June 2009 Archives

Sure, it's simple, writing for

Sure, it's simple, writing for kids . . . Just as simple as bringing them up.

Ursula K. LeGuin

More Author Interviews

I also blog on Kidlit Central about a variety of topics. Below are links to interviews of central US children's authors from Meet and Greet Mondays.

nonfiction - Stephanie Bearce living in Missouri

historical fiction - Louise A. Jackson living in Missouri

children's and young adult fiction - Sharelle Byars Moranville living in Iowa

It's been fun learning more about these authors I've met. If you'd like to check it out, I have more interviews scheduled on Kidlit Central News, plus there are entries from a number of other midwest authors. Always something new to learn.

You must write for children

You must write for children the same way you write for adults, only better.

Maxim Gorky

Read, Read, Read

Are you taking armloads of children's books home from the library? Are you perusing the titles in the children's section of the bookstore? Are you paying attention to Newbery award winners, ALA notables, or Golden Kite Awards? (To name only a few awards.)

Are you reading the books of the publishers whom you'd like to see publish your books? Are you reading books published within the last three years? Books are changing all the time, so you need to keep current. Books from ten years ago are not what publishers are looking for now. So what does that say about books from your childhood?!

If you're not reading, you need to be. Here's what a master has to say:

"Read, read, read. Read everything - trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window." -William Faulkner

Many of us write because we love to read, but it's amazing how many people write, but don't read. We can learn so much by reading the writing of others. Some of the conventions of writing get ingrained into us as we read. Others may take more study. But who else better to teach us than those who have already done it?

When you read, note what you like. In novels, is it the fast moving pace, the depth of the characters, or how real the story feels? What in this specific book makes you keep reading? In a picture book, is it the way the text sings, or the humor? How did the author accomplish those things? Emulate the traits you like in your own writing.

Note what turns you off. Is it the lengthy description or the level of violence? Is it the high dose of saccharine or preachiness? Is it something that pulled you out of the story? Be aware of whatever stops you. It sounds obvious, but in your own writing don't do what you hate.

Read in your genre. Want to write early middle grade novels or mysteries? Read them. You'll get the feel for lengths of chapter, language, ages of main characters, types of topics covered, who the "big name" authors are in the genre, who the publishing houses are, and more.

Keep track of what you're reading, so you can go back to what you learned. I use a table in Word, but a spreadsheet or notebook would work, too.

Here's the info I keep:
Book Title and a brief description of the story, so I'll remember what it was about, including the main character's name and ~ age. If I know who the editor was, I add that, too.
Author - I also might note the illustrator.
Date Published
Genre - i.e. PB, MG or YA - I get specific, too, on whether fantasy or mystery, historical, etc.
My notes - This is where I write what I thought of the book. I start with short and simple (i.e. very good) then go on to say in more detail what I liked or didn't like.

I file each book entry under the PUBLISHER name. Publishers are alphabetical to help me quickly find what I'm looking for. I keep these entries in date order by publication date.

This above info is especially helpful when you're preparing to submit. Through frequent reading you'll begin to know first hand the personalities and quirks of publishing houses. I remember when one new house came on the scene--I read every one of their books I could find. Through that reading, it became obvious my novels would not fit in. Mine did not have the same overall flavor as their books did.

Read lots and lots of children's books to help you know what is already out there. You'll know many of the topics and themes by reading, reading, reading. You'll get an idea of what has been done, and done, and done. Knowing that, means you can write your story from a fresh or unique angle, so you're not submitting something editors are sick of seeing.

Consider focused reading. Deliberately search for books on your topic or theme. What makes your story different from those? If you find nothing on your topic for your audience, that's a good selling point in your cover and query letters.

Read agent and editor favorites. Been to a conference and heard an editor talk about books they love (these may or may not be books they've edited)? Read an agent's blog about books he or she has acquired? If you're interested in that editor or agent, you'll know better if they might be a fit for you once you've read what they like.

Here's what another master had to say about the importance of reading. "The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over a half a library to make one book." - Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

So if you want to write, get reading!

Tillman.pngSince I enjoyed Ethan, Suspended so much, I thought I'd chat with author Pamela Ehrenberg about her newest book, Tillman County Fire (Eerdmans, 2009), which unfortunately I haven't gotten to read yet, but will!

QUESTION: What lead you to write the book as a series of stories?

PAM: I was inspired by the Ernest Gaines novel, A Gathering of Old Men, which tells about a community event (in that case, a murder on a plantation) from the viewpoints of various people involved. That book really made me think about what it means to be part of a community, and how everyone's got just a piece of whatever the story is.

