Friday, December 23, 2011

Revision Tip: Take a Holiday!

Today's Tip:

One of the most commonly repeated pieces of advice for revising is to take some time between writing your draft and working on revisions.

What I usually do is set a story aside for a couple of months while I write the first draft of another project (because there are always more stories waiting for me to write). I don't like to rush. Revisions require incubating time as well as writing time.

Useful link:  Jessica over at Bookends Literary Agency gives an agent's perspective on taking time for revisions.

Happy Holidays! This is my last revision tip for the month -- I'll be back in January (well-rested and with a good chunk of my novel revision done).

Monday, December 19, 2011

Revision Tip: Choose the Right Details

For the month of December, I really need to concentrate on my novel revisions. So instead of my usual Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and ABCs of Writing Middle Grade Fiction I'll be posting short revision tips from various sources.

 Today's Tip:  

Details add sparkle to the story (and can sometimes cut down your word count).

It's a little weird to think that putting in details can actually make a story shorter. But one of the things I’ve noticed while revising is that sometimes a carefully selected word or phrase can replace an entire sentence.

I think it’s important to make sure the details you choose are ones your main character would notice. For example, my current novel has a lot of smell-related details since my main character has a keen sense of smell. 

Watch for:

 - sentences where the main purpose is to state a description (often starting with "It was..."). These can sometimes be eliminated by using a descriptive phrase or by showing how the character reacts to the description.

 - sensory details that are vague, rather than specific. For example,  It smelled delicious vs. It smelled like the gingerbread cookies her grandmother used to bake.

 Cool Quote:  Description does nothing to move a story forward on its own. It’s how it interacts with the characters that makes or breaks it.”  Janice Hardy, Description 101: Is Your Description Helping Your Story or Holding It Back?  The Other Side of the Story, April 21, 2011

Over at Chocolate for Inspiration, my critique buddy Christina Farley talks about her revision process – she has one phase of revision that's just for getting the details right.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Revision Tip: Experiment, But Save It

For the month of December, I really need to concentrate on my novel revisions. So instead of my usual Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and ABCs of Writing Middle Grade Fiction I'll be posting short revision tips from various sources.

Today's Tip:

Make good use of your technology.

Since I’m writing on a computer, I easily can make as many drafts as I like and no one will see them. That gives me the freedom to try things out in a different way to see if that makes for a stronger story. I can cut out a character, add new chapters etc. Sometimes I save separate paragraphs of bits of the story that I liked but didn’t fit with my new vision. Then if I need to, I can go back to them or use them somewhere else.

Watch for:

-  save different versions of the file under a different name

-  backing up files is critical

Cool Quote: “…unless you make big changes, a revision isn’t worth doing. If you go out on a submission round and get roundly rejected, you’re not going to solve your problem by going back to the page to tweak a few words here and there.”

Mary Kole, Big Revision, December 7,2011

Monday, December 12, 2011

Revision Tip: Scenes as Building Blocks

For the month of December, I really need to concentrate on my novel revisions. So instead of my usual Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and ABCs of Writing Middle Grade Fiction I'll be posting short revision tips from various sources.

Today's Tip:

Each scene is a step towards the final big event that happens at the end of the story.

Can you tell I’ve been learning from The Plot Whisperer? One of the things I do as I revise is to check my story, scene by scene, to make sure each scene has a purpose.

I also think about the characters in each scene, what their goals are for that scene and how the scene contributes to their overall goal. I’ve been noticing some interesting ways my character’s goals interact, leading to scenes that have more than one purpose in the story. Watch for:

- scenes with no apparent purpose:  they need to be cut or amped up (even if the writing is amazing)

- scenes where too much is happening: sometimes they need to be broken up

- scenes that repeat in terms of the pattern of events or structure 

Cool Quote:

 “…it wasn’t until I learned to see scenes on a micro level—as needing goals, obstacles and turning points of their own—that I became a publishable writer.”

 Lena Coakley,Some Thoughts on Scene Structure, posted on her blog November 30, 2011.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Paying It Forward

How is your December going? So far, my revisions are coming along (slow but steady). People I care about are getting all kinds of good news. My Christmas shopping is well underway. My younger daughter is actually cleaning out her closet without being asked (I'm stunned). And I won a Kindle!

Yesterday, I received my brand new Kindle in the mail, courtesy of Karen Strong. She has an awesome blog for writers (and I'm not just saying that because I won her giveaway). Karen's generosity has inspired me to be more giving too, so in addition to the charity donations I already do at this time of year, I decided to make a donation to First Book, an organization that helps connect books with kids who need them.

Then I saw that Six Teaching Authors (another great blog) are donating to First Book too. Wow! It's great to see all this kindness and caring in our world.

P.S. My daughters are both very excited about the Kindle, and now we're shopping for some good reads. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Revision Tip: Working on Structure

For the month of December, I really need to concentrate on my novel revisions. So instead of my usual Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and ABCs of Writing Middle Grade Fiction I'll be posting short revision tips from various sources.

Today's Tip:

Learning about book structure from reading and analyzing published books in your genre can be really helpful. I find I get the most out of this process if I do it myself, but there are some great ones out there on writer blogs (for example, see Laura Pauling's Plot Busters posts). When I get stuck on a plot issue, I often turn to one of my novel analyses to see how other writers manage to get their plots to fit together.

