Monday, January 31, 2011

What's In Your Writing Notebook?

On Saturday, I went to the art gallery, something I haven't done for ages, and happened upon an exhibit of some of the notebooks of contemporary visual artist Betty Godwin. It was fascinating to get a glimpse of someone else's notes and sketches. It made me think about all the stuff in my own notebooks - I have about 20 of them. My notebook has evolved from an ordinary journal to a space for working out writing ideas. Here are the kinds of things I have in my most recent one:

1. Lots of notes about what I'm working out for my latest novel
2. Ideas about upcoming blog posts for the ABCs of writing for middle graders
3. A list of interesting looking books I saw at Indigo
4. E-mail and query info for agents that I jotted down while web surfing
5. Especially useful blog articles on writing techniques that I've printed out and glued in for future reference
6. Personal notes on my life, my writing-related experiences and my feelings
7. Random notes about my novels that I write on scrap paper (e.g. old parking stubs) but have glued in here so I don't lose them
8. Weird made up words and lists of potential character names

Do you keep a writing notebook? What kinds of things do you put in it?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Learning vs. Writing?

Lately, I've been studying up on the craft of writing. I'm taking notes from The Plot Whisperer's YouTube videos, and I've started reading Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, which I seem to be hearing a lot about lately.

All good stuff, except I'm not really doing any writing. I expected all this reading about different techniques to motivate me to actually try one!

Does reading about writing technique help to motivate you?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

D is for Developmental Stages

If you want to write for middle graders, you need to have a good sense of what they are able to do and how they think. Sometimes, we get this information through observing kids or by being a parent. But it’s worthwhile to take a little time to review what the experts say.

Here’s a quick quiz about development in 8-12-year-olds:

1. Which quality is typically more important to middle graders: a) fairness or b) conformity?

2. Who do middle graders tend to rely on for affection: a) family or b) friends?

3. What is more important to middle graders: a) developing specific skills or b) developing individuality?

While of course these are generalizations, the answers that reflect middle grade development are “a”. Some characteristics of child development for this age group that might affect your storyline:

1. Even though they are developing more relationships with friends and participating in more activities outside their families, kids in this age group still want support from their parents and families.

2. They might show some attitude, but rules are still pretty important.

3. Middle graders might not have the same ability to reason and problem-solve that teens would in an argument, but they care a lot about how other people react.

4. Their world is expanding quickly and they are interested in “how’s” and “why’s” of the world.

5. Middle graders want to develop skills and become competent.

6. They are often interested in specific activities, e.g. sports, or creative hobbies.

Thinking about how children are developing intellectually, emotionally and socially can help a lot with writing reactions that fit your characters, or providing choices for your character that are in keeping with their age-level.

Interesting links:

This info from the Public Health Agency of Canada on emotional reactions to stressful situations in children of different ages may be helpful material for creating character reactions.
For fun, check out what these 8- to 12-year olds say about living in NYC (but keep in mind this survey is a couple of years old, things may have changed).

YouthBeat is a source of info about marketing to youth that gives some interesting insights on this age group. For example, Through the Looking Glass: How Do We Really See Children Today?

How do you make sure your characters are acting in a way that is typical of their age group?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Pre-Writing Prep: How Characters Change

For the past few days, I've been getting ready to begin reworking one of my novels. A better structure for the story came to me all at once one day, and since then, it's been swirling in the back of my mind. I decided to put some of what I was thinking about on paper.

In the past, I've always felt that my characters emerge as they react to story events. But this time, I'm thinking more about what my characters want and what will make it hard for them to get it before I start writing. (I'm taking some advice from the Plot Whisperer on her YouTube plot series.) I'm also thinking about how my characters will change and what traits will help them or block them from making that change. Even though I know I'll probably be surprised by the way events in the story emerge and affect my characters, at least I'll have a starting point to guide my rewrites.

This made me think about how well I've shown my main character's wants and obstacles in my other novels. I think I'm much better at creating a strong best friend or sidekick. Maybe that's easier! This time, I'm going to focus more on the main character.

What do you need to know about your characters before you begin writing?

