Recently in The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing Category

Swift Fiction - The Short Story in Focus

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binoculars-100590_1920.jpgA short story isn't just short--it requires focus. (Especially when that short story is for children or teens and the word length is often under 1000 words.) A lot has to be accomplished in a short space: establishing setting, revealing character, getting to the heart of the story, and resolving the problem with a satisfying ending. Focusing on different parts of story works for me as a writer and an instructor. Perhaps it will help you, too.


First, ask yourself these questions: "What's the main character's problem?" and "What will happen if this problem is not solved?" In other words, why does it matter? If there are no consequences, no stakes for the mc in solving the problem, no one will care.

Then move on to thinking how the problem might be solved and what the obstacles are in the mc's way. Other factors to consider are age appropriateness of the problem to fit the main character and whether this problem can be solved in a physically short amount of time. You also might consider who would have this type of problem.

Here's the Number One Rule of Short Stories: The Main Character Needs to Solve the Problem! Really. No acts of God. No coincidences. No secondary character fixing it--especially a parent. A main character can obtain advice, however. No suddenly acquired skills/tools, such as "oh, yeah, she's a karate expert." And, absolutely No Waking Up and Discovering It Was a Dream. (I'm not alone in hating this--it makes us feel cheated.)

Beginning: When I begin writing a short story, my goal is to establish the problem right away. The reader should know something about "what's wrong" on page one. Make trouble for your main character.

Middle: When solving the problem, I sometimes use the power of three--the main character tries several solutions that fail, the third solution works. Or I might show the steps the character has to take. I want this as exciting or interesting as possible. Make more trouble for your mc.

End: When writing for children or teens, the goal is to leave the reader with hope. That means the problem is solved in some way. A story might come full circle to tie end to the beginning. It might be a logical progression. But tell what happened, so the reader knows how the main character solved the problem.

Late one evening at a writers' conference, a large group of writers were sitting together in a circle. About half of them were fiction writers and the other half poets. One of the poets said she'd gotten a bat in her house. A fiction writer asked, "How did you get it out?" All the fiction writers leaned forward. "I can't remember," the poet answered. One by one, the fiction writers got up and left.

Unaware, the poets continued to sit and discuss the poet's feelings about that bat in her house. They asked what she thought it meant. The fiction writers didn't care about either those issues; they wanted to know how the problem was solved. They wanted to learn who the woman was through her experience of getting the bat out of the house. That's our job--to show the character through the experiences of problem solving.


What's the main point you want the reader to learn? What idea or thought do you want as a "take away"? What's the heart of the story? Answering this helps you clarify the direction of your story. If you don't know the answer, it will be harder to reach a satisfying conclusion. Side points in a short story distract--they lead the reader off on a tangent. If you want to have the reader "get" another point, write a second story.


What type of character should you choose?
- the one who has the most to lose
- character who will have changed by the end
- the one who has the ability to solve the problem and bring about a satisfying ending
- the one who tugs at your heat and fascinates you
- the character who would be on-stage for the WHOLE story

Who is this person? You need to know things that will never make it on the page. A bit about her family life, his personality, her likes and dislikes. I love this question I've heard stated in a number of ways: "What is inside him that will make it difficult to solve the story problem?" As Jane Smiley says, "Story reveals character." You need to know something about this person's character so you can reveal it.


Where is your story taking place? In a city apartment? A suburban house? A country school? A park? There are thousands of places to use, but the sense of place needs to be established quickly. There's usually only time to be in one or two places in a short story. (Maybe three.) Often short stories are told in one scene, which means one setting.


Probably one of the hardest things for me to learn, but so important, was "showing versus telling." It helped me to think of it in parts.

Jumping into action can start the story off with a bang and can hook your reader. If a character is only sitting, the story probably won't be very interesting. But if the character is doing something... Consider actions (or places) that put your character in a tense situation.

Let us know what the main character is thinking. For children and teen readers, you'll never be in someone else's head in a scene. (Multiple viewpoint books separate those viewpoints by chapters or sections.) Thoughts can explain dialogue or be counterpoint to dialogue. Either way it gives insights into the main character. Thoughts can reveal things that the character would never say.

Allow the reader to hear the characters talk. Dialogue can add life to your story. It can create tension as characters argue. It can add humor. Think of watching a movie with no one talking--boring!

Show what the main character is feeling. Don't tell--she was mad--but show what she does when she's mad.

Let us see where, when, how this story is happening. More than just setting, this includes sensory details. Use all senses: taste, touch, sound, sight, hearing and temperature. Use specific details--the ones that reveal the most. Think of three that really show something about the place and/or the character. What would he notice? Don't use chunks of description, but mix it into the action.

