Recently in The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing Category

Plodding or Plotting

photo courtesy of Don Ford
rootbeerfloat_1.jpgAre you plodding along in your short story or plotting your story?

Plodding stories are often preachy stories. For example, a disobedient girl finally gets in so much trouble she has to get help. Or a small animal learns he can't do what he wants at the expense of others. Or a child who is different from everyone else finds out it's okay to be who she is.
Does that mean you can't ever teach something in a short story? Of course not. But it can't be the whole point of the story. It can't be something that only adults are interested in (i.e. children minding or having clean rooms). Nor can the lesson learned be a moral tagged on at the end. Instead the child character must have a problem that is important to him to solve.

Plodding stories can also be a day-in-the-life-of-the-main-character or what we call slice-of-life stories. First this happens, then that, etc. etc. But the child does not have a problem, nor does she solve it. Often these start with the child waking up in the morning and end with going to bed at night. There's no plot.

Following a child through imaginative play or a dream is also usually a plodding story. Again, no problem or solution is involved. No plot. In a blog post, freelance editor Mary Kole compared these to having to listen to someone's fantastic dream. It's really only interesting to the teller.

So how do you turn a plodder into a plotted story? It's fairly simple: you need a problem, an obstacle or two, and a solution. Sometimes, the obstacles are a failed solution, so another solution, and maybe even another is needed.

Think of a situation or a problem appropriate for your main character's age. Yes, I mentioned age. A problem that a five-year-old experiences is not the same as one a ten-year-old experiences and definitely different from a teen's. Think of mistakes made, fears, etc. for that age. These are not usually major life issues, but are a big deal for the child. What does your main character want right now? And what is preventing him from getting it? What can he do to get it?

Having trouble with ideas? Think back to that age when you were a child. Can you remember your fears, disappoints, mistakes? Do you remember getting in trouble? Remember wishing you'd done something different? Take one of your problems and win with it. Mine those memories and feelings for your characters. Examples often help me learn so here's one for you:

Once as a teen I gave into peer pressure and regretted it. I wrote a story with a character in the same situation; she also gave in and had the same regret, but instead of doing nothing about it as I did in real life, my character goes back to her friends and does something to make it right. Was my goal to say "don't give into peer pressure?" No. Did the story perhaps help some teen when they were facing peer pressure? I hope so. It might have also encouraged a teen who'd made another mistake. But mainly, it presented a story of a teen with a real life problem and her solution.

Okay, so what if you can't remember anything from your childhood? Do you have children, nephews and nieces, grandchildren, friends with children? Pay attention to what is happening with those kids.

My daughter told me my middle grandson got to learn a life lesson recently. His second grade teacher gave them an optional homework assignment. Each student who did it, would get a root beer float the next day. Our second grader has quite the sweet tooth and a root beer float was motivation. However, despite Mom's reminders that he'd better start on the assignment, he kept playing and putting it off. Dinner came--another reminder. Bedtime came and he still hadn't done it. Uh oh! There's his problem--no finished assignment, therefore, no root beer float tomorrow. Could he solve the problem? Yes. His solution: he asked his mother if he could stay up late to work on it. He did for a while, then got too tired. That's an obstacle. His next solution: he asked if his parents would wake him up early. They did, he got the assignment done before school and got the reward. Notice whose idea it was to stay up late and to get up early. In real life often the adults give these ideas, but in your story, the kid needs to come up with the idea(s).

Life is full of problems. We can't always solve those problems, but are encouraged when we hear how others have solved a problem. It gives us hope. Hope is part of the purpose of a short story. When the main character resolves her problem, the reader feels hopeful and the writer has accomplished something important.

Perhaps this article has given you hope about turning plodders into well-plotted stories.

Raise the stakes, honey!

men hanging from ladder.jpgimage by kfjmiller on

Raise the stakes, honey!

Guest post by Kathi Appelt

I have been a writer my whole life long, beginning with writing on walls as a toddler to writing professionally as an adult. In that life-long career, I have written articles, picture books, non-fiction, poetry, essays, short stories, a memoir, and even a song or two.

But for years and years the novel was a form that absolutely eluded me.


For a long time, I told myself that I didn't need to write a novel. After all, I had plenty of published work to stand on, and I had plenty of ideas for new works.

But I was kidding myself, because in my heart of hearts, it was a novel that I wanted to write. So, I took courses, I bought how-to books, I went to workshops. I did all of the required groundwork. Why couldn't I crack this genre?

In the meantime, I had drawer after drawer, boxes stacked upon boxes, of half-finished novels that were just that: half-finished.

It seemed like I could create wonderful characters, interesting landscapes, and great, colorful details. My characters, despite their goals, just didn't seem to make much progress. I'd get about half way through and then my story would lose steam and whimper into oblivion.

