us, now this pandemic, said that looking at the instruction manual felt overwhelming. Yet still she had sent in her assignment. In my letter back to her, I commended her for her accomplishment and then gave her some writing “work” advice.

Writing it made me aware of my own creativity. Or should I say lack thereof.  I’m finding it much easier to do a student lesson, critique someone else’s picture book or novel, than to actually create myself. It’s easy to jump on the news, Facebook (for socializing), etc. I need to take my own advice.

We all have upheaval in our lives right now with social distancing and worrying about the coronavirus. Some of you have children home full time now. You and/or your spouse may be working from home which is another adjustment. Or someone in the family has been laid off. It’s stressful. Perhaps these suggestions for making writing “work” easier will be helpful to you, too.

First, pick one task

Get that one done today and stop. Don’t worry about other writing things that need to be done. However, if doing one tasks leads you to wanting to do more, feel free. Just don’t agonize over those days when you can only do one thing.

But how do you know what task to do?

Set yourself a writing work schedule

1. Start by making a list of all the things you want to get done:
– read recent children’s books
– brainstorm ideas
– research for one idea
– work on first draft
– revise a short story, article, picture book, or chapter
– do market research
– listen to a podcast on ____ topic
– read blog posts on _____
– analyze feedback from others on my work
– write a cover/query letter for _____
– submit manuscript _____

Be as specific as possible.

See more sample task ideas at the bottom of this article and in the chart.

2. Commit to a time period whether it is a half hour or an hour or two. Pick three to five days a week.

3. Next, if you can, prioritize you list in order of most important. If none stand out, that’s okay too.

4. Then take your “to-do” list and plot them on a calendar OR during each scheduled time just pick one off of your list.

5. Add and cross-off items on your “want to get done” list.

Word by word, project by project, if you spend a little bit of time, you will make progress. Celebrate those accomplishments no matter how small.

Here’s a chart suggestion for recording what you’ve done so you can look back on it and be encouraged:

Second, remember you are not alone

We are all affected. Interacting digitally with others can help us not feel so isolated. My critique group is using Zoom to meet weekly. Don’t have a critique group? Offer to exchange critiques via email with other writers. (You can find them through SCBWI.org, on the Blueboard, through Facebook and Google groups, etc.) Talk to others in these groups. Comment on blog posts or podcasts that you found helpful. Share those links with others you know. And/or share on Twitter.

Third, encourage yourself

I’m finding myself doing a lot of what I call “comfort” reading—that’s rereading books that I know I’ll enjoy. Recently, it’s been the Harry Potter books. I’ve also connected with some old friends whom I haven’t talked to in years. I’m getting outside in the fresh air. What makes you happy? It’s necessary to take a break from all the bad news and uncertainty.

SOME RESOURCES:

“Turning Anxiety Into Creativity”

“What You Need to Know to Start Working from Home”

“10 ways to take care of yourself during coronavirus”

SAMPLE TASK IDEAS:

Subscribe to one blog post related to kidlit creativity. I don’t read them daily but spend time periodically to read posts. Some of my standbys are:

Kathy Temean’s Writing and Illustrating https://kathytemean.wordpress.com/

Always in the Middle with Greg Pattridge
https://gpattridge.com/

Susannah Leonard Hill’s “Perfect Picture Book Friday” https://susannahill.com/blog/

Institute for Children’s Literature blog
https://www.instituteforwriters.com/blogs/writing-for-children-blog/

Read recent children’s books. Whatever fits what you want to write. A novel. A handful of picture books. Chapter books. What did you learn?

Research one magazine market. Read about the magazine in the market book, go to the magazine’s website, read guidelines and editorial calendars, and sample copies if available. Take notes, if you like. I often write directly in my copy of a market book.

Search #MSWL on Twitter. Agents and editors give updates using this hashtag.

Brainstorm picture book ideas. January Storystorm posts on Tara Lazar’s site still up and can continue to be used. Here’s a link to day one: https://taralazar.com/2020/01/01/storystorm-2020-day-1/

Research agents on Manuscript Wishlist. https://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/

Add sensory details to your short story or one scene in your novel. Taste, smell, texture, temperature, sound, and sight. What makes this setting unique?

Read an article on self-editing and practice one idea. Focus on a weakness. Do you have trouble with dialogue or punctuation? There’s help out there.

Read opening paragraphs in novels you like. Do you see a pattern? Can you apply it to your work?

Write up the backstory for one character. Then you can work in snippets of it throughout the novel. But beware of info dumps.