Cool Quote:  "Analyzing a book through dissection turned out to be one of the most concrete and most helpful revision strategies I tried...the power of the dissection process was that I came to these same conclusions on my own by analyzing how writers I admire created books that I love."

Katherine Schlick Noe, Revision: Turning Spilled Milk Into Ice Cream blogging at From the Mixed Up Files on August 5, 2011.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Revision Tip: Telling in Dialogue

For the month of December, I really need to concentrate on my novel revisions. So instead of my usual Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and ABCs of Writing Middle Grade Fiction I'll be posting short revision tips from various sources.

Today's Tip:

It's easy to hide telling in dialogue. It can also create situations where your dialogue feels off, because you are telling something in your dialogue that doesn't match with what is being shown in the story. Watch for:

- adjectives that explain character emotions, e.g. she said in surprise

- attributions that explain dialogue, e.g. he barked

Cool Quote:  "Every time you insert an explanation into dialogue, you're cheating your readers of a little bit of one of your characters. Do it often enough, and none of your characters ever comes to life on the page."

Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Physical Description and Character

As I work on my novel revision, one of the things I'm trying to do is to create stronger characters. There are a lot of elements that go into this, but one of the things I noticed is that I have almost no physical descriptions of my characters in my writing (though I do have a lot of scenes showing physical reactions and what they are doing). Does it matter?

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King advises me to include only enough physical description to help readers picture a character. As a reader, I tend to agree. I actually don't like reading too much about a character's appearance. I find it easier to put myself in the character's shoes if I don't have to keep noticing our physical dissimilarities (or put effort into ignoring them). And since I write MG fiction, I'm always being careful not to include too much of any kind of description. For the tiny amount that I do include I'm thinking about:

1. Using other characters. I like having other characters refer to details about the main character (or another character). Of course, these details need to be blended in where they fit with the story, not mentioned just for the sake of mentioning them. (The cliched device of having the character looking in a mirror to describe herself springs to mind.)

2. Showing. The old show vs. tell comes up here again. It's easy to throw in an adjective to describe; much harder, but more effective, to show physical characteristics through what the character is doing or through reactions (e.g., brushing long hair out of their eyes to avoid answering a question).

3. Giving out details bit by bit. I try to avoid info dumps of any kind, including descriptive ones. As a reader, I like the way the character develops in my mind as a story moves along. Part of that is learning more about what they look like, or, even better, what is significant about the details of their appearance the author has chosen to include (e.g., their eyes are the same colour as their grandmother's).

4. Being specific. I figure that if I'm only mentioning a few physical details, they'd better be the most relevant ones. Something that will help readers remember my character and something that helps show their personality, without seeming too unnatural or contrived.

Do you have any tips for writing physical descriptions? How do they affect your reading?


I notice that The Bookshelf Muse has a great post on writing physical descriptions you might want to check out.

The Sharp Angle has some great advice and examples for describing physical appearance.

Darcy Pattison uses Chris Crutcher's Whale Talk to illustrate how to use interesting details to create characters.

Agent Mary Kole talks about character self-description, and you can find some great points discussed in the comments to the post.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: The Magic Thief

Today’s pick:  The Magic Thief Book 2: Lost by Sarah Prineas

Published by HarperCollins, 2009

In the first book of The Magic Thief series, street thief Conn finangles his way into an apprenticeship with important wizard Nevery – who provides support as Conn searches for his “locus magicalus”, a special object that will allow him to talk to wizard magic. Conn’s search for his locus magicalus continues in The Magic Thief: Lost, (after having found it and lost it in Book 1) but since he doesn’t have it, he tries to use the power of explosions to communicate with the magic. After his explosive experiments cause some serious destruction, Conn ends up exiled from his city, Wellmet, but the magic leads him to join his friend Rowan on a journey to Desh to try to fight the mysterious Shadows that are turning the people of Wellmet to stone.

My Take:
If you’re looking to see how to develop a character and see the world through his perspective, this book is a great example. The writing has a good balance of description and action, and the story moves along well. I liked the way journal entries and letters bring in points of view of other characters in the series. This is clearly a middle grade novel, and I think it would be enjoyed by both boys and girls.  

Other Info:
This book is part of The Magic Thief series. The author includes backstory to catch you up on what you’d missed, but I’d definitely recommend beginning with Book 1.

Other books by this author:

Winterling (coming in January 2012)
The Magic Thief
The Magic Thief: Found (Book 3)   

For more info, visit Sarah Prineas’ website.  

Friday, November 25, 2011

Revision Homework

The other day I was working at my computer, brainstorming obstacles and problems to help strengthen my novel plot for the big revision I'm doing. My twelve-year-old walked in, looked at the screen and said, "That looks like homework."

Good thing I always kind of liked homework when I was kid.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Girl's Best Friend

Today’s pick:  Girl’s Best Friend by Leslie Margolis

Published by Bloomsbury, 2010.