QUESTION: How/why did you choose to write about the topic of an anti-gay hate crime?

PAM: You know, for this book I actually knew what the format would be--the different stories from different perspectives--before I knew what the book would be about. So I knew something was going to happen in this community that had the potential to bring people together or pull people apart as much as that murder did in the Ernest Gaines book . . . I don't know that I ever decide what happens in my books--it feels more like I discover what happens, by being open to the world of the story.

QUESTION: I understand each story is about the same event, yet each focuses on a different character. Are the stories written from each character's viewpoint or is there a narrator? If the former, did you struggle with writing in so many viewpoints?

PAM: Each story is first-person from a different perspective, except that the last story is told in the third person and there's one story where multiple voices come together, with different characters narrating a section. I think I avoided a lot of the struggles that might come with the multiple voices by really viewing the project for a long time as a collection of short stories--it took my writing group a fair amount of effort to convince me that I was really writing a novel. Even though I agree with them now, each story is still pretty well self-contained--as I think real teenagers (and real grown-ups) are--each narrator sees his or her own concerns as the central ones.

QUESTION: What was the most difficult thing for you in writing this particular book?

PAM: It's not technically part of the writing of the book, but I'd have to say the hardest thing is not having my husband, Eric, here to celebrate with me. He died last summer at age 37--and though he got to read two drafts, provide valuable legal consultation, and even see the cover art, it was hard not having him here when the box of books showed up on the doorstep. He was always the one to remind me to stop and celebrate these moments in life, and not be so focused on forging ahead to the next thing that you don't take time to celebrate what's in front of you.

QUESTION: What's been the best about working on this book?

PAM: The best thing was the chance to "live," for a while, in Tillmon County. The county was inspired by the place in far western Maryland where I was an AmeriCorps member in the mid-1990s, and working on the book is the closest I've come to a second chance to live in the mountains.

QUESTION: Reading your writing tips on your website, I noticed in the revising section, you said, "Make it Shorter." You said you have a list of weak words that you search for in your manuscript. Do you mind sharing that list?

PAM: Gosh, I'd forgotten all about that! It turned out I didn't use it as much this time around--maybe the exercise of searching for all of these things in Ethan, Suspended meant that fewer of them turned up in the early drafts of this book? I don't know. But I'm happy to share!



a little
a lot
all of a sudden
all over
and everything
as soon as
at least
at the same time
depends on
had no idea
it was like/it's like/it wasn't like/it isn't like/it's not like
kind of
look(ed) over
-ly words
myself (telling_, thinking to__)
on the other hand
on top of
or anything
or something
some kind of
that had
that was
that were
was sure
you know

The ability to simplify means

The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.

Hans Hofmann, painter (1880-1966)

The Power of a Good First Line

This is expressed easiest by examples. The following are not limited to children's books and includes current books as well as some classics. Mainly they are novel excerpts, but some are from picture books.

First lines
"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." 1984 by George Orwell

"I should of been in school that April day." A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck

"'Where's Papa going with that ax?' said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast." Charlotte's Web by E.B. White

"That fool of a fairy Lucinda did not intend to lay a curse on me." Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

"He came one late, wet spring, and brought the wide world back to my doorstep." Fool's Errand by Robin Hobb

"I intensely disliked my father's fifth wife, but not to the point of murder." Hot Money by Dick Francis

"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

"'Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents,' grumbled Jo, lying on the rug." Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

"In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines." Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans

"When May died, Ob came back to the trailor, got out of his good suit and into his regular clothes, then went and sat in the Chevy for the rest of the night." Missing May by Cynthia Rylant

"All children, except one, grow up." Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

"I was fourteen the summer Mama took off for the Birdcage Collectors' Convention and had ourselves what is now know in this town as the Adrienne Dabney Incident." send me down a miracle by Han Nolan

"Marylou loved everything about Herbie--how his slime trail glistened in the dark, how he could squeeze inside the cellar window, how he always found the juiciest tomato." Slug in Love by Susan Pearson

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot." The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but..." The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

"They had tried to destroy the Will, but that proved to be beyond their power." The Keys to the Kingdom by Garth Nix

"Mrs. Eva Marie Olinski always gave good answers." The View From Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg

"Thunder Bunny was a surprise." Thunder Bunny by Barbara Helen Berger

"'Take my camel, dear,' said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass." Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay


What I find in common will all these lines is they get a reaction from me. Sometimes it's a double-take of "huh?" Other times it makes me want to know more about either the character or what is happening. Sometimes they make me laugh. Or sympathize. It may be that the language or cadence itself has appeal. But all of them make me want to read on. I've been hooked!

