Recently in The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing Category

Novel-sized Problem

boy-984313_1920.jpegIf your story problem can be solved quickly and easily, it's probably a magazine story. But if your main character has multiple things going on (subplots) and is going to have a lot of "doing" or action before the end of the story, then you have a novel-sized problem. Some problems are novel-sized just by their seriousness--death, grave illness, other big losses, abuse, etc.

I can't conceive of a whole children's novel at once, whereas I can a children's short story. I can visualize the problem, the steps the main character will try, and the solution for a short story and be pretty accurate that it will happen that way. For a novel my conception is more fluid. Yes, I have ideas of a problem, but not all the problems my character(s) will experience. I have ideas for solutions, but that's not necessarily what the main character will end up doing. My idea of the final solution may change drastically as I write. I like what Greg Hollingshead says, "The primary difference between the short story and the novel is not length but the larger, more conceptual weight of meaning that the longer narrative must carry on its back from page to page, scene to scene." This takes us back to the problem. Novel problems matter more than short story problems. They affect the character's whole life in some way not just a small piece of it. Problems that are big enough for a novel won't be forgotten by your character next year. A short story problem once solved could be forgotten next week.

I recently read an outline for a children's short story where I told the writer it was more of a novel problem. My first hint was the depth of the problem. My second was the character was making a decision about something and I wasn't going to get to see the result of that decision. Hard to explain without getting into details for that specific story, so let me come up with an example. I've never watched The Bachelor, but what if there was a scene where he said, "I know whom I'm going to marry." He even says the name. But we don't get to see him ask her and see if she says yes. We'd feel cheated. If what NEEDS to be shown won't fit in your short story, think novel. Or maybe you're starting in the wrong place--too soon in the story.

There's satisfaction in writing both. Short stories offer a more immediate sense of accomplishment. Novels can offer a longer lasting sense of accomplishment. T.C. Boyle says, "The joy of the story is that you can respond to the moment and events of the moment. The drawback is that once you've completed a story, you must write another even though you find yourself bereft of talent or ideas. The joy of the novel is that you know what you're going to do tomorrow. The horror of the novel, however, is that you know what you're going to do tomorrow."

So part of determining whether you have a short story or a novel problem is how strongly you feel about the main issue in the story. Is it something you are willing to spend some time on? A few hours, a few days, maybe a week? Or is it something you're willing to devote months, often years? A novel will take the latter.

Let me conclude with this lovely statement from Elizabeth Sims: "...in a short story you should be trying to get at one or two poignant aspects of being human. In a novel, you can create characters, let them loose, follow them and see what they do. If you feel your story will be more a journey than a statement, you may be leaning toward a novel." (Go here to read her complete article.)


Emotions and Feelings

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Look at these images. Do I need to put a label on them so you know what the character is feeling? No. Why not? Because these are well-drawn and the emotion is clear. It's shown.

The same goes with writing. We don't need to label characters as annoyed, happy, in love, scared, shocked, etc. We need to show it. (Picture books are often the exception to this rule.)

Let's take Ms. Bunny above. She looks shocked to me. So what happens when a person is shocked (I don't mean the electrical kind)? Eyes go big or widen. A hand might come up to cover an open mouth. Someone might take a step back or sit down suddenly. A face might pale. The person might gasp. If you describe your character experiencing being shocked, you won't have to use the "shocked" label.

I love the image of the annoyed penguin. We know what is annoying him and what he plans to do about it. What do you when something is flying around you and it is annoying? First, perhaps wave the insect off. This is almost a subconscious reaction. But after a few times it impinges on our consciousness and we get annoyed. Now we might be slapping at the bug. Making noises of irritation. Then finally get up to get something to kill it.

Mr. Frog is obviously scared. He's jumped up. His heart is probably pounding (although this is so easy to overuse). He might be sweating. Eyes dilate. Breathing rate could increase. A hand/paw/webbed foot might go to the throat. A body can shake; a hand tremble. If one is like the fainting goats, one might pass out.

So next time you are tempted to write something like "Sam was happy." Instead think about what that looks and feels like. Observe yourself and others and write was happiness does to a person. Show the reader that instead of telling a "label."


Sensory Details

blind-men-1421406_1920.jpegYou may have heard "use all five senses in your writing," but I disagree. Use all six senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, and temperature in your fiction.

Sight is the sense that seems to come easiest. We might talk about the blue dress, or the rain, or the black and white cat. We might describe the style of the dress--its length, fit, and neckline. The rain might be sheeting down or lightly sprinkling. The cat could be short or long-haired, skinny or fat, etc.

But we may forget to think about what we hear. In the three examples above what could you possibly hear? With a dress it depends on the fabric, but the skirt might swish or crinkle. Rain can pound on the patio cover or spatter on the window. That cat may have tiny feet which can be silent pawing across the floor, but at other times can thump louder than seems possible. Or is she a loud purrer? The stray cat we've been feeding is half the size of our own cat, but her meow is three times as loud. And rather harsh and gravelly as if she's been a long-time smoker.