Showing is using a combination of these elements. It puts the reader on scene and lets them "be there."

I've heard writers say they don't know how to finish a story. For me, knowing the problem, the theme, the main character, setting, and focusing on the story elements, gets me from start to finish. The less I know the harder it is to reach a satisfactory ending.


How do I get started writing for magazines?

1. First, read a variety of children's magazines and determine which magazine(s) appeal to you and which age groups attracts you most.

2. Decide what you are drawn to most: fiction, articles, poetry, activities.

3. Read and analyze lots of those pieces--look at more than one issue of your chosen magazine(s).

4. Check out market books and get guidelines and, if available, theme lists/editorial calendars for the chosen magazine(s). Some guidelines are available on-line. Others you may need to write for, enclosing an SASE.

5. Write your piece in a similar tone as the pieces in the magazine. Make sure it fits the word length, etc. in the guidelines. When it's the best you can make it, submit it. (Don't start with the hard to get into magazines such as Highlights for Children and Cricket--get some publishing experience first.)

6. Move on to writing another manuscript.

Some people call articles stories, while others only refer to fiction as stories. How do I know what's what?

I personally differentiate these two by nonfiction (article or essay) or fiction (story), and of course, each of those categories can be broken down more. That said, I will at times call a piece a "true story" versus an article. That usually happens in response to a magazine looking for "true stories about..." Sometimes these are also called true experiences.

When submitting a manuscript, I usually indicate "article" or "nonfiction" for those true stories and "fiction based on a true story" or "fiction" on those I've made up.

Should I always send a cover letter with my submission?

I don't. The reasons I do are:

1. The magazine requests manuscripts with a cover letter.

2. I have more information I want them to know (e.g. why I wrote the piece, or my submission fits a theme, etc.).

3. It might be pertinent for them to know my other writing experience and I don't think a full résumé is needed.

What do I say in a cover letter?

1. Grab the reader with something exciting - this may be a direct quote from the manuscript, or a catchy line or something about the theme of your piece.

2. Give a brief summary of your story, essay, article.

3. Tell title, genre, word count and rights you are offering. If reprint rights*, tell where and when it has appeared.

4. Mention anything special you are including: color slides, digital photos, sidebars, related websites, etc.

5. Include your writing credits: either "I'm enclosing my résumé" or a list of some magazines you've been published in. Don't apologize for not having credits. Don't say you're a first time writer.

6. Bring up other issues that might be important. For example, if a story or article is set in a particular town and you lived there, tell the editor so. If you have experience in a particular job, craft, or hobby, and it relates to your piece, say so.

7. If sending a manuscript by snail mail, mention you've included a self-addressed stamped envelope. You may want to include an SASE for their reply instead of for the return of the manuscript. I found I was reprinting manuscripts all the time anyway, and can save postage by sending a smaller SASE. Some publishers are now only replying with acceptances, which in that case you can state something like, "I understand you only reply if interested. You may discard this copy of the manuscript." This information is usually available through their guidelines.

Note: If sending a manuscript electronically, make sure you follow the directions of "pasted the manuscript into body of the email" or "attachment" as the guidelines say.

8. Close.

Overall, remember to be brief, professional and to the point.

Is writing for children's magazines for everyone?

Of course not. But it might be for you!

*Want to know more about magazine rights? Read this post.

(image courtesy of and

What Stops Me Reading!

(image courtesy of
Examples from six published books that stopped me reading.


Book 1
It was a cute graphic novel. Drawings were lovely; story was sweet. But . . . this middle grade story was told in multiple viewpoints and the main character didn't solve her own problem in the end. Throughout the story, she kept being rescued by others. I could mostly ignore those problems. What I couldn't ignore was turning a page and being lost. Did I turn too many pages? I flipped back. No, there simply wasn't a logical transition to connect the previous page to the next. This happened in several scenes.

Book 2
In another novel by an author I like, I turned the page at the end of a chapter and was confused. Wait, didn't we just solve that issue? Are we repeating stuff? I turned back to the end of the previous chapter. What I finally decided after rereading and rereading the three chapters is that the middle chapter should have been cut entirely. I probably wouldn't have put in as much effort to figure this out if I didn't already like the author.

Book 3
End of chapter one . . . Several pages into chapter two, I suddenly realize that this isn't the same person as the first chapter. They're a lot alike though. It's hard to keep them straight in my head as to which one is which. Since I don't really like either one, I quit reading.


Book 4
I'm reading what a character is doing and, in almost an aside, discover that the main character's horse thinks he's reliable. Wait. What? You want me to learn about this character by what his horse thinks of him? That might work if we hadn't just jumped into the mind of a horse. And if we weren't viewing thoughts that are beyond the capability of said horse. No, doesn't work for me.