It wasn't until I took an on-line course with master teacher Dennis Foley that I realized that the essential element missing from my work was tension.


Now, plots are plots. I knew how to create plots. They involve a character who is moving toward a goal. And as Dennis so aptly puts it: "a goal is nothing more than whatever your character is trying to achieve, overcome or acquire." Easy peasy.

Yeah, right!

How could it be that I could have a character, in search of a goal, with all of the other elements in place, but still come up short?

As it turns out, in order for a reader to care about your story, the stakes have to be raised. You can have a character overcome incredible odds and obstacles, but if there's nothing at stake, then there's no reason to pull for that same character.

Let's consider an example. Say we have a great guy named Phillip who is a cross-country racer and whose goal is to win the regional track meet. We'll put Phillip at the starting line and pull the trigger on the starting pistol. Kapow! Off he goes.

If we use a basic plot, with three obstacles of increasing difficulty, we can first have Phillip develop an annoying blister on his heel. But because Phillip is tough, he runs through the pain. Next, it starts to snow. Now Phillip is having trouble seeing the track because of the snow, and his blister is getting worse, so the odds against his winning are increasing. Finally, he stumbles and turns his ankle. The entire pack is well ahead of him and Phillip is trailing badly.


We'll leave it there. Whether Phillip wins or not doesn't really matter. But what is missing from this story is the why of it. Why is it so important that Phillip win this race?

You see, there's nothing wrong with this plot, nothing wrong with the obstacles, nothing wrong with the character. But we have no idea what the stakes are and why it matters so much to Phillip to win that race. Is a college scholarship at stake? Is he racing to prove something to his family, something about honor, about perseverance, about stamina? Is he racing to win enough money to buy medicine for his little daughter?

What will be irrevocably lost if he doesn't win? Why is it so important to Phillip?

And that's the key word - important. The stakes have to be so important to the main character that if they don't achieve, acquire or overcome their goal, we the reader will care. If not, then it's just a race.

Winning or losing doesn't matter unless the stakes are high.

Raise 'em, honey. Otherwise, nobody will care.

This article appeared in Bruce Hale's January 2014 THE INSIDE STORY - used by permission. Go here to subscribe to his newsletter.

kathi-225x300.jpegKathi Appelt is a National Book Award finalist (for THE UNDERNEATH), and the author of over 20 books for kids and teens. Her tales have won numerous national and state awards, and she serves on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts' MFA in Children's Writing program. Catch up with her online at:

One Size Does NOT Fit All

picture courtesy of Creative Commons License taken by Alisdair
almost fits.jpg

Recently, someone asked me "how do I submit to agents?" As I told them, each agency has their own submission guidelines. Not only do the guidelines say how they want you to submit, but what they want you to submit. And, of course, some agencies or agents are closed to submissions.

The only ways to know for sure what a particular agent wants are to visit the agency website, visit Publisher's Marketplace and search for a specific agent, or hear the agent speak at a conference or other writing event.

I personally am interested in contacting agents whom I've heard speak, met in some way, have read their tweets, have read their blogs or have read interviews with them. I like knowing a bit more about an agent, than what is said on the agency website or on Publisher's Marketplace.

The basic three "how to"s of agency submissions:

  • Via a form on their website

  • Via email, either with attachments, or pasted into the body of the email

  • Via postal mail

What agents want is more complex, but these are common variations:

  • Query only

  • Query with a certain number of pages or chapters for a novel

  • Query with synopsis and a certain number of pages or chapters for a novel

  • Full manuscript for picture book

  • Full manuscript for middle grade or YA novel


  • A full manuscript probably needs a cover letter

  • A few agents may want "exclusive submissions," but most do not

Samples of how and what:

Currently, EMLA's (Erin Murphy Literary Agency) website says: "EMLA is closed to unsolicited queries or submissions. We consider queries that come to us by referral from industry professionals we know, and individual agents are open to queries from attendees of conferences where they speak, except that Erin Murphy is entirely closed to queries and submissions in the first half of 2014. If you have met us at a conference or have a referral, please paste your query into the contact form on our contact page. Please note that we are no longer responding to queries or submissions from those who do not have a referral or have met us at a conference. Those sent in hard copy form via post or other means will receive no response, and those sent via email will receive a form rejection." So, the how is use the form on their website, the what is query and the extra important information is "by referral from industry professionals" and if you heard a specific agent speak at a conference.

Nancy Gallt Literary Agent accepts submissions via a form, in a step-by-step process. Or by postal mail.

"The Bent Agency ONLY accepts email queries. If you send your query by postal mail, it will be recycled and not returned to you."

Some guidelines will tell you what to put in the Subject line of your email.