Taste is more than eating, although it definitely includes that. Have you accidentally breathed in hair spray? It doesn't taste good. Neither does your mouth if you don't brush your teeth for several days. But then there are wonderful flavors--melted butter and honey on fresh homemade bread, the tang of a slice of orange, chicken tikka masala, the burst of bubbles in your carbonated drink. What is a normal taste in your character's home may be different from something your readers have experienced? I remember reading books and wanting to try something the characters ate because it sounded so good. And some of those were fictional food items. (But they didn't feel fictional.)

From the good to the bad, and the downright ugly, smells affect our lives and should affect character lives, too. I like subtle smells of flowers, fir trees, and clean sheets. I love the smell of spaghetti sauce simmering, or a beef roast in the oven. Sometimes my dog has bad gas that I'd willingly skip, but she doesn't give me the choice. The smell of exhaust can make me choke. My husband tells the story of the time his mom decided to cook up some horse radish--everyone but mom left the premises because the smell was eye-watering intense!

Touch. Right now I have a jagged fingernail that keeps catching on things, including my own skin. I've got a soft fuzzy crocheted afghan in my lap, which my cat usually has to knead before sitting down. Sometimes my healed broken ankle aches, and when spring hits, my eyes may itch from pollen. But let's go back to my first three examples with sight and how to think about the tactile aspects. Does that blue dress have a satiny texture, or is it that bumpy seersucker fabric? Or maybe it's coarse homespun. And the rain coming down--how does it feel when I go out in it? Pelting rain that stings my skin? Or a soft mist that is like a creamy moisturizer? Do I want to pet the black and white cat or is her fur mangy and dirty? Definitely no for the latter.

Temperature, a sixth sense. Are you cold and goose-bumpy, overheated and sweating, or somewhere in between? I often don't mind being caught out in a warm rain, but will hasten in out of the weather when it is cold. Stepping barefooted on sun-heated asphalt can make one leap for the coolness of lush grass. Is that breeze warm, hot, cool, or cold? Or how about the temperature of the pool, river, or lake? And is summer the dry heat of an arid area, or the hot-steamy bathroom feel of a humid climate? Again, your characters should be affected by temperature, just as you are.

For some stories, temperature might have to move to seventh place as the traditional "sixth sense" of intuition, or some psychic or magical sense is important to the story.

Does every scene have every sense? Not usually. But scenes should have three different sensory details. And the sensory details can be about a variety of things in your character's world. Be as specific as you can. And if those specifics are sometimes unusual that will add interest. The sensory details you include will establish setting and help bring your characters to life.


Taglines and Beats

camcorder-1294289_1280.pngA tagline indicates who is speaking. It's the part outside of the quotes around the dialogue. The attribution of who spoke. e.g. he said. A tagline is in the same sentence as what is spoken. e.g. "Will you help me?" she asked. or "Stop the car," Josh said. For the most part writers use "said" and "asked" because they are unobtrusive. An occasional whisper, yell, shout, call, etc. is fine. Overuse of more unusual words are a mark of an amateur. Adverbs aren't commonly used because the dialogue should be written well enough to not need it.

Beats are physical action lines that accompany dialogue. They also identify who is speaking, but are in a separate sentence. However, beats do so much more for the story than that. Beats help readers experience the action and the emotions of the characters. They can help with setting and mood. These kinds of beats often include some kind of sensory detail. They can help with passing of time and pacing.

Let's show these different aspects of beats starting with some plain dialogue. I'm not positive I can do them separately, but I'll try. ;-) (Please ignore that I can't indent paragraphs on this blog.)

"I'm not going," Matt said.
"Why not?" his sister asked.
"Because it's stupid."
"And you don't do stupid."
"That's right. What's burning?"

We know we have male and female siblings. We don't know where they are, what they are doing, or what they are arguing about.

Beats for action

Matt shut the door. "I'm not going."
"Why not?" His sister raised her eyebrows.
Matt leaned against the doorjamb. "Because it's stupid."
"And you don't do stupid."
"That's right." He sniffed the air. "What's burning?"

Action alone is all right, but adding emotion will be better.

Beats for emotion

Matt slammed the door shut. "I'm not going."
"Why not?" His sister frowned.
Matt smacked his fist into the doorjamb. "Because it's stupid."
"And you don't do stupid." She rolled her eyes.
"That's right." But he rubbed his sore hand. "What's burning?"

I think it's more interesting with indication of emotions.

Beats for setting

Matt shut the kitchen door behind himself. "I'm not going."
"Why not?" His sister hopped down from the counter where she'd been perched.
"Because it's stupid."
"And you don't do stupid."
"That's right." Matt sniffed the air. "What's burning?"

Now we know where we are--a kitchen. And because of our setting, what's burning is probably some kind of food. (And yes, I put an action back in.)

Beats for mood

"I'm not going." A swirl of fog followed Matt inside.
"Why not?" His sister shivered.
"Because it's stupid." He looked over his shoulder as if he expected someone to be behind him.
Her bare arms goosebumped, but not from cold. "And you don't do stupid."
"That's right." Matt lowered his voice to a whisper. "What's burning?"

Quite a different feel, eh? And I don't think it's food that's burning, do you?