Twelve-year-old Maggie has a job walking dogs. (Ssh! Her parents don’t know about it). When Maggie's twin brother, Finn, gets stuck inviting Maggie's ex-best friend, Ivy, to their joint birthday party, Maggie catches Ivy stealing her dogsitting money. Then she finds out that Ivy's dog, Kermit, is being ransomed by a dognapper, and Maggie starts to investigate. Reluctantly, Ivy agrees to help (imagine working on a project with your ex-best friend). Things get even more complicated for Maggie when other dogs start disappearing and the boy she likes, Milo, seems to be involved.

My Take:
I always have a hard time finding middle grade mysteries for girls, so I was happy to find this book. Although, I thought the solution to the mystery was a little obvious, the author did a great job of including clues and twists, so maybe middle grade readers wouldn’t find it quite as predictable. The character of Maggie and her concerns and interests were very firmly middle grade and I liked it that she was an ordinary girl and not over the top silly or girly. Reading this book showed me how to use specific details to help create a believable character. (Plus, it includes dogs!)

Other Info:
This book is the first in the Maggie Brooklyn series. The second book, Vanishing Acts, comes out in December 2011.

Other books by this author include:
Everybody Bugs Out (MG)
Fix (YA)
Price of Admission (MG)
Boys Are Dogs (MG)
Girls Acting Catty (MG)
For more, go to the fun Maggie Brooklyn website.  

Friday, November 18, 2011

Cool Blog Quote: Interactive Reading

The process of reading (whether the book is digital or paper) is interactive. As we read, we make guesses and draw conclusions, work out implications and connect what we already know to what we're reading. One of the things I watch out for when I'm writing is to not over-explain or over-describe, so the reader has some space to bring their own experiences to the story.

Earlier this week, Patricia C.Wrede, author of The Thirteenth Child, discussed how you can make a strong impact in your writing by allowing the reader to fill in some of the missing details:

"...if the writer provides a few of the right visual details, plus some sounds, smells, and sensations, plus the viewpoint character’s reaction, the reader will generally fill in what’s missing with his/her own details…and the resulting image will be more powerful because it’s tailored to fit each reader by the readers themselves."

Patricia C. Wrede, Making an Impact.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

F is for Fear: What Children's Writers Need to Know

Whether you write scary stories or you just want to create a strong emotional experience for your reader, your character is likely to be afraid or anxious at some point in your story. What do children’s writers need to know about fear?
Fears are different at different ages. The things that terrify a 5-year-old (e.g., loud noises, imaginary creatures) may be different than what scares an 8 to- 12-year old. Some common fears for middle grader readers include:
- nightmares or scary dreams
- violent weather, like tornados or hurricanes
- death
- war and terrorism
- speaking in front of a group
- someone breaking into the house
- being late for school or class
- divorce
Not all fears have the same intensity. Fearful reactions are linked to personality and past experiences. One kid might be only a little anxious about starting a new school while another might be really scared. Think about what past experiences your character might have had to create or develop the fear.
Fears can be unique. Even though some fears are common to many, some children have a specific, unusual fear that continues through childhood. For example, someone I know was afraid of automatic flush toilets for most of his childhood, after losing a coin in one as a young child.
Because everyone has experienced fear or anxiety at some point, including a character’s fears in your writing can help you connect with readers. Fear may also be a way to provide a flaw or problem your character needs to overcome, or to increase the tension in your story.   
Some tips for including fear:
Show fear through actions. Behaviour is a big giveaway to fear, but beware of too much emphasis on physical reactions (there are only so many times a character can feel their heart pounding). In the real world, we often gauge our reactions through how other people react. If your secondary or minor characters act afraid, that can add to the reader’s fear for the main character.
Choose details carefully. Over-describing a scene might actually take away from the scariness of an experience because nothing is left for the reader to imagine. A little fearfulness can go a long way.
Add surprises and twists. Scary things sometimes burst out at us (like in a haunted house) or come at a moment when they aren’t expected.
Suspense. A slow build up of tension can create a feeling of “on the edge of your seat” or shared fear with the character. If you know the character is afraid of something, but not when he will encounter it, that can create suspense in a story.
Be clear on your purpose. Although parents often look for books to help children cope with fears, it’s an entirely different thing to create a story with fearful events for the purpose of entertainment. Readers of middle grade books may be looking for the thrill of reading something scary. Or maybe just to relate to a character because they share the same emotional experiences.
Have you read any good books where the writer has used fear effectively as an element in the story? Or, do you have any tips to share on using fear?
*As usual, if you know of any good links on this topic that would be helpful to writers, let me know in the comments and I’ll add them to this list of resources.
Sara Todd gives us some strategies for writing horror for kids.
Over at Paranormal Point of View, Lisa Gail Green gives us some ideas for how to create fear in the minds of readers.
At the Bookshelf Muse, Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi have a comprehensive list of ways to describe fear in their Emotion Thesaurus.
For a list of some scary middle grade books, check out Stacy Whitman’s Grimoire – Scary Middle Grade Books.
And, for some background info on real kids:
At Anxiety Care, there’s lots of info on kids fears and phobias. tells us some of the biggest fears for kids starting middle school.
If you’re struggling with the issue of whether to include something scary in your novel, Jennifer Neilsen of From the Mixed Up Files writes about whether scary stories are okay for children.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z

Today’s Pick: The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z by Kate Messner

Published by Walker & Company, 2009

If seventh-grader Gianna Zales doesn't finish her leaf collecting project in time, she will lose her chance to compete in the cross-country sectionals. She’s not the best at organizing or managing her time and she finds lots of excuses for starting it later. At the same time, she and her family are struggling to deal with her grandmother’s memory loss and confusion. And Zig, a boy who used to be her best friend is starting to think of her in a different way.