Email Query Resources

How to Format an Email Query - Nathan Bransford

How to Format an Email Query for Literary Agents - Seven Tips from

BookStop Literary accepts via postal mail and has specific instructions by genre. Here's what they say for the younger readers:

Mail submissions: Please send the entire manuscript (but no more than 15 pages), a cover letter and a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) to BookStop Literary Agency at the address on the left. In your cover letter, include your phone number, e-mail address, a short paragraph about your background, and a brief synopsis of your manuscript. Please do not submit more than two manuscripts at a time.

Please DO NOT send art, dummies, binders, or mock-ups unless you are a professional illustrator.

They also accept email submissions.

What Agents Are Looking For

What we haven't covered so far is the interests of the agents. Some agents look at the whole gamut from picture books to new adults. Others are boutique agencies who may focus on a specific audience or age range. Some agents tell you what they specifically want.

Here's a portion from Bree Ogden's want list (D4EO Literary):

*NOTE: I am actively seeking children's/YA nonfiction. NO memoir unless you have a gigantic platform (i.e., The Pregnancy Project). I would love something in the vein of The Letter Q, Dare to Dream!: 25 Extraordinary Lives, The Forbidden Schoolhouse, or a Starvation Heights type historical fiction.
~Highly artistic picture books (high brow art, think Varmints)
~Middle grade (generally horror)
~Young Adult
~New Adult (no erotica, please)
~Adult (very specific genres, see below)
~Graphic Novels (preferably artist/illustrator OGNs)
~Nonfiction (no heavy academic, rather pop culture and journalism or essays, think Kelley Williams Brown, David Sedaris, Chuck Klosterman. MUST have platform, no memoirs)
~Pop Culture
~Art books
~Unapologetically bizarre books
~Macabre literature for children

Response Times

How long an agent takes to get back to you varies by agency and by agent. I remember one writer friend getting a response from an agent the same day. Other writers told me one agent takes 8-9 months to respond. You may be able to learn this information on the agency website or perhaps on Publisher's Marketplace.


The Bent Agency: "It is our goal to respond to every query. If you don't receive a response within a month, please resend your query and indicate that you're sending it again."

More and more agents are not responding unless they are interested in your submission.


Wernick and Pratt Agency: "We receive hundreds of submissions each month, and while we would like to respond to every submission received, we unfortunately cannot reply to each one. Submissions will only be responded to if we are interested in them. If you do not hear from us within six (6) weeks of your submission, it should be considered declined. If you would like to request confirmation of receipt, please use the request-receipt function when e-mailing your initial submission to receive an automatically generated response confirming receipt. We will not confirm receipt of submissions unless we have requested additional material."

Can I Submit to More Than One Agent at an Agency?

Most agencies consider a submission to one agent at the agency as the only submission allowed. In other words, you can not submit to another agent at the same agency. This information will probably be in their submission guidelines. It never hurts to ask at a conference what the agency's policy is on this.


This phrase has so many meanings. "Back up" as in physically move backwards; we might tell someone to "back up" when they told us something we didn't understand. We might ask someone if they had a "backup" - either a plan or duplicates of their computer files when it died. I say the Internet is "back up" after my connection has been down.

Back up is also an appropriate phrase to apply to writers.

Moving physically back is pretty obvious:
- we back up and reread for editing

- we go back to add necessary details or expand scenes
- we step back from our work to see it with a fresh eye.

Making "backups" is one we creative people often ignore.

We don't like making backup plans. Can't go to that event/conference after all? Agent A doesn't like our story. What if the editor rejects the new book? What will we do next? Having a plan in place, makes it easier to keep moving forward.

Probably the scariest "backup" fault we have is not having duplicates of our computer files. Each time I heard of someone losing all their files due to a hard drive failure, I'd tell myself I'd work harder at backing up more often. Every time my goal of once a month quickly dissolved and I only backed up a couple times a year. If I was doing well.
In 2006, I decided to change that. For my birthday I asked for an automatic backup device. Attached to my computer, it backed up my files EVERY NIGHT. I wondered why I didn't do it years ago...

But nothing is ever permanent in the world of computers. That device eventually failed. And I'd gotten a laptop, too. So I started saving everything from my desktop onto a usb thumb drive and copying it to my laptop. I did the reverse of copying any changes I made on the laptop back to the thumb drive and putting it back on my desktop.

file00043520561.jpgThat was great, but I worried about what would happen if my house burned down or someone broke in and stole all the electronics. For insurance, I got an online backup system--this was before people referred to storing items in "the cloud." Again, that system eventually failed to work. (It saved files, but I couldn't restore them anymore, so what was the point?)

Next, I was introduced to dropbox, which lets you store files online for free. Similarly to using a usb drive, it is a great way to transfer copies from one computer to another. Some people use dropbox as a way to backup their work. It's great if and when you remember to save copies there.