Beats for passage of time

"I'm not going," Matt said.
His sister finished the sentence she was writing before asking, "Why not?"
"Because it's stupid."
"And you don't do stupid."
"That's right." He pulled out a chair and sat across from her. She turned a page in her English book and started on the next essay question. Matt sniffed the air. "What's burning?"

It's hard to separate passage of time and pacing. We know some time passes twice here. The pacing slowed because of the three things that happened between Matt's last two pieces of dialogue.

Beats for pacing

"I'm not going," Matt said.
His sister finished the sentence she was writing before asking, "Why not?"
"Because it's stupid."
"And you don't do stupid."
"That's right." He pulled out a chair and sat across from her. She turned a page in her English book and started on the next essay question. Matt checked the clock on the wall. 5:23. The second hand jumped forward one minute. 5:24. Matt sniffed the air. "What's burning?"

See how there's even more going on between his last two pieces of dialogue? It's slowed the pace. Adding in actual times slowed the pacing even more. It gives that portion a relaxed feel. You wouldn't want to do that when a character is in danger.

Looking at these examples as a whole, I added changes in facial features, body language, stronger action verbs, sense of place including items in that place, mood, and sensory details (fog, goosebumps, smell of something burning.) This means the characters aren't just standing in front of a white board. Way better than simply she said/he said. Of course, in a longer piece you'll use a mixture of taglines and beats to put the reader on scene with your characters.


Successful Cover Letters

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I've had students ask to see sample cover letters for magazine submissions, so thought I'd share several of mine here.

Here's one I wrote for an article that appeared in the magazine KidTime in October 2006. (I've redacted some personal information.)


date

Editor name
KidTime
Street address
City, state and zip

Ms. Lastname,

"What is it? An overgrown chestnut? A porcupine egg? A beaver ball? No, although the last two are nicknames for it. What you're seeing is a larch needle ball." That's my opening for an article on the naturally occurring phenomena of larch needle balls. The article might be appropriate for your November theme of "Harvest Time."

My information comes from an interview and larch ball hunting trip with an experienced collector. In addition, I've corresponded with Montana Forest Service and Glacier National Park personnel, Montana scientists, and Seeley-Swan Valley residents. As far as I've been able to ascertain, nothing is in print about this unusual subject except an article I wrote focusing on the collector for Real People ("That's Incredi-ball" January/February '97).

I've also had articles published in Highlights for Children, Cricket, Child Life, and others.

Besides the article I've enclosed eight color transparencies along with descriptions. Of course, I've included a self-addressed stamped envelope for your convenience.

Sincerely,


Obviously, that was a postal mail submission. Here's an email submission of a short story that sold.


Attn: Conny

Kiah's mom has just announced they are moving away. Anger bursts out of Kiah like lava spouting out of a volcano. She says she'll stay and just live with friends. But when Kiah thinks about her friends, none of them seem a good fit. But it isn't until she figures out the real reason they are moving that Kiah decides to make the best of it and makes up with her mother.

This short story "No Way" is especially appropriate for the older age range of your audience. The length is 1433 words and I can offer you first rights. I've pasted in the story below.

My writing credits include over 160 magazine short stories and articles for children and adults. I've been published in such magazines as Highlights for Children, Cricket, Jack and Jill, and many others. My recent book projects include three picture books for Unibooks (Korea) and seven e-readers for Compass Media.

Sincerely,


So what do these letters have in common? A brief description of the article or story and my writing credits. I'd usually say the title and word count as well, but see that I didn't even do so with the article. If you don't have writing credits, you leave that out. You'll see in one case I addressed the theme the magazine had for a specific issue, and in the other I mentioned the story would fit the "older range" of their audience.

It's pretty simple. Some samples you'll see tell even less about the story. But the basics I usually include are:

• Specific editor's name (or title specified in the magazine's writer's guidelines)
• Magazine name and address for postal mail
• A teaser for the story or article
• What you are submitting - e.g. article or short story
• Title and word count
• If appropriate, why you chose the magazine
• Rights available, if appropriate
• Any applicable background info - e.g. what gives you authority to write the piece and/or writing credits
• For postal mail, SASE for reply or return of manuscript

Letters are single spaced with a blank line between paragraphs. My physical letters have my name and contact information in a footer. It can also follow your name below the signature. And, of course, you want your letter to be free of any errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.


Novel-sized Problem

Emotions and Feelings

Sensory Details

Taglines and Beats

Successful Cover Letters

Diverse Books

Online Resources for Children's Writers and Illustrators

Rhyming Picture Books

Preparation and Practice for Public Speaking

Public Speaking Phobia

Authors in the Classroom

Why Twitter?

What Should I Describe?

Magazine Story or Picture Book?

Nonfiction Writing

Do It Myself!

Swift Fiction - The Short Story in Focus

What Stops Me Reading!

Distancing Your Reader

Resizing Photos for Use on Websites

Overwriting

Are List Serves a Service or a Waste of Time?

Reducing Word Count

MS Wish List

How to Stand Out

NAMING CHARACTERS - FROM MARY'S NOTEBOOK

Kids Reading Books and Saying What They Think

Retreat!

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

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 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?