My Take:
Gianna’s character was what really pulled me along to finish this story. I loved it that she wasn’t super organized and got distracted like an ordinary kid. The issues she faces in the story seemed very real to me (though I got annoyed at her mother for not being more aware of the Alzheimer’s issue). As a MG writer, it’s great to see how a lot of different plot threads (e.g. boys, mean girls, family issues, school work issue) can be tied together in one story, because this is something that I find challenging in my own writing.

Other Info:
This is a stand alone novel. Along with being a writer, Kate Messner teaches English in middle school. She is active in the writing community, on Twitter @KateMessner.

 Other books by this author include:
Sugar and Ice
Eye of the Storm (forthcoming, 2012)
Seamonster’s First Day (picture book)
Over and Under the Snow (picture book)

For more, go to Kate Messner’s website,

If you're looking for more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts, here are a few places to check out:

Shannon O’Donnell

Joanne Fritz
Sherrie Petersen
Brooke Favero
Myrna Foster
Anita Laydon Miller
Barbara Watson
Just Deb
Michael Gettel-Gilmartin
Pam Torres
Jennifer Rumberger

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Are You Too Busy for a Journal?

One of the things that I tend to ignore when I'm really busy with a writing project is journalling. But I think I'm making a mistake. Even though working on my story every day keeps it flowing and keeps me in the right frame of mind for writing, I think there's a lot to be said for taking a keeping a journal too.

For me, my journal is my idea space. It's where I ramble, write notes, collect ideas and ask myself questions. Even though I may be busy working on my writing, taking a few minutes to journal can help me clarify my thoughts. It also gives me a place to reflect on my progress. I can keep track of what I've accomplished so I know it and recognize it, even though it might not mean so much to someone else.

Do you keep a journal even when you're working on an intense writing project?

If you're struggling to find time to write, maybe the MiG Writers can help. This week, we're sharing some of our tips for making time for writing.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Spells & Sleeping Bags

Today’s pick: 

Spells & Sleeping Bags by Sarah Mlynowski

Published by Random House, 2007

As Rachel heads off to summer camp, her magical powers are starting to kick in, but they’re a little out of control. As if that wasn’t challenging enough, she has more problems: getting the attention of the boy she likes, trying to help her little sister be less socially-inept, dealing with a girl who seems to hate her and learning to swim.

My Take:
The tone of this book promised a fun, girly story with a sprinkle of magic and that’s exactly what it turned out to be. One of the strengths of this novel is the way the author writes dialogue. The characters really come alive through their conversations. There is minimal description here, just what is needed, allowing the story to move along at a good pace. Although it’s categorized as a teen novel (there’s a lot of talk about kissing), I’d say it’s more “tween” and definitely of interest to 12- and 13- year old girls who are thinking about first crushes, first kisses, making friends, fitting in and other middle school issues. Plus, it has that magical element to add to the fun.

Other Info:
This book is part of a series called, Magic in Manhattan. Nickelodeon has optioned the rights to the series for a television movie. Other books in the series include:

Bras & Broomsticks
Frogs & French Kisses

Parties & Potions

Other books by this author include:

How to Be Bad (YA)
Gimme A Call (YA)

Ten Things We Did (And Probably Shouldn’t Have) - YA

Me vs. Me - Chick-Lit, adult
Milkrun - Chick-Lit, adult

Friday, November 4, 2011

Cool Blog Quote: Be Unpredictable

I'm always hoping to write a book that the reader just can't put down. James Scott Bell has some great tips in his post, What Makes a Novel a Page Turner? This quote sticks in my mind:

"...there is one thing your story absolutely cannot be, and that is predictable."
Think about that last section you wrote. Is it what your reader would expect? Maybe you need to change it up a little. Because if your writing is too predictable, chances are, you won't be creating that fresh, original work that agents and publishers are looking for.
Do you have any tips for how to keep from being too predictable in your writing?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Staying Focused on the Story

Even though I'm not officially participating in NaNoWriMo, I've been inspired by the many of you who are (including my crit buddy Christina Farley). So I've decided it's time I buckled down and got some serious writing done on my latest project.

One of the things that keeps me focused while I'm writing is to think about what I want the overall tone or feeling of the book to be. Is it a quiet, thoughtful book? Something scary? A funny, entertaining story? A gripping adventure? Thinking about the overall impression I want to make with my story helps me make choices about what I need to show the reader (and what can be summed up in a line or two).

What helps you stay focused on the story when you're writing?