P.S. To go along with my new project, I decided to change the look of my blog to create some positive energy for my writing mind space.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Is Your Writing a Hobby?

Writing isn't my main job, so it's hard to explain to non-writers. To me, it's not "a hobby" or a "pleasant diversion" when I have free time (like I have any free time anyway). Writing is a necessary part of my life. Kind of like the way I have to read something every day before I go to sleep. When I don't write, something seems missing.

It's hard for me to think of it the same way as scrapbooking or collecting stamps. But I suppose some people are as passionate about those things as I am about writing. Maybe I shouldn't feel so bristly when people call my writing "a nice hobby". For me, it's more like a career, even though I'm not getting paid much for it at present. What do you think? Is writing a hobby for you or do you think of it in a different way?

P.S. There's a great contest over at Deborah Halverson's Dear Editor blog. You could win a substantive edit of your MG or YA novel, so you might want to check it out. The entry deadline is January 31, 2011.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

C is for Characters

If you pick up a novel from any middle grade series, one of the first things you’ll notice is that it has a strong main character. With so many things competing for a middle grader’s attention, your reader needs to start becoming attached to your main character right from the beginning of the story.

How can you create a character that your readers will care about?

Get the age right. How old should your main character be? In most middle grade novels, the main character is slightly older than the target age group – around 13 for upper middle grade, maybe 11 or 12 for younger middle grade. But just stating their age in your story isn’t enough. Your character needs to have the perspective of a middle grader. This is so hard to do. As an adult, there are lots of things you know that a middle grader wouldn’t. The way a middle grader thinks and how he or she solves a problem is going to be different than the way an adult would.

Think about their interests. What does your character really love? If they have a passion for something, that can fire up a passion in your reader, too. It’s like sharing an interest with a good friend. You both like spaceships or trying on makeup. Did I say spaceships? Well, we’re talking about middle graders here, so their interests are the ones you need to tap into. This is also the age where there really starts to be a distinction between “boy books” and “girl books”.

Be choosy about details. Middle grade readers don’t want to read too much detail, they want to find out what happens. And the details that do you do include about a character should be specific. Like a unique hobby or interest. Is hair and eye colour important? Maybe, if it's something your character is proud of or hates about themselves. Sometimes character details are things you need to know to create the character, but don't necessarily need to be included in your novel.

Some of the best advice I’ve gotten about creating character comes from The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life by Noah Lukeman. He suggests that creating a character doesn’t stop at generating a list of characteristics and traits. A key step is to go further and think about how these characteristics will affect the plot of the story.


Creating Compelling Characters by Jodie Renner over at the Blood Red Pencil.

Seven Ways to Develop Compelling Characters, notes from Gail Carson Levine's keynote speech at the 2010 SCBWI conference in LA, by Ingrid Sundberg of Ingrid's Notes.

How to Avoid Creating Plastic Characters by Jody Hedlund at her blog.

A whole slew of links to great posts about creating character in The Best of the Best: Character, Plot, Dialogue and Structure from Adventures in Children's Publishing.

MG. vs YA Characters by Beth Revis gives us an interesting take on what lies under the surface in middle grade and YA characters, and what makes them compelling.

Do you have any tips for bringing characters alive for middle grade readers?

Monday, January 17, 2011

When Writing Ignores Your Plans

Getting a good balance between writing, work and my family life is something I've been thinking a lot about this January, and I see other people are too, judging by all the responses to Nathan Bransford's question about balancing writing and life.

For me, it's so hard. Whatever I'm doing, be it spending time with my family, writing, planning lessons, I get intensely involved. That one thing fills up my thoughts and the other ones get set aside. [Okay, not totally, because if I'm writing and the kids really need me, I'm there. But it has to be something they really need me for, not something they can solve themselves.]

Part of my solution is to plan time for everything.

It should work, except writing is greedy. It sometimes eats up more of my time then I want it to (kind of like an addictive computer game). And it sneaks in, even when I don't make time for it. Last week, when I planned to put my writing on hold to work on things for my job, the writing side of my brain got sneaky. Before I knew it, my notebook was filled with scribbles for my new project. And on the weekend, I planned to just have fun with my family. No writing. But if ideas come to me when I'm watching the kids swimming in the hotel pool, it would be silly to sit staring into space instead of writing them down, right? If I leave my notebook at home, I just end up with smeary scribbles on restaurant napkins.