How to Build Your Own Good First Line

It's doubtful that the very first line you write will be the one that stays as the first line of your book, especially for novel length works. I've had them be ripped out entirely, rewritten dozens and dozens of time, moved to a later chapter. I've also written most of the book and come back and created a new opening when I knew more about my characters.

Here are the categories from the previous post (thought they may be restated) plus some additional ideas to get you thinking of what might work best for your story..

  • Appeal to the Ear. Make the words attractive sounding.
  • Establish setting. This often will let us know time period - contemporary story, historical, rural, city, etc.
  • Foreshadow. Hint at the problem or action to come.
  • Generate questions for the reader. "How can that be?"
  • Look back before the present story actually begins. This should probably be brief.
  • Present the protagonist and/or antagonist. Show something of your character in the first line.
  • Present the victim. This most likely will apply to a mystery.
  • Raise the curtain on the action. Begin your story at the moment something goes wrong or the moment that is different.
  • Set the tone of the book. Is your story going to be a comedy, a mystery, or ?
  • Shock or surprise the reader. It may be something that surprises the reader or be a juxtaposition of ideas that are normally not put together.
  • Start with dialogue (internal or external). Let us hear your character talking or thinking.
  • State motive. Why is this character choosing this action?
  • Upset stereotypical images. Describe something/someone unusual or out of the ordinary. Express something in a new way.

Of course, some openings will fit in multiple categories.

Try openings a number of different ways. Set them aside. What one "haunts" you? What one do you keep thinking about? If none do, maybe you need to come at it from another direction. Find one that seems to express your story the best.

Test it, or several versions, on listeners. Try it with other writers, with children of the appropriate audience age. Ask them to answer the simple question "Does it make you want to read on?"

What if this just doesn't work for you?

Don't panic. Not all good books start with a compelling first line. Some begin more slowly. It's the first paragraph or first page that reels the reader in. If that's more your style, I suggest you study book openings that do that and see what they have in common.

It seems strange to have

It seems strange to have to emphasize simplicity. You'd think simple would be the default. Ornate is more work. But something seems to come over people when they try to be creative. Beginning writers adopt a pompous tone that doesn't sound anything like the way they speak. Designers trying to be artistic resort to swooshes and curlicues. Painters discover that they're expressionists. It's all evasion. Underneath the long words or the ‘expressive’ brush strokes, there is not much going on, and that's frightening. When you're forced to be simple, you're forced to face the real problem. When you can't deliver ornament, you have to deliver substance.

Paul Graham

saving f.jpgSaving Francesca (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2004) by Melina Marchetta is not a book to easily forget. One morning Francesca's depressed mother won't even get up. Francesca is also one of the new girls at a boys' school that has been forced to add girls. She thinks she has nothing in common with anyone there. Discovers the ones she thought were her friends at her previous school were sucking the individuality out of her. Her new friends accept her for who she is. The story ends with hope as the family begins to work out their problems.

Francesca is very real and believable. Enjoy the journey of her learning that it's okay to be who she is. The story is set in Australia. (No surprise since the author is from there!)

Author Melina Marchetta recently won the 2009 Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in literature for young adults for Jellicoe Road (HarperTeen). Read more about her at her website.

I heart you, you haunt me (Simon Pulse 2008) and Far from You (Simon Pulse 2009) by Lisa Schroeder both deal with the grief caused by death.

iheartyou.gifIn the first book, I heart you, you haunt me, Ava's boyfriend has died and we see what she's thinking in short tight verse. One moving example:
"If tears
could bring him back,
there'd be enough
to bring him back
a hundred times."
But then Ava starts hearing and seeing Jackson. Is she going crazy or is he a ghost? If he's a ghost, why is he haunting her?

farfromyou.gifIn Lisa's second book, Far from You, Alice's grief is much older than Ava's, but still Alice has not let it go. She's resentful of her stepmother and her newborn half-sister (emphasis on half!). She and her best friend have had a disagreement and aren't really talking. Alice's dad makes her go on a trip with the three of them and a snowstorm changes her life.

Read about this Oregon author at www.lisaschroederbooks.com. I met Lisa through the creator of KidLit Central. Thanks, Kim, for the introduction and for loaning me the last book.

Imagery is powerful shorthand. It

Imagery is powerful shorthand. It says in four or five words what might otherwise take you sentences to describe - and not as vividly.

Sid Fleishman