I could go on and on. All I know is doing something (like this blog post) makes me feel better than doing nothing creative. I bet the same will be true for you too.

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

The Right Number of Characters

picture courtesy of Taylor Schlades on morguefile.com
grouppicbytaylorschlades.jpgThere’s no magic answer to how many characters you should have in your story, especially if you are writing a novel. But overwhelming readers with the number of characters in a story is not good.
Sometimes the author shares a list of who is in the room–almost like calling roll in a classroom. Does a kid in a classroom care equally about everyone in the room? No. Neither does a reader.
Older students who have different classmates in every class may not even know all their names. They may think of someone as the tall girl or the annoying guy. It’s okay to have nameless walk-on characters in a novel, too.
Sometimes when reading, I can’t keep straight who is who in the cast of characters, which means there are not enough identifying characteristics of these people for me to keep them straight in my head. Or sometimes, it’s too long between when they were last mentioned and I’ve forgotten who they are.
So what’s a writer to do?
First, know every character in your story. If you don’t know anything about someone besides his/her name and possibly gender, how can the reader? What does your main character, usually your viewpoint character, think of this person? Is he a help or hindrance to the main character? Is she a friend or acquaintance or chance met person? Is he important to the plot? How does she change or influence the main character?
Second, learn about the purposes of characters in novels. If two characters serve the same purpose, are both needed? Perhaps not. But how do we determine that?
I realized I was doing this more by “feel,” than by logic or analysis. Therefore, I had to do research. Look at the great collection of articles I found!
Does Your Novel Have Too Many Characters? by Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
Do too many characters spoil the story?
This article is clear about the types of characters in a novel:
How Many Characters Should You Include in Your Story? by K.M. Weiland @kmweiland
I love the chart example with the characters in this article and plan to try it myself.
How many characters should a novel have? by Robert Wood
Similarly, this piece has some great questions to ask about each character.
Should You Cut That Character? by Margo Kelly, @MargoWKelly
Like many things it’s often hard to see in your own writing if you have too many characters. This is where your critique group or beta readers come in–they can point out where they are confused, or ask what happened to character D who disappeared from a scene, or even suggest how two characters are serving the same purpose.

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

Professional Problem Maker

kid-CurrentEvents

What catches attention? Bad news or good news? You only have to look at a newspaper, the internet headlines, or watch the TV to know the answer. Bad news gets more space and attention.
Think back to your school days. When kids whispered about a classmate was it because something good happened? Not usually. The “did you hear . . .” topics were about someone doing something wrong, getting caught, etc. The stories didn’t have to be true and often got worse as they spread.
Sounds a lot like fiction writing. Writers are paid to give characters problems and make them worse. Readers can’t necessarily solve their own problems, but reading how someone else solved a problem gives them hope.
In a novel the first problem introduced may not be the main one of the book. Here’s an example: “When my brother Fish turned thirteen, we moved to the deepest part of inland because of the hurricane and, of course, the fact that he’d caused it.” (Savvy by Ingrid Law). Mibs, the narrator, will be turning thirteen and finding out what she has to deal with when she gets her own savvy. First, however, we are introduced to her brother’s problem.
Short stories don’t have the time to deal with multiple problems or much character development. Like juicy gossip, a short story problem needs to start right away.
Launch a short story problem with action, dialogue, thoughts or a combination. Let’s take a girl who has lost the watch she borrowed. We could start with action: Wendy reached into her jeans pocket for the watch she’d borrowed from her older sister–it wasn’t there! A dialogue beginning might be: “Oh, no! Teresa’s watch is gone. She’s going to kill me!” Her thoughts could introduce the problem this way: It’s gotta be here, Wendy thought. I know I put Teresa’s watch in my pocket. No matter which way this story starts, the reader knows it is bad news for Wendy.
Here’s an example from a classic story: “There was once a prince, and he wanted a princess, but then she must be a real Princess. He travelled right round the world to find one, but there was always something wrong.” (“The Princess and the Pea”) By the end of the second sentence, we know there is a definite problem.
Some short stories may introduce the problem with the title of the story as “Who Will Care for Spot?” does. (Marilyn Kratz, Highlights) This problem is reinforced by the beginning lines. “Mom looked worried as she hung up the phone. ‘That was Jenny next door,’ she said. ‘She won’t be able to take care of Spot while we are on our vacation.’” Again, bad news.
Are you giving your readers bad news up front? Try it and see if sharing the problem early makes the readers worry and want to read on.

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