April 2009 Archives


• Don't get wild with attribution lines.
USE he said, she said / she asked, he asked
NOT she explained, he blurted
It's not that you can't use the latter, but if they are overused, they take away from the dialogue. Also, sometimes new writers use a word in place of said that isn't even possible. Have you ever laughed or chortled words? Said and asked don't slow the reader down. Readers are used to overlooking them.

Avoid adverbs in your attribution lines.
Again it's not that you can't use them, but your dialogue should be clear enough that for the most part adverbs are unnecessary.

No talking heads.
Dialogue should not be in a vacuum. Readers need some sense of setting--some idea of what is around the speakers and/or of what they are doing, which leads into the next point.

• Use tag lines which incorporate action.
Brian leaned against the front door.
Sarah threw her backpack onto the couch.
These replace the said or asked. Don't combine them, i.e. Brian said as he leaned against the front door, or Sarah asked as she threw her backpack onto the couch. The word "as" is a warning signal that you may be doing this.

• Make each character sound unique.
Is she wordy? Or does she use short tight sentences? What's his pet word? Is the language age appropriate? Is all his talk serious or hardly ever serious? Often, people's speech is not grammatically correct. One trick to check the sound is to highlight each character's speech in different colors. Then go through and just read one color. Does it sound like the same person? If anyone could say all of it, it isn't unique enough.

• Avoid or limit dialect.
Don't make your readers have to guess what the characters are saying. Yes, I know many older books did it, but readers today aren't as patient.

Avoid filler words.
You don't need uh, um, well, etc. Often you can skip greetings and parting phrases, too, as they don't really add.

• Keep it age appropriate for realism.
A five-year-old saying, "I think it would be beneficial if I had an animal companion of my own," would not be believable. But how about, "Can I keep him? I don't have a pet." Yes, that's more realistic. This may seem obvious, but often beginning writers use adult language with child characters.

• Dialogue should put readers on scene.
It should make your readers feel they are there listening and watching these characters, yet not be like a recording of an actual conversation. We don't need to know all the inconsequential things that people often say in real life. "How are you?" "Fine."

• Dialogue should move the story forward.
No lectures. No here's all the info you as a reader need to know about this character. It should not contain content that no person would say to another, i.e. "Remember how my mom died when I was a baby and I was raised by my aunt?" Another warning sign is when one person's speech goes on a really long time.

• Add internal dialogue.
The main character is the one whose internal dialogue we are usually privileged to hear. It won't be in quotes. Some publishers use italics; if it helps you to see the thoughts, go for it. Sometimes the aid of "he thought" or "I thought," is necessary, but not always. The contrast between spoken dialogue and internal dialogue can really make your character come alive. Often we don't say out loud what we really think. Letting your readers get a glimpse of that will add interest to your story.

Start a new paragraph when the speaker changes.
This helps signal readers that someone else is talking.

Using the above tips, takes this:
"Molly," Trevor exclaimed impatiently. "Where are your gloves?"

"Um, I don't know, Twevor," Molly lisped softly.

"Well, you can't go outside without them," Trevor complained loudly. "Your fingers will freeze and Mom will blame me."

"But I want to go," Molly whined. "I want to slide."

"Sled," Trevor corrected.

To this:
Trevor glanced out the entryway window at the falling snow. If I didn't have to wait for an annoying little sister, I'd already be flying down Hawkins Hill. He sighed, and knelt to zip up Molly's coat. "Where are your gloves?"

Molly shrugged.

Trevor frowned. "You can't go outside without them. If your fingers freeze, it's me Mom'll yell at."

"But I wanna go," Molly said. "I wanna slide."

"Sled," Trevor corrected. He dug through the heap of clothing on the closet floor.

See how we know Trevor is impatient? Trevor more realistically talks about Mom yelling instead of Mom blaming him. We get some setting and some action, and know that Molly is a lot younger.

Finally, listen to kids talk.
Your own are good, but even better are kids you don't know. Go to a public place and pay attention to the children or young adults talking. Not only can you hear the rhythm of their speech, but you'll be reminded of what they are interested in. Taking notes on what they say--not what they look like--can help you practice dialogue.

Writing is no trouble: you

Writing is no trouble: you just jot down ideas as they occur to you. The jotting is simplicity itself - it is the occurring which is difficult.

Stephen Leacock

Viewpoint in Children's Fiction

Should I write my book in 3rd person
or first person point of view?

Look at the books you like. If they are mainly written in third person (he said, she said) versus first person (I said), write them in third. Either way, the camera eye view of the story should be from the main character's point of view.