Book 5
Chapter one is about a girl at work passing her thief test--she's interesting. Chapter two is about a boy--no, not the first boy you see in this chapter, but another one. At least I think so. Chapter three is about the second boy in a previous time. But what about the girl?! For me alternating viewpoints can work, but if not done skillfully can lose my interest.


Book 6
A mechanical mouse is making its way down a hall, through a door. It can't see or think, of course, as it is mechanical. But the author tells me, if the mouse could see, he would have seen . . . and if the mouse could think, he would have thought . . . I closed the book.

So, where was the editor in each of these cases?

I know there was one because of who published the books. Which means I have to remember (again) that reading is subjective.

The editors must not have been confused by what confused me in books one through three. In the fourth book, the editor didn't have a problem with point of view as I did. In book five, the editor was more patient than I to discover how these characters were connected. Book six, evidently the editor didn't mind author intrusion.

Instead of being annoyed that these novels were published, my goal for my own writing is
to try to avoid these pitfalls:

  • main character not solving problem

  • unclear or illogical transitions

  • redundant information

  • characters being too much alike

  • unlikable main character(s)

  • head hopping, especially into an animal's

  • unclear viewpoints, and

  • author intrusion.

Distancing Your Reader

flyonbench.jpgI was writing lines such as "She noticed the fly crawling across the wooden bench" or "He saw the girl toss her hair," when author Daniel Schwabauer pointed out I was "distancing the reader." I thought I was showing the character in the action, but I actually s-l-o-w-ed the action by making the character an observer! If I'm in the viewpoint of the character, I can simply state the action. "The fly crawled across the wooden bench." "The girl tossed her hair." The reader assumes since these actions are mentioned that the main character saw or experienced them.

Here are some examples crammed into one paragraph:

"It seemed the sun was already scorching the dewy grass. The boy cast his line and watched it fall into the murky pond. He felt sweaty and the mosquitoes were biting. He was afraid it might be too hot to catch any fish." (43 words)

Better would be action stated directly:

"The sun scorched the moisture from the dewy grass. The boy cast his line into the murky pond. He licked sweat off his upper lip and smashed a mosquito on his jeans. Would the fish bite in this heat?" (39 words)

Four less words and I slipped in what the boy was wearing.

Another example:footonrail.jpg

"I felt the rail vibrating beneath my feet." (8 words)

"The rail vibrated beneath my feet." (7 words)

The rewrite is less passive--more active--more immediate.

Verb forms that distance the reader from the action are a type of passive writing as well. Look at samples:
"let herself drop" versus "dropped"
"attempted to reach" versus "reached"
"tried to climb" versus "climbed"
They aren't as sharp and weaken the writing.

Another writer, Michelle Hauck, calls it filtering. She says, "Filtering is exactly what its name implies. It is running an observation through your point of view character instead of giving it straight to the reader . . . you're having the character share the action with the reader instead of putting it directly before the reader. It's like a stage direction that shouts 'look here.' If you have words like 'heard, saw, watched, looked, realized, knew, understood, seemed, and felt' then you have filtering." Read more of her blog article on the topic.

Does this mean you never should use "heard, saw, watched" etc.? In my opinion, no. I was rereading a book recently and the main character is hidden under a tarp in a boat. He can't see anything outside the tarp. Hearing becomes a very essential sensory detail as the character makes judgments about what he hears. However, if we read about him "hearing" all the time in the story, this particular instance is buried and won't stand out.

Whether you call it "distancing your reader" or "filtering," check your writing to see if you are misusing this in your stories.

Images courtesy of

Resizing Photos for Use on Websites

kitten headshot.jpgI find fellow writers (and illustrators) who struggle with getting their book cover images and pictures of themselves in the correct format to upload on websites. In fact, they might have as much of a startled look as this little guy does.

Here's a how to...



  • Determine what formats are acceptable. Most common ones are: jpg (jpeg), png or gif. (This is the ending after your file name.) Most pictures out of a camera will be .jpg. When scanning an image, you can usually choose your format.
  • Check to see the required size for the document or website. Often this will be listed in k or mg (thousand or million). It may be listed in pixels. For example on the website for book covers or profile pictures, it says: "(must be less than 4MB and a jpg, png, or gif)."
  • Save your picture with a new name (or duplicate and rename) and work on the copy, so you don't lose the original high quality image. VERY IMPORTANT!
  • Crop your picture if necessary before resizing. For a cover image, crop to cover only. For an image of you, it depends what the image is for. Many times you'll want a head and shoulders shot, versus the whole body.
  • After you resize save your picture under the new name again.


