Recently in The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing Category

Missing Students

sw_Editing_N10_20130809_230442.jpgphoto courtesy of Stuart Whitmore

Not as in "no one knows where there are," but as in "my student load is greatly reduced and I'm missing seeing people learn and grow in the area of writing for children." (I teach for the Institute of Children's Literature.) I love it when someone "gets it"--whatever it might be for them: showing versus telling, passive writing, organizing an article, keeping the child main character in control, adding sensory details, overcoming danglers or run-ons. The list of possibilities is lengthy.

Here's a sampling of quotes from students:

"Thanks for your encouragement with my stories and the constructive criticism." Janice, March 2012

"Hey, thanks for the helpful insights on my first paper." Chris, May 2012

"I sure have enjoyed the course and have already seen a big improvement on my writing skills. Hope you have seen a difference, too. Thanks for being a wonderful instructor (and I really do mean that)." - Carrie, October 2012

"What a great experience I have had-with an excellent teacher. I have learned more about my writing style with you, than in many English classes throughout my adult life. You are succinct, kind, and inventive with your feedback." - Sally, September 2013

"Thank you so much for your time and guidance throughout this experience. I took your words and criticism to heart and learned so much. I appreciate you spending the past year with me and for all your guidance and encouragement!" - Shannon, October 2013

"You have been a wonderful instructor over the past year. I have appreciate your candid feedback and the encouragement you have given me along the way." - Lori, November 2013

"Thank you for all of your suggestions, critiques, and help!! I have learned a lot!! I realize now that writing for publication requires a lot more than jotting a story down!! I appreciate your patience when I took such a long time in turning in some of my assignments!!" - Peggy, June 2014

With fewer students, I don't see these kinds of comments as often anymore. What's a teacher to do? Think outside the proverbial box.

After spending an hour with one children's writer who asked me to mentor her for pay, and finding that was helpful for her, I realized I could offer paid mentoring to others.

This is what you'll get for an initial hour of mentoring from me at the cost of $40:

Manuscript critique

  • Up to five pages in standard manuscript format

  • Overall comments--both what's working well and what isn't

  • Line-by-line editing, if needed

Submission help

  • Query or cover letter critique

  • Or help in writing one

  • How to submit electronically, if needed

Answers to questions

  • Craft related

  • Genre specific

  • Publishing info

  • I may not know the answer, but often know where to find the answer

  • No question is "too stupid"



How Paid Mentoring works:

  • Customization to meet your writing needs

  • Meeting in person with print outs of manuscript and/or letter(s)--coffee shops or bookstores are good venues

  • Email critique(s) and Q&A - an hour's worth of my time

  • Afterwards you'll receive an invoice or statement you can use for your taxes



Interested? Feel free to email me to discuss at sue@susanuhlig.com. If you'd prefer to discuss over the phone, email me your phone number (and time zone) and I'll return your call.


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.

What Do You Do When You're Stuck?

image courtesy of veggiegretz on morguefile.com
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Stuck on your current WIP? Here are some things I do, plus exercises I've learned from other people.

If I'm not feeling my character for the current scene, I go back some pages and reread what I've already written to get the feel of his or her life.

I'm not an outliner, but I know my main character's problem well and have an idea of how the problem might be solved. The stories don't always end how I think they will--I believe that is true for outliners, too. In one work in progress...the kid thinks he is responsible for his mother's death. At the end, he will realize he was not in control of whether she lived or died. He also will resolve (in his heart) the issue of having disappointed her the day she died. I don't know exactly how it is all going to happen, but I keep putting him in situations where he has to face what he's done, face his grief, his regrets.

Talk to your character. In a workshop at Oregon's SCBWI conference in 2013, Agent Trish Lawrence (EMLA) shared about "nailing your teen in the corner" and finding out what's going on under the surface. Ask questions on paper and record her answers. Ask "why" questions. Go to the dark places. Try to discover core truths and inner values.

Do research about your setting or your character's hobby or interests, or problem. In a talk at the 2014 New York SCBWI Conference, author Elizabeth Wein said that uncovering details often provides inspiration. Read her guest post on Authority and Authenticity. Author/illustrator Judy Schachner shared something similar at the 2014 LA conference when she showed us how she uses a journal/scrapbook to paste in pictures and quotes and ideas for her picture book character. As an illustrator as well as a writer, she also draws sketches of her character and tries things out with him.

Go some place different (anywhere, e.g. a doctor's office, a park, a store, a restaurant) and soak in the environs, then put your main character there and just start writing about him or her being there. Ask yourself, "What would he be thinking?" etc. Don't worry about your plot, etc. Just see what comes out. Several of us got things that may go into WIPs out of this exercise from a talk by author Elizabeth C. Bunce at a Kansas SCBWI workshop.

Work on another project and let this one simmer until it is bubbling to come out of you... Since I usually have a number of projects I want to work on, this works well for me.