Monday, October 31, 2011

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Half Brother

Today’s Pick: Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel

Published by HarperCollins, 2010

Thirteen-year-old Ben is getting a new baby brother—a chimpanzee. Ben’s parents are both behavioral scientists and they want to prove that animals can learn American Sign Language. They think that raising a chimp in their home, like one of the family, is the best way to do it. If that wasn't hard enough, Ben has to deal with moving to a new city and a new school. Although it takes a while for Ben to warm up to his chimp brother Zan, over time they build a strong bond. At the same time, his father's research project experiences some issues and the conflict grows between Ben and his father. Eventually, Ben has to choose between loyalty to his family or to his brother. This story takes place in the early 1970's in Canada.

My Take:
This well-written novel really makes you think about the relationship between animals and humans. I admired the way research and information about the study of chimps is so skillfully blended into the story. With strong characters, bits of humor and lots of tension, this book was hard to put down. It kept me thinking long after I finished it. This story will appeal to both boys and girls, especially animal-lovers. The story isn’t only about the animal-human relationship, it’s about friendships, family and the love that brings living beings together (or keeps them apart). A note for fans of Kenneth Oppel's other books - this one is quite different, but still a compelling read.

Other Info:

This novel has been optioned for film.

Half Brother has won the Ontario Library Association's 2012 Red Maple Award. This reader's choice award is chosen by tens of thousands of grade 7 and 8 students across Ontario. This is Oppel's third win: Airborn and Skybreaker were previous recipients.
It has received several awards, including the 2011 Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Book Award in the Middle Reader/Young Adult category, the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year Award and the Canadian Library Association Young Adult Book Award, and has been named as 2011 Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association.

Kenneth Oppel shares some of his thoughts about writing this novel on his blog in written form and in this clip as he accepts his awards.

 Other books by this author include:






This Dark Endeavour (a new novel about the apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein)

For more, go to Kenneth Oppel’s website.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Halloween Fun

Halloween has always been one of my favourite celebrations. It's hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm of the kids. There's planning the costume, decorating of the yard to make it spooky, the traditional pumpkin carving, and of course, sorting and tasting all those yummy treats from the giant bag of loot.

For many kids, I bet Halloween ranks right up there with birthdays and Christmas as one of the year's best events. Strangely, I've never included Halloween in a story. When I think about how important it is to kids, now I want to. What kind of pumpkin face would your character make - scary or silly? How would they decorate - sweet smiling ghosts or a bloody murder scene? What costume would they wear? Would they collect treats or play pranks?

Have you ever included Halloween in a story?

P.S. The photo shows the pumpkins my daughters and I carved two years ago. Which pumpkin do you think I carved?

How is your writing going lately? Over at MiG Writers, we've posted a few of our tips for breaking a writing block.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What Else Do You Write?

Some of you might know that in addition to trying to write MG novels, from time to time I work on stories for young kids who are learning English.

Writing for kids learning English requires some different writing skills than working on a longer piece or a novel. I enjoy the challenge of trying to fit in a repeated phrase or language structure that readers can learn, while trying to make a very short but interesting story. I also learn little bits about the culture and life in Korea, even though I've never been there, because it affects what I can include in a story (places or sports kids are familiar with, activities they might do, etc).

Whenever I write one of these beginner reader stories, I always write too much and then have to pare it down to it's simplest form. It's a different way to work then when I write novels, which are often too sparse and seem to need to have more detail layered in. (Of course, then I often end up removing it again during revision round #27.)

What kinds of writing do you do? Does one kind of writing help you with another?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Invisible Inkling

Today’s pick:  Invisible Inkling by Emily Jenkins

Published by Harper/Balzer & Bray, 2011

Back Cover Copy:

The thing about Hank's new friend Inkling is, he's invisible.
No, not imaginary. Inkling is an invisible bandapat, a creature native only to the Peruvian Woods of Mystery. (Or maybe it is the Ukrainian glaciers. Inkling hardly ever gets his stories straight.)

Now Inkling has found his way to Brooklyn and into Hank's laundry basket on his quest for squash—bandapats' favorite food. But Hank has bigger problems than helping Inkling fend off maniac doggies and search for yummy pumpkins: Bruno Gillicut is a lunch-stealing dirtbug caveperson and he's got to be stopped. And who better to help stand up to a bully than an invisible friend?

My Take:

What a fun story! This is an excellent example of a younger middle grade read (the publisher suggests ages 7 to 10), though I caught my 12-year-old sneaking a peak for a quick after school read. This book has a cool setting (the kid lives over an ice cream shop), a main character with a good sense of humour, and a creature with magical powers (an unusual invisible animal). I think it’s a great example of how to weave some issues that kids face (how to cope when a friend moves away, bullying) into an entertaining story.

Other Info:

A sequel, Invisible Inkling 2: Dangerous Pumpkins, is scheduled for publication in Summer 2012.

 Other books by this author include:
Toys Go Out, Being the Adventures of a Knowledgable Stingray, a Toughy Little Buffalo, and Someone Called Plastic (picture book)

What Happens on Wednesdays (picture book)
The Little Bit Scary People (picture book)

For more, go to Emily Jenkins’ website. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Do You Need Backstory in Middle Grade Novels?

When you’re writing for middle grade readers, you need to keep the story moving. Backstory, or information about the background or history of characters and objects, can create an info dump that stops the action of the story, or at least slows it to a snail-like crawl.