Think of a camera riding on your main character's shoulder. The camera goes where he goes. It can't record his facial features or what other people think of him. It can't record what's behind him, unless he turns around. We only know what the main character thinks, experiences, sees, hears. No bouncing from head to head.

Switching viewpoints can be done, but is usually done chapter by chapter, or scene by scene, so as not to confuse the reader. And, of course, is more difficult to write and keep straight.

Help! I have trouble keeping the story
in my main character's viewpoint.

Try writing the story in first person. Doesn't mean you have to keep it that way, but it can help you focus. I have frequently take a story I've written and switched it from third person to first or vice versa.

Perhaps you are telling the story from the wrong person's viewpoint. If you keep wanting to be in the boy's head instead of the girl's, try writing the story with him as the narrator, not her.

Or if both are needed to tell the story, can you have them tell the story chapter by chapter, switching off between the characters?

Should I write my story in past tense
or present tense?

Most books are written in past tense, but some are written in present tense, though it is probably harder to do and keep consistent.

Whichever way you go, keep your story as chronological as possible. Lots of flashbacks confuse readers.

Viewpoint Resource on the Internet
collected April 09

"Characters and Point Of View" by Laura Backes

Examples of Viewpoint

1st Person Viewpoint

"Today's the last day of school, the only day of school I look forward to. I grab my basketball and head to Mr. Glick's class." Stanford Wong Flunks Big Time by Lisa Yee

3rd Person Viewpoint

"If Gil Goodson was to have a chance, any chance at all, he would have to run faster than he was running right now." The Gollywhopper Games by Jody Feldman

Multiple Viewpoints

3rd person - Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins

1st person - Remembering Raquel by Vivian Vande Velde

1st & 3rd person - If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period by Gennifer Choldenko

Calling Baseball Fans and others! - Keeping Score

keepingscore.jpgKeeping Score (Clarion 2008) by Linda Sue Park gives a view into the world of Brooklyn in the 1950s. Maggie, named after Joe DiMaggio, is a Dodger's Fan along with the rest of her neighborhood. She becomes friends with Jim, the new fireman at the station who is "gasp" a Giant's fan. When Jim goes off to the Korean conflict, Maggie writes letters and sends him games she's scored. But then Jim quits writing back . . .

This book not only kept my attention, but I also felt I learned some history in a very painless fashion.

Linda Sue Park is a Newbery Medalist for A Single Shard. Check out her website to learn more.

Memorable story - Ways to Live Forever

ways2live4ever.jpgWhat's it like to die? To have questions no one wants to answer? To have goals you know you'll never be able to accomplish? But Sam's friend Felix challenges Sam that there's no reason he can't try to accomplish those things.

Ways to Live Forever (Arthur A. Levine Books 2008) by Sally Nicholls is a touching story written in journal format. I find myself jealous of this skilled author since she was only 23 when she wrote the book. On the other hand, that means she has a long and successful career ahead of her, so there will be more for us to read. Read about this English author at http://www.sallynicholls.com/

It is as easy to

It is as easy to dream a book as it is hard to write one.

Honore de Balzac, novelist (1799-1850)

A writer is like a

A writer is like a bag lady going through life with a sack and a pointed stick collecting stuff.

Tony Hillerman

Making Friends: Character Development

The hardest thing for me about character development is what my character is like inside.  Yes, of course I know her plot problem.  But, what is most important in her life?  I can't just randomly assign this.  Same goes for character and personality traits, bad and good habits.  I have to learn who my main character is, like when I meet a new person.  


First, we're introduced.  I see his exterior.  I may learn:  his manner of speech, his job, and where he lives.  Nothing very deep.  But what I learn hints to who he is.  I'll probably recognize him when I see him next.

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In books, we get to choose how to introduce our character.  We can't depend on a visual,
since we're not dealing with pictures.  Whatever we write should help our reader recognize this person again. However, we have the advantage that we can start with something deep which will quickly push the relationship closer.


We meet again and I learn:  her interests, pet peeves, maybe about her family.  I may experience her sense of humor; or hear about the current crisis in her life.  We find what we have in common.  When we see each other we enjoy the time, but may not make special effort to seek each other out.  I often only think of this casual friend when I see her.

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In a story, staying at the casual stage doesn't do it.  If a reader doesn't desire to seek your character out, to see what is happening, the book can be easily set aside and forgotten. 


A person who never goes beyond the acquaintance or casual stage with me may be a loner, too different, or perhaps we just didn't click.