How do you manage to find time for the rest of your life when writing threatens to take over?

Friday, January 14, 2011

In the Deep, Dark Corners of Your Mind

I've been busy with writing an alternate ending for my yet-to-be-titled Novel #4, so I haven't even been thinking about my writing goals for this year yet. Or so I thought. One of them was to revise Novel #3. [In case you were wondering, it actually has a title: Wild Genius.] Even though I got some positive feedback from an awesome critique buddy and some regulars at Critique Circle, I struggled with it and put it aside. For months.

A few days ago when I was waiting to fall asleep, the story for Novel #3 drifted into my mind. Except it wasn't the story I wrote. It was better! After a few minutes of mad scribbling, I now have a new structure for the book, a better ending, a feeling for the tone of the story, and who my main characters are and want.

The brain is a mystery. It would be cool to know what makes it work like this, so I could make it happen more than every once in a year or so.  Have you ever found that something lurking in the deep, dark, corners of your mind turned into a brilliant idea? Did it work out?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

B is for Birthday

As a writer of middle grade fiction, do you need to think about your character's birthday? Definitely. Birthdays are hugely important to kids. This is especially true between the ages of 8 and 12, when kids start to think more about planning parties and who might be invited. Kids in this age group may have themed parties, e.g. animals, Harry Potter, or go on a special outing, e.g. bowling, cooking class, laser tag.

Even if you aren't including a birthday party in your story, thinking about when and how your character celebrates their birthday can help you to develop their personality. Some ways birthdays may be significant:

1. A important life event may occur when your character becomes a specific age. Think about about family traditions -- when you got your first watch or were allowed to stay up later. Or how characters may develop special talents or powers at a given age. Characters may dream or talk about what they will be able to do, once they get to that next age.

2. Birthdays are a rich source of conflict or power. Kids may say "I’m not going to invite you to my birthday” to be hurtful or when they are feeling hurt. Or they might tell a friend "I'm not going to come if you have a _______ party" as a way to show power.

3. Birthdays reveal something about a character's relationship with their parents. For example, a kid may ask their parents to invite kids they barely know, just to get more presents. Or they might bargain for not having a party if they can have a bigger gift.

4. Birthday gifts can help reveal attitudes and emotions. What does your character want for their birthday? Something big and expensive or small and meaningful? How do they act when they receive something different than what they wanted?

There are many books where birthdays are significant or the beginning of something new in a character's life. A few examples:

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling
Faires and the Quest for Neverland by Gail Carson Levine
The Indian and the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks
11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass
Savvy by Ingrid Law


If you want to include some birthday party details in your story, this site might give you some ideas:

Has thinking about a character's birthday helped your writing?

Monday, January 10, 2011

How Will It End?

I've heard lots of writing advice about how it's a good idea to have the ending in mind before you begin writing. I don't always do that, but for my still-untitled Novel #4, I had a pretty good idea of where I wanted the story to end. Except while I was revising, another idea called to me, one that seemed more fitting for my character, and I tried it out.

So now I have two different endings. Both work, but in different ways. Have you ever had to decide between alternative endings for your story? How many times have you changed your ending?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Book Challenge Benefits

In 2010, I challenged myself to read 100 middle grade and YA books and I did it – yay! Why do such a crazy thing? It was one way I'd be sure to read the kinds of books that I’m writing. I also I wanted to become familiar with more children’s authors and publishers, and hopefully learn something. So what did I learn?

1. It helped me remember more about the books I read. My list and occasional blog posts about the books led me to think more about what I was reading.

2. I developed a stronger sense of what I like to read—and the kind of book I want to write. The way I want it to sound. The kinds of characters and story I want to create. Even though I knew I had to read enough books to reach my goal, I wasn’t afraid to stop reading a book if I really didn’t like it. I didn’t include them on my list, but there were probably about 5 or 6 books I just gave up on.

3. Paying attention to publishers, editors and agents through books was a good start to immersing myself a little deeper in the publishing community.