Does that mean backstory is a no-no for middle grade novels?

I think you’d have a hard time finding a novel without any backstory at all. As middle grade writer Laura Pauling points out, we need backstory for helping to create characters with depth.
Knowing some background about a character can help develop a character’s motivation (e.g., Harry Potter’s backstory of surviving Voldemort’s attack as an infant). And knowing what a character has gone through in the past can sometimes help us feel more emotionally connected to characters. So the trick is to somehow include the backstory so that it doesn’t get in the way of the real here and now story of the novel.

Some strategies:

Weave it in gradually. This is the most common tip I see in articles about backstory. Avoid an info dump by giving key details about the character’s past in small pieces, rather than a long explanation.

Make sure it’s necessary. I think it’s so important to only include backstory where and when it’s needed.
Like other elements of your story, it has to be something that the reader really needs to know at that particular point in the story. Maybe it will keep the reader from being confused. Or maybe it shows why the character has made a decision. If it doesn’t have a purpose that helps move the story along, you might not need it. A lot of advice I’ve read (including Donald Maass) says not to include backstory at the beginning, when you’re trying to hook your reader.

Use only a little. Keep your backstory brief and to the point. (Remember, the Harry Potter novels, which at times seem to be built on backstory, are exceptions.)

Make it interesting or make it quick. If you are including some backstory and have found a natural place to bring it into your story, there are different ways to fold it in. You could just directly state it and quickly move on. Or you might bring it in through a brief memory, especially if you’re trying to develop an emotional connection to your reader. Flashbacks could be another way, but I don’t see those often in books for middle grade readers (they can be confusing).
Including backstory through dialogue is one way people try to avoid the “show not tell’ problem, but as author Elana Johnson says, this can be really awkward and unnatural sounding.

How much do you rely on backstory? Do you have any tips to share?

*As always, if you know of any great posts on backstory, please let me know in the comments and I’ll add them here for our reference.

Elana Johnson, author of the YA novel, Possession, has some thoughts on using backstory for world building.
Laura Pauling’s take on backstory.

Becca Puglisi of The Bookshelf Muse gives us some strategies for using backstory in this guest post at Sherry's Fiction Writing Tools.

At Writing While the Rice Boils, Debbie Maxwell Allen has a series of 4 posts by Randy Ingermanson that give us a thorough look at the topic of backstory.
Over at Literary Rambles, Casey McCormick posts a great tip on how much backstory to include from one of her blog readers, Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban.

Rachel Larow of Mommy Authors gives some tips on balancing backstory.

Literary Agent Rachelle Gardner gives advice on strategic ways to use backstory, especially in your novel opening.
Author Jody Hedlund weighs in on how much and when to use backstory.

At the Query Tracker blog, Stina Lindenblatt talks about backstory.

Author Mary Carroll Moore talks about how backstory can help or hinder.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Dear George Clooney

Today’s Pick: Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom by Susin Nielsen

Published by Tundra Books


After Violet's TV-director dad leaves their family for a new job, new house, new blond actress wife and new twin baby daughters, Violet has a little difficult adjusting. Three years later, she’s still feeling angry and definitely has an attitude. She doesn’t hide her feelings about her father deserting his family. She’s protective of her little sister, who still wets the bed after the trauma of the divorce. And she watches out for her mom, who keeps dating men that just don’t measure up.  When her mom starts dating Dudley Wiener (who wears vivid hand-knitted sweaters), Violet and her friend Phoebe decide they have to take matters into their own hands and help Violet’s mom get a decent man: actor George Clooney. Meanwhile, Violet is struggling with her own feelings about a boy named Jean Paul.

My Take:

I loved seeing the world from Violet’s perspective, even though it shocked me sometimes because she did things I didn’t expect (or wouldn’t do myself). This was a great study in character for me. I liked the uniqueness of Violet’s character and how she’s dealing with so many of the issues that face readers of middle grade books, such as starting to like boys, a family break up, dealing with the “mean girl” at school, figuring out how to get along with a step-mom, helping out with a little sister.

Other Info:

This is a stand alone novel. It has been named a Canadian Library Association 2011 Honour Book.

Susin Nielsen is a television writer and editor and has worked on many television series, including Degrassi, Degrassi Junior High, Ready or Not, Heartland, and Robson Arms.

Other books by this author include:

Word Nerd (I also loved this one)

For more info, visit Susin Nielsen’s website.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Birthday Wishes

Here it is, my birthday again. Last year, I posted my list of birthday wishes. Today, my wish list could be exactly the same, except that I'm working on a different novel. Huh. Does that mean I'm not making any progress? Or that my life is kind of boring?

Here's my attempt to try to come up with something new this year. As I blow out my candles, here's what I'll be wishing for:

1. Writing success for all my critique buddies. They've helped me out so much this year, I want something good to happen for them. In fact, let's spread the joy around. I'm wishing all my blogging friends something good, writing-wise. Your support and comments really brighten my day.

2. A magic plot wand that fixes all the plot holes and tangles, miraculously cutting away the stuff that doesn't belong.

3. More sleep! I know this is the same as last year, but I'm really feeling exhausted lately. In fact, I think I may spend part of my birthday indulging in a nap. Or at least reading a good book.