Keep showing up to write. "Good ideas come when we show up," author Kate Messner said.* Kate has more writing tips on her blog.

Check for action in your story, especially if a middle grade novel. Editor Nancy Siscoe (Knopf) said, "Action is always better than inaction."* She added that nothing is worse than characters who never do anything.

Be courageous. Keep trying new things. While speaking on courage to write great picture books, Editor Jeannette Larson* reminded us to "do things that might scare you" and to be flexible.

At the fall 2013 SCBWI Oregon retreat, Deb Lund challenged us to "Mine Your Memories"--especially those yucky ones! What hurt you? What scared you? What secrets did you have?

Sometimes writing the next scene just doesn't seem possible. Write a later scene in the story and worry about how to connect them later.

Maybe you're worried too much about length. Don't worry about how long or short it is; just work on what happens next.

Ask yourself questions about your main character's problem. What's stopping him from reaching his goal? Or arriving at a solution? How can you make it worse before it gets better? How can you raise the stakes? Will she get what she wants? Once at a writer's event, I heard someone say "push the main character off the cliff and see what she does." ;-)

What do YOU do when you are stuck?


*at the 2014 New York SCBWI Conference



Naming Your Character

photo courtesy of earl53 on morguefile.comisz8gyWy.jpg
I recently read this tweet by @nikkitrionfo "I hate choosing character names. #amwriting" And I told her how at our SCBWI Oregon retreat, @doesntmattr (an editor from Scholastic) talked about with project ideas, he just uses "Bob." He replied to our tweets with "I could spend two hours trying to come up with a name. 'Bob' gets the job done."

For me, I need the character's name before I can move on in the storyline. Maybe I agree with what Anne of Green Gables says, "I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I've never been able to believe it. I don't believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage." ― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables In my opinion, who the character is is part of his or her name.

One of the resources I use is a name the baby book and lists of popular names on the internet. I look for names that sound right and often, but not always, check the meaning of names. Where and when a name was or was not popular can be important too.

For surnames, I like using the internet again to look up common last names. I might do it by city or state, ethnicity, and again meaning.

In real life, I've named dogs people names (Sadie and Quinn), but I don't recommend doing that in a story. I think it is easier for the reader if pets have more obvious pet names.

Character Naming Resources

All these have practical tips, but this article is my favorite: "8 Tips for Naming Characters" by Dan Schmidt
@toucanic

"The 7 Rules of Picking Names for Fictional Characters" by Brian A. Klems
@BrianKlems

"Name That Character: Top Ten Tips" has "do"s and "don't"s as well as samples from books and movies.

"I Need Help Naming My Character!" - What To Do When You Don't Know What To Name Your Character

This article "Tips for writers on naming fictional characters" has some interesting sections, such as "Terms of Endearment," "Overused Names," and "Loaded Names."

On this page, Random Name Generator at www.behindthename.com, indicate how many given names and gender and provide an optional surname. You can choose ethnicity/language, plus extras such as Mythology, Ancient, Biblical, and labels like Fairy, Goth, Hillbilly.

There's also a Last Name Generator, but it isn't as flexible or fun.

How do YOU name your characters?

Considering Self-Publishing?

Pommes_à_cidre.jpgI've know authors who have done it well and many others who have not. You've heard that a bad apple can spoil a whole barrel--often in the self-publishing realm it's the opposite. Finding the one good apple may be difficult.

The first impression for a self-published book is the cover. If the cover is not professional, it won't matter about the rest of the book. There's a snarky site called LOUSY BOOK COVERS that has a tag line that says "Just because you CAN design your own cover doesn't mean you SHOULD." The site shows what it claims--embarrassingly poor covers.

In the traditional publishing world, Art Directors often go through multiple cover designs for one book before everyone involved (including the marketing department) is happy. I suggest that authors self-publishing get honest opinions on their covers from booksellers, librarians, other authors, illustrators, etc.

When I open a book and see a typo, a misspelling or grammar error on the first page, it makes me doubt the overall quality of the book. Traditional publishers use copy editors as well as editors who work on content. If you want to self-publish, or the new term "indie publish," please consider finding someone who can copy edit your book.

The biggest deal is content. I've found stories/books with these kinds of flaws:

Not Being Realistic
• It couldn't happen like that
• It doesn't make sense
• Where did that skill/ability/tool come from?

Main Character Not In Charge
• She is swayed by the winds of circumstances
• He doesn't make any decisions

Problematic Word Choices
• Overuse of adverbs
• Week adjectives
• Weedy words
• Misplaced modifying clauses
• Passive verbs

Overwriting
• Intricate details of clothing probably don't add much, unless it relates to the plot in a specific way
• Taking forever to get to the point of a scene
• Burying action with description
• Overdone dialogue tags/attributions
• Too many characters

And none of those issues deal with the overall storyline. Traditional editors and freelance editors help with both. If you're self-publishing, you'll probably want to hire a freelance editor.