Cropping on a Mac

  • Using FINDER open your duplicate picture in PREVIEW by double-clicking on the copy of the image you want to change.
  • Choose EDIT on the menu bar.
  • Click on SELECT ALL. (dotted lines will show around the image)
  • Sometimes my computer lets me use the mouse pointer as a double-headed arrow to drag the image from corners or sides. Other times, I have to follow the next two steps below. (I'm sorry I don't why it is different at different times!)
  • Choose TOOLS on the menu bar.
  • Click on CROP and use your mouse to click and drag a frame around the portion of your picture that you want to keep. (The icon for your mouse pointer will be a plus.) You can move the frame in or out by the dots on the sides or corners.
  • When satisfied, go back to TOOLS and click on CROP. Your picture will be "cut down" to the image you want.
  • Happy with your cropping? Go to FILE on the menu bar and click on SAVE. If not, go to FILE and click on REVERT TO and choose the older "new original" file.

Resizing on a Mac

  • Using FINDER open your duplicate picture in PREVIEW by double-clicking on the copy of the image you want to resize.
  • Choose TOOLS on the menu bar.
  • In the popup window click on ADJUST SIZE.
  • You'll see a FIT INTO ___ PIXELS drop down arrow at the top of the new window. Click on the arrow. Choose 640 x 480 or 320 by 240.
  • Near the bottom of the window a message will flash saying "Calculating Size." It will tell you how big the picture was and how big it is now. If too small, choose a larger dimension of pixels.
  • Happy with your image size? Click OK to save.


Cropping on a PC - using Microsoft Office Picture Manager
(If you have Microsoft Office products, you probably have Microsoft Office Picture Manager.)

  • Open your duplicate of your picture in Microsoft Office Picture Manager either by opening the program and locating the copy of the image OR using FILE EXPLORER (windows explorer on older PCs to navigate to the copy of the image and right click so you can choose EDIT which will probably open your file with MS Office Picture Manager.
  • On the TOOLBAR at that top click on EDIT PICTURE.
  • In the popup window on the right, choose CROP.
  • Drag black line icons from corners or from each size to crop image. You can move these in or out.
  • Click OK.
  • Happy with your cropping? Go to FILE on the menu bar and click on SAVE. If not, click on UNDO and start over.
  • Resizing on a PC - using Microsoft Office Picture Manager
    (If you have Microsoft Office products, you probably have Microsoft Office Picture Manager.)

    • Open your duplicate of your picture in Microsoft Office Picture Manager either by opening the program and locating the copy of the image OR using FILE EXPLORER (windows explorer on older PCs to navigate to the copy of the image and right click so you can choose EDIT which will probably open your file with MS Office Picture Manager.
    • On the TOOLBAR at that top click on EDIT PICTURE.
    • In the popup window on the right, choose RESIZE.
    • In the new popup window you can choose, PREDEFINED WIDTH X HEIGHT (or Custom width x height or percentage of original width x height)
    • Using the dropdown arrow choose WEB - LARGE or WEB - SMALL, E-MAIL (large or small). After you select one, look at the difference between the old size and the new size. It will show you in pixels!
    • Click OK.
    • Happy with the size? Go to FILE on the menu bar and click on SAVE. If not, click on UNDO and start over.


    Windows 10 will open a program when you click on a photo that also allows cropping, but I don't see resizing. You can get to it by going to Windows icon in the left bottom corner, then clicking on PHOTOS.


    • As before, make a copy of your original picture first!
    • Go to website.
    • Select picture by clicking on browse to find the picture on your computer.
    • Click continue.
    • In the new window you can Crop if needed.
    • After you've cropped, rotated, etc., you may make your picture smaller in Resize Your Picture by clicking on the drop down arrows.
    • I wouldn't recommend Special Effects.
    • Click on I'm Done, Resize My Picture!
    • Now you can View Image or Resume Editing your picture.
    • When happy with it click Save to Disk - you will not get a chance to rename your file, which is why it is so important to have a copy of your original file first.

    There are also YouTube videos on how to do this.

    The absolute easiest way to get a good picture of your book cover, is to go to the publisher's site, or Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and copy the picture from the site. Right click on the picture (PC) or Control click (Mac) and choose Save As. Put the picture where you'll know to find it.

    cropped photo courtesy of

Swift Fiction - The Short Story in Focus

What Stops Me Reading!

Distancing Your Reader

Resizing Photos for Use on Websites


Are List Serves a Service or a Waste of Time?

Reducing Word Count

MS Wish List

How to Stand Out


Kids Reading Books and Saying What They Think


Selling Photos to Magazines

Poor Man's Copyright, a Myth

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


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 Cs and Qs - part three

Mind Your Cs and Qs - part two

Mind Your Cs and Qs - 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?