4. An extra hour each day to do the other fun things I don't seem to get to because I'm cooking experiments, sketching, actually working on the scrapbooks that I keep collecting things for, or playing more board games.

And by the way, I could still use one of those revision express passes!

Hope you have a great day!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Are You Writing What's Right for You?

One of the things I think about when I get "not for me" responses is whether I really should be writing the kinds of things I'm writing. Is it the right genre? Am I writing for the right age group? Maybe I should be doing something else altogether. This week, over at MiG Writers, some of us talked about why we're writing YA or MG.

Thinking about the why reminds me of how much I love it. If you haven't read our post, check it out and let us know why you are writing what you write.

One of the things I love about writing MG is a sense of connection to my audience (kind of funny, in light of the "no connection to the work" responses I get about my writing). I love getting a chance to think the way a kid thinks, and letting my characters explore things I never did when I was that age.

For me, writing is like a huge escape into another world, which I suppose is why I often feel so fired up and refreshed after a writing session. But I think if I was struggling to write in a genre that really wasn't for me, writing would leave me really drained and probably grumpy.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Is Writing in Your Family?

The other day, I was jotting a To-Do list in my writer's notebook (I know, lists of household jobs don't really qualify as writing but just bear with me), when I got thinking about my eccentric great-grandfather, who used to keep tiny notebooks full of lists. His lists were more about what he ate or the costs of things during his day. But now, as I consider my own obsession with writing-to-help-me-think, it makes me wonder whether he wasn't a writer that just didn't have the opportunity to write anything more than his lists.

I know I'm related to a magazine editor and an artist/writer, but maybe there are others. There must be  something about the way we think that makes us more inclined to write. Is it hereditary?

Are there any other writers in your family?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Happy Turkey Monday!

Today is Thanksgiving for us up here in Canada, so I'm taking the day off to rest and eat turkey.

Hope you have a great Monday!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Friday Fun: The Licence Plate Game

One day in the summer, my daughters and I started generating a story inspired by licence plates as a way to fight the boredom on a long drive. Our only rule was that we had to use a new one in each story bit. How's that for story-building!

Some ways you can use licence plates to inspire your writing:

1. Character names, especially for sci-fi or fantasy. Some recent ones I saw:  NINAKS, ANZY, TYTAN, DR SAME. Don't these just make you start thinking about character traits?

2. Psychology of a character. You can also think of these plates a different way, and wonder what the person is like that chose that plate. Why did someone choose 5 EVANS for their plate? What kind of person are they?

3. Names for vehicles, cities, other worlds. I'm thinking about what life would be like on DIGNITY9.

4. Made up swear words. Those random combinations of letters are great for this. BLEB!

Have you ever had any creative inspiration from licence plates?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Critique Group Benefits

Do you have an awesome writing group? If you don't, I hope you get a chance one day to find one.

My writing buddies do so much more than give feedback on my writing. They are great at questioning character motives, finding places where my writing is confusing and ferreting out those sections where what my character is doing just doesn't fit with the story. But they also encourage and support me when I'm feeling down about my writing. (And let's be honest, sometimes writing can drag you down when something is not working, when life events interfere or when you don't get the response you were hoping for.)

I feel so lucky to have not only a family that supports me, but also this circle of writers, who really understand what it is like.

Who supports you in your writing?

And speaking of supporting each other, over at MiG Writers, we're still hoping to reach 60 comments to support the MAGIC (Major Aspects of Growth in Children) Foundation. Please check out our post and consider commenting. You'll have a chance to win a free book (and with so many books up for grabs your odds are pretty good).

Friday, September 30, 2011

MiG Writers Giveaway!

If you'd like a chance to win a cool prize and donate to an important cause, just by commenting, check out this post at MiG Writers.

One of my critique buddies, Carmella Van Vleet, has a daughter with a growth disorder (read her story here). And today is an unofficial "Growth Disorder Awareness" Day for the MAGIC Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps families who have children with rare conditions and diseases that affect growth.

Over at MiG Writers, we're supporting this event with a giveaway and fundraiser. For every person that comments, Carmella is donating $1 (up to $60, her daughter's current height in inches), PLUS everyone that comments has a chance to win one of 6 great prizes! For details, visit the MiG Writers.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Four Ways to Keep Motivated for Writing

Sometimes it's hard to stay motivated. For me, this most often happens after I've sent out some queries and I'm trying to stop thinking about them by working on a new project. The "not for me" responses start trickling in and the beginning excitement of the new project wears off when I actually have to work at it. Then I start looking for ways to avoid writing, like blogging or cleaning my desk (a sign that I'm really in trouble). Does this happen to you?

Here are a few ways I get back on track:

1. Take a writing workshop. Getting an expert's view of the process often inspires me to get working on my writing. Somehow, I see my writing differently after getting another perspective.

2. Talk with a writing group. So much of my inspiration comes from my family and my writing buddies. Lately, my writing buddies and I have been checking in with updates on our writing progress. Knowing that they are working hard on their writing inspires me to work hard too.