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Book characters may be loners, but can't shut the reader out.  The reader must learn some of their secrets, their foibles, their dreams.

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If there is nothing in a character a reader can relate to, why read on?  That doesn't mean a
character has to be exactly like you or me--for one thing that would be boring--but something must give the reader some sense of familiarity or connection.  It may be common values, the way the character thinks, talks, or finds interesting.

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Not all characters will click with all readers, of course.


She and I like each other, so mutually agree to be friends, although this is rarely stated openly. Instead we choose to spend time together.  I enjoy talking with her and finding out what she has experienced.

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Main characters in books need to be likable or intriguing, so the reader will keep going long
enough to make friends.  Readers must want to spend the time it takes to finish the book.  They need to enjoy discovering what is going to happen next.


If the two of us hit it off, we may jump deep into friendship, skipping some stages along the way.  But often it's more a gradual wading in--the more she and I learn about each other, the closer friends we become.  (Unless the relationship is interrupted by a big disagreement.)  When we are together, it's usually a good time, even if the circumstances aren't good.  This also doesn't mean we won't learn each other's weaknesses.

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If the reader is drawn close to a character, the attachment strengthens, and the reader will care enough to stick through tough spots, weaknesses, and even shocking revelations.


Our friendships are rarely based only on a person's appearance.

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Neither is a reader's connection to a character.


How do I get close to my character?  For me, I think about her or him a lot (without putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard).

I ask questions. Big questions and small questions:

  • Why is this problem important to her?

  • Who does he depend on or confide in?

  • Who are her friends?  Her enemies?

  • What does he want to be when he grows up?

  • What does she dream about?

  • Does he hate dogs?  Why?

  • Does she adore a sport or local team?  What, who and why?

  • How does he spend spare time?

  • What chores is she required to do at home?

  • What's his worst class at school?  What's his best?  His favorite?

  • What extracurricular activities, clubs, or groups does she belong to?

  • How does he feel about all of the above things?!

I try to remember to take her with me and think about her participating in what I'm experiencing.

  • How would she most likely react to this situation?

  • What is she likely to say in this circumstance?

  • Would she like this or hate it?

When I go to bed at night I imagine him on scene.

  • What will he do?

  • What will he say?

  • How will he try to solve her problem(s)?

How do other writers do it?

Some use charts or do character interviews.  Some writers are more organic--they start writing about the character and as they write they discover things about their characters.  Some of what they write is only back story and will not make it into the finished book.  

Of course, we all at some level borrow from what we've
seen.  Not usually a real person's entire personality, looks, habits, experiences, but that annoying habit of his, her pattern of speech, his way of thinking, her talents, etc.  

Whatever method works for you, you'll probably find it is work.  But hopefully you'll also find it was worthwhile spending this time with your character.

Character Development Resources

Online Articles

Make Them All Problem Magnets! Seven Principles for Better Fictional Characters

Casting Your Characters by Lee Masterson

Top Ten Questions for Creating Believable Characters


Fiction is Folks by Robert Newton Peck

Creating CHARACTERS:  How to Build Story People by Dwight V. Swain

The Secrets of Successful Fiction by Robert Newton Peck

Creating Characters Kids Will Love by Elaine Marie Alphin

Mystery to Solve - The Postcard


What kid hasn't wanted to find something mysterious and solve the mystery? Jason in The Postcard (Little, Brown 2008) by Tony Abbott has just that opportunity. His grandmother, whom he's never met, has died and Jason has to go to Florida to help his father. Jason not only solves the mystery of the hidden postcard, but understands more about what is going on in his own family in this story.

Read more about this award winning author at his website: www.tonyabbottbooks.com. Here's also an interview with him.

Wow! Really moving story! - The Mailbox

The Mailbox.jpgFrom the compelling first line of The Mailbox (Delacorte, 2006) by Audrey Shafer to the end, this story held me in its grips.

Twelve-year-old Gabe, who has bounced from foster family to foster family until moved in with his uncle Vernon, a Vietnam vet, comes home to find Uncle Vernon has died. Not wanting to believe it and fearful of going back into the foster system, Gabe goes to school the next morning as if nothing has happened. When he comes home, the body is gone and Gabe gets the courage to keep going from the notes left in his mailbox and the gift of a dog named Guppy. This is one of those MUST READ books.

Author Audrey Shafer is also an MD. Read more here: http://litmed.med.nyu.edu/User?action=viewEditor&id=20

We are cups, constantly and

We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.

Ray Bradbury