Last year, I decided to pay for an automatic online backup again. After listening to some discussions about services, I chose Carbonite. One of the things I love is it saves versions of files. In other words, if I wished I'd kept a copy of last week's file instead of overwriting it with this week's--both are there. It's really easy to use, too.

I know that was a long story, but partially I told it to show that there are different options and partially to show that you ALWAYS need to check that your backup method is still working and affective.

Okay, the last "back up" definition in my opening referred to being online. For me holiday preparations and activities take me off line for writing. Time is more limited. Focus is more difficult. Now that the holidays are over it is time for me to be "back up." Back focused, back spending enough time, back making progress on projects, back to submitting. How about you? Are you "back up"?

Wishing you the best at getting back up to speed, if you're not already, and to making those backups!

Cloud image courtesy of by Doug

175 Proof

image courtesy of Mary K. Baird on
diluted rum.jpg

In Britain in the 18th century, rum was "proved" by adding gunpowder and seeing if it would burn. If it didn't burn, it meant it was watered down and didn't have enough alcohol. 100% alcohol was considered 175 proof.

Are you watering down your stories and articles by not proofing carefully? Just as British sailors would reject a watered down rum payment, editors reject watered down writing.

Common mechanical problems that water down your writing:

  • Misspellings. Many of these can be fixed by simply running a word processor's spell check; although spell check will not catch errors of the wrong word used.

  • Capitalization errors. Only names, proper nouns, and the first word in the sentence should be capitalized. Mom, Dad, etc. are capitalized when used as a name, but not when used as a label, such as "my mom."

  • Missing words. If you leave out a, the sentence doesn't make sense. Huh? Look what leaving out a four letter word did. You might figure out I meant, "If you leave out a word, the sentence doesn't make sense," but our readers shouldn't have to guess at our meaning.

  • Misused apostrophes. "Joe's" is possessive. It means we are referring to something Joe has: Joe's shoes, Joe's smile, Joe's room. If you mean there are more than one Joe, there is no apostrophe for plural: "There are three Joes in my class." Or "I love sloppy joes." If the object is plural and possessive, the apostrophe usually goes after the s, for example: "writers' workshop." You'll see apostrophes wrong on public signs, but we owe it to our readers to get it right.

  • Wrong word. These are usually homophones, or in other words, words that are pronounced the same, but are spelled differently and, more importantly, have different meanings. This site,, has a list of homophones--just click on the letters on the left to see the homophones that start with that letter. It's overwhelming how many there are! But don't panic! You don't need to memorize them all. Instead here are the ones you must know:

- to, too, two
- they're, there, their
- your, you're
- its, it's

Use grammar checker to help you find the others in your writing. And if you like, check out these resources to help you with some other common ones:

  • Missing Punctuation. Sometimes this is due to run-on sentences where there should be a conjunction or a semi-colon, but it's amazing how many sentences are simply missing the period at the end. I also frequently see missing quote marks. Another problem I see is a missing comma inside dialogue when a person's name is used. Right: "Mom, make him stop." Wrong: "Mom make him stop."

  • Extra spaces. Extra spaces often occur before or after quote marks, before other punctuation, between words, and even blank lines after paragraphs. We'll talk later about how to catch extra spaces and blank lines yourself.

Help on catching these water-downers:

After you use spell check and grammar checker--make sure you understand why you are changing something in your text--try these:

  • One of the easiest ways to see errors in your own writing, is to change the font (style and size) and print it out. This moves words around and helps you actually read what is there instead of what you think is there.

  • Read your manuscript aloud. It's amazing how much I catch in my own writing when I read it aloud. Especially if I have an audience!

  • For extra or missing spaces (broken lines and other oddness), print your piece the way you plan to submit it to your instructor or editor. Ignore the text itself and look at only the appearance. If something looks funny, check it out. You can also use the Find and Replace option in your word processor and search for space space and replace with space. You many need to run it several times to catch three or more spaces in a line.

  • Make sure your word processor has 0 in the "spacing after" paragraph box. You may need to select the entire document, then go into paragraphing to fix this. You can also change it in your default document, so any new documents won't have this annoyance.

There's more to proving yourself to an editor than these simple mechanics, but if these basics aren't correct, an editor probably won't even get to the content of your writing.

Plodding or Plotting

Raise the stakes, honey!

One Size Does NOT Fit All


175 Proof

He Thought to Himself and Other Excesses

Confessions of a Writer Easily Distracted

Is That Right?

Writing Business Expenses


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


Nancy I. Sanders on Writing Nonfiction


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 C's and Q's - part three

Mind Your C's and Q's - part two

Mind Your C's and Q's - part one

Standard Manuscript Format


Critique Methods

Market Research Resources - Agents



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


Viewpoint in Children's Fiction

Making Friends: Character Development

Glossary of Publishing Terms

Genre Resources

Children's Book Genres

Why Write?