3. Set a simple goal. I'm not talking about something like "Finish novel by end of the month". I try to set goals that I feel like I might actually accomplish, especially if I'm trying to build up some writing momentum. If I start small, and then actually meet my goal, it inspires me to reach higher next time.

4. Read (or listen) about writing craft. When my writing is stalled, sometimes I pick up a writing craft book, seek out some writing blogs or tune into a writing podcast for a little inspiration. I don't like to read books in my genre or visit bookstores when I'm lacking motivation, because it just reminds me of what I'm not accomplishing.

How do you stay motivated to work on your writing?

If you're stuck for an idea, check out this post by my MiG Writers group about where we get our best ideas.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Flipped!

Today’s pick: 

Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2001


Julianna Baker begins crushing on Bryce Loski from the first time they meet, in grade 2, and is convinced for years that he will be her first kiss. The problem is, Bryce doesn’t see it that way. He finds Juli annoying. As the two of them grow up through middle school, the author shows their two different and sometimes humorous points of view about a destroyed sycamore tree, Juli's homegrown chickens and their eggs, and a variety of family problems. By the end of the book, their feelings are flipped: Bryce really likes Juli and Juli has gotten over her crush.

My Take:
This is definitely a book to show you how to write different points of view. I loved the way the author took the same story event and showed it through the eyes of the two different characters, emphasizing what each character would notice. I also loved the layers the author created in this story, by going beyond the surface to include family issues, while still keeping the story firmly from a middle grader’s point of view. Although I’ve seen this novel referred to as “teen” or “YA”, to me, it definitely has a middle grade feel.  

Other Info:
This book is a stand alone. It has been made into a movie, Flipped, 2010, directed by Rob Reiner.

Other books by this author:
The Running Dream

Sammy Keyes mystery series:
     Sammy Keyes and the Cold Hard Cash
     Sammy Keyes and the Dead Giveaway

The Gecko & Sticky series
     The Gecko & Sticky: The Power Potion
     The Gecko & Sticky:  Sinister Substitute
Shredderman series
For more info, visit Wendelin Van Draanen’s website.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Quick Writing Link: Voice

Yay! Got through another work week. Is it just me, or has September been flying by? I feel like I haven't had much time to really get into my writing. Instead, I've been snatching a few minutes here and there.  But something is better than nothing!

In the past couple of weeks I discovered this gem on voice. If you haven't seen this post at Notes from the Slushpile, I highly recommend it: Finding your voice: A masterclass from SCBWI with Beverley Birch by Addy Farmer.

For other resources on voice, check out my V is for Voice post featured in the ABCs of writing middle grade fiction (see my sidebar).

Happy Friday!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

When You Need to Delete a Character

On the advice of some of my critique buddies, I've cut out one of the characters in my latest project. I know it's for the best (she didn't make a strong contribution to the plot). It also meant I had to cut out some funny lines, but I'll get over it.

Have you ever had to cut a character? Does it give you a strange sense of satistfaction (like being a puppet master where they are all in your control) or does it make you sad?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How Over-Thinking Destroys the Story

Sometimes I catch myself doing too much thinking about my writing. Of course I need to think about the character's goals, obstacles and what needs to happen to help the plot hang together. But sometimes I can get hung up on these things instead of actually writing.

It reminds me of how I can park my van perfectly if I pull into the spot and don't think much about it, but if I pause and wonder if I'm coming in at the right angle, I start having doubts. Sometimes I even end up driving right past a perfectly good spot because I thought too much about the mechanics of the process.

Does this ever happen to you? I get fixated on how a scene will fit into the overall storyline, instead of just writing it and deciding that later. Not everything needs to be worked out. For me, a lot of the good stuff emerges while I'm writing.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: One Crazy Summer

Since I read so many middle grade books (see my 100 book challenge) and I blog about writing middle grade books, I thought I’d join in on Marvelous Middle Grade Monday (aka MMGM) from a writer's perspective. The more I read MG, the more great books I’m finding. And some of them come from other bloggers doing MMGM (for example, see Shannon Whitney Messenger's blog).

Today’s pick: 
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
Published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2010


Set in 1968, this novel tells the story of eleven-year-old Delphine and her two younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern, who fly across the country to spend the summer with the mother who abandoned them seven years ago. Their mother is busy working on her poetry and doesn’t want them there. She sends them to a summer camp, sponsored by revolutionary Black Panthers, and leaves Delphine to care for her younger sisters.
My Take:

This is a great book to read for learning about how to create character—if you can stop from losing yourself in the story long enough to think about the writing. One of the wonderful things about this novel is the way the author has used details and shown the time period and setting from an eleven-year-old perspective. The opening intrigued me, since I haven’t read another middle grade novel that starts with a plane ride.

I loved what the author said in her acknowledgements, “I wanted to write this story for those children who witnessed and were part of necessary change.”  It made me think about what I want to say in my own writing.

Other info:

This book is a stand alone. It is a 2011 Newberry Honor Book, and has won several other awards, including the 2011 Coretta Scott King award.

Other books by Rita Garcia-Williams:
Jumped (2009)
No Laughter Here (2004)
Every Time A Rainbow Dies (2001)

For more, visit Rita Garcia-Williams’ website.