The other thing I see is people who write books but don't really understand the market. It could be a children's book that either talks down to kids or covers information that children aren't interested. One self-published writer told a friend of mine that she didn't see why a children's book had to be "all about the kids." Um, because that's who your audience is?

Here's an article called "Self-publishing a book: 25 things you need to know" by David Carnoy.

So, say you write a great book, get it edited by a professional editor, get it copy edited, have a great cover, now what? Marketing!

It's not easy. Several sources I saw listed an average of 100-150 books per year in sales for indie authors. Here's one link.

Getting reviews is difficult. The Horn Book editor, Roger Sutton, wrote an article on why: "An open letter to the self-published author feeling dissed." Now he's opened a contest called "A challenge to self-publishers." Deadline is December 15, 2014 and it is only open to printed books.

Self-published authors can pay for a review at Kirkus--that's not paying for a positive review, but paying for the chance to BE reviewed.

Getting into bookstores can be difficult. Here are some helpful articles:
"Getting your self-published book on the shelf (i.e. Bookstore Dating 101)"
"How to get your Self-Published Books into Bookstores"
"How To Sell Your Self-Published Book in Bookstores"

Selling books at conferences may not be allowed by the hosting organization. For SCBWI, a book must have earned PAL status.

Awards can help sales! Did you know there are specific awards administered by the Independent Book Publishers Association for indie published books? Go here to read about the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards. SCBWI has a Spark Award that recognizes excellence in a children's book published through a non-traditional publishing route. James Minter posted an article called "Writing: 50 Book Awards Open to Self-publishers"

I'll end with a link to this article by someone who has done it: "Chris Eboch on Self-Publishing and Middle Grade Novels: Should You or Shouldn't You?"



As often is the case, the above image is courtesy of morguefile.com.

Missing Students

The Right Number of Characters

What Do You Do When You're Stuck?

Naming Your Character

Considering Self-Publishing?

When Educational Publishers Ask for Your Résumé

Say What?

Write Well When the Muse Is Sleeping

Writing Process Blog Tour

Truth in Fiction

Plodding or Plotting

Raise the stakes, honey!

One Size Does NOT Fit All

BACK UP!

175 Proof

He Thought to Himself and Other Excesses

Confessions of a Writer Easily Distracted

Is That Right?

Writing Business Expenses

Subjective

The Hero's Journey for Magazine Writers

Altitude and Attitude - Adult or Child?

Slow Down, You Move too Fast

Kidz Only! Adults Keep Out!

A Dark Side of Social Media

Do you struggle with grammar?

Can children and teens can get their work published?

Patience Required

I'm a Work-in-Progress

Illustrator Resources

Inspiration from Kate DiCamillo

Are Listserves a Service or a Waste of Time?

Writing and Life Balance

How To Start Querying an Agent

WEBSITE Q&A

Nancy I. Sanders on Writing Nonfiction

Heartbroken?

Perfecting Dialogue Punctuation

Ouch! Thin Skin!

Agents Telling What They Want

School Visits, the Extended Version

Going Back to School

One of 75 finalists

Make It Work for You

Down with Discouragement!

Do as I Say

Professional Problem Maker

4 Ways to Make Your Characters "Talk Different"

Picture Book Month

Work-for-Hire Resources

Work-for-Hire Wisdom

Work-for-Hire also known as WFH

Picture Perfect Picture Books

Picture Book Resources

Author Talks versus Workshops

My Favorite Online Resources

Technicalities - More Thoughts on Public Speaking

Do as I Say

Theme List Tactics

What Would Sue Do?

Attribution or Action?

Don't Throw in the Towel

Do You Remember?

Dragged to the Podium

Double Identity - Pen Names

Before You Sign: Contract Resources

Welcome, Diane Bailey, Work-for-hire Champion

Ready, Set, Goal

An Editor's Day

How'd You Get That Gig?

On the Hunt for Ideas

Bloggers Supporting Other Bloggers

Shadowing a Submission

Give up or press on?

Turning Ideas Into Stories - Workshop

After the Critique

Keeping Track

The Synopsis Shrink

Mind Your Cs and Qs - part three

Mind Your Cs and Qs - part two

Mind Your Cs and Qs - part one

Standard Manuscript Format

CUT IN THE CRITIQUE

Critique Methods

Market Research Resources - Agents

THE SANDWICH OF CRITIQUE

CRITIQUE GROUPS: GO FOR IT!

Organizations and Groups

Writing a Novel? Where Does It Fit?

Meeting Editors and Agents - In Person

Meet Editors and Agents - Online

Book It! - Recording What You Read

Theme and Premise

Self-Editing Tips

The Story Ladder or Novel Timeline

Showing Versus Telling

Read, Read, Read

The Power of a Good First Line

Hooking your Reader

Listen to the Voices

DIALOGUE TIPS

Viewpoint in Children's Fiction

Making Friends: Character Development

Glossary of Publishing Terms

Genre Resources

Children's Book Genres

Why Write?