4. Keeping track helped me see that even though I write MG, I often choose YA books to read. I had to focus more on MG books to keep it balanced. Maybe one day I’ll switch to writing YA?

5. I read some books I might otherwise have skipped over and actually enjoyed them.

I plan to start another book challenge for myself for 2011. I'll be sticking with the same goal of 100 MG and YA books. It seems like a good number for me, since I finished a couple of weeks before the end of the year.

How much reading do you do in the genre you are writing? How does it benefit your writing?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A is for Attention

Writers of children’s fiction are told over and over about how kids have short attention spans. If they don’t get hooked on your story or characters right away, they’ll put down the book and move on to something more exciting, like their latest video game.

This is definitely true. But I think it’s also true that if kids are interested in something, they can spend hours doing it. Think about all the time they spend building Lego structures, hunting for bugs, or imagining they are in the world of Harry Potter.

How can you get your story to be that engaging? Here are some ideas:

1. Include a strong main character. Your readers want to identify with your character. They want to be inside the character’s head, helping them make decisions.

2. Keep the story moving. Things that kids do for long periods of time are usually active. In writing, that means your characters need to be doing things. Something always needs to be happening. Use active words, dialogue and only small amounts of description.

3. Create problems to solve. Ever watch kids playing? They are curious and love to discover new things. Building, imagining, or even playing a video game allows them to use their skills and creativity. Good stories do that too. If new sections or chapters bring something new to the story, like a new twist, a new problem, or a new idea, readers will stay with the story longer.


Over at the WriteOnCon site, a great article by J.S. Lewis called Writing For Middle Grade…Or, Welcome to Neverland highlights the way middle graders think and gives you tips for getting their attention.

Livia Blackburne at A Brain Scientist's Take on Writing writes about How to Get and Keep People's Attention using knowledge gaps and the element of surprise.

What's your best advice for coping with a short attention span?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Getting into a Groove

Though I love having time off, it’s great to get back into a routine, and especially to have a more regular writing time. Here’s my best tip for being productive:

Try to keep your story writing time separate from time that you use for other writing-related activities, like writing or reading blog posts, dealing with submissions and queries, or researching publishers. All worthwhile activities, but not the same as writing.

Good ways to use writing time:

1. Write a new section of your story.

2. Think about your characters or the plot for your story and make some notes.

3. Journal about the challenges you are facing in your story, or write a letter to one of your characters.

4. Write more on your story.

Do you have any great tips for making your writing time more productive?

Some news:

Starting Wednesday, I’m adding a new feature to my blog about writing middle grade fiction called The ABC’s of Writing for Middle Graders.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A New Year = New Projects + Enthusiasm

The start of the new year feels to me like the start of a new story -- blank pages, waiting to be written on. I feel the excitement of new ideas and a surge of energy as I get fired up to develop them into stories.

To take advantage of that New Year's Day enthusiasm, I'm setting my goals for 2011. I set just a few so I actually have a chance of accomplishing them. After all, you can always add more once you finish the first ones.

1. Plan and begin writing another novel based on one of the great ideas waiting in my notebook. I have a couple of ideas already sketched into plots that I'm eager to take further.

2. Revisit Novel #3 - Wild Genius, which is still nagging at me. I'd like to revise it to make it into a more believable story.

3. Write more regularly, even if just 500 words a day. [Note to self: That's WRITE. Not sit at the computer checking e-mails, blogs or even writing blog posts or blog comments.]

These goals are not much different from the goals I posted last year on the MiG Writer's blog (except for the different projects). My third goal is exactly the same. I always want to be more productive. But I am proud of what I managed to get done in 2010:

1.  Starting this blog - yay!
2.  Reading over 100 YA and MG books to complete my 100 book challenge.
3. Finishing the first draft of Novel #4 in 3 months.
4. Finishing a round of revisions (because let's face it, until a book is published, the revisions are NEVER finished) on Novel #2, Novel #3 and, almost (2 chapters to go) Novel #4.
5. Sending queries out for Novel #2 (The Ethan Project).

Looking back reminds me that I can do it. What did you accomplish in 2010 that you are proud of? Do you have a goal for 2011?