Monday, February 28, 2011

Reading Middle Grade: Two Great Examples

Last year, I noticed that my 100 book challenge was weighted more towards YA than MG, even though I write MG. So this year, I'm making more of an effort to read middle grade books. And I love it. (I also think it's helping me strengthen my writing, but that's a topic for another post).  I recently read two books that strike me as really great examples of MG.

Drizzle by Kathleen Van Cleve delighted me from the beginning. What kid wouldn't love to live on a farm with jewels in the garden, talking bugs and a treehouse-like room? Eleven-year-old Polly is friends with a plant and has a mystery to solve about her family farm. This is truly a story for children, not a teenaged story masquerading as one for kids. I'd describe it as magical (and not just because there is magic in the story).

Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs hooked me and I just had to keep reading. Again, it seemed like a kid's dream come true. Who wouldn't want to live at a zoo adventure park? Having a hippo at the centre of a mystery was unique. I also loved the fact that the main character's parents were in the story and actually part of solving the mystery at times, instead of too busy to notice what their son was up to (or dead).

Reading these books made me think about:

1)  how the setting can really become part of the story and help to bring it alive

2) the importance of having a really good story

Of course, good writing is important, but it was really the story that first captured my attention for both of these books. The authors made me curious about what would happen in the story, and what life was like for characters living in these settings.

Friday, February 25, 2011

How to Improve Your Writing

I'm always thinking about ways to improve my writing process. I want to write better stories faster. The whole process is so slow, and I keep thinking I can do something to speed it up (probably not possible, but I try).

The more I think about it though, the more it comes down to one thing. How much time do I spend writing or even thinking about my project? Not very much, lately. Improving my writing process and skills really mean nothing if I'm not spending time writing. (And that does not include blog posts.)

So, today, I encourage you to sit down in front of your computer and just start writing. It might turn out to be garbage, but at least you're writing something. It's weird to have to spell out something that's obvious, but I seem to need the reminder:  writers write.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

H is for Hook

The opening of a story needs to draw the reader in to the world of your story. A common way to do that is to drop the reader into the middle of some action. But there are other ways too. What interests you when you first pick up a book? It might be the character or the situation. A strong voice. Any of these could hook your middle grade reader at the beginning of the story. What you really need to do is to make your readers curious enough about your story to keep reading.

Some ideas for making your reader curious:

Give your character a strong voice. A character with a distinctive personality will help your reader connect with the story. Intriguing characters share opinions and feelings with readers right from the beginning, through the way they speak or the way the story is told. The reader gets a sense of who the main character is before the story really starts.

Create an unanswered question. If you can create a question in the reader's mind, they'll keep reading to get the answer. A good question comes from a problem or situation that motivates your character to do something. Even a small problem or conflict at the beginning can help hook your reader as they wait to see how it's resolved. The question can be posed right in the dialogue (as in the familiar opening of Charlotte’s Web) or implied by story events.

A key thing to remember when writing for middle graders is that your story needs to activate that sense of curiousity in your reader all through the story. Adults are more willing to wait and see what will happen with a story that has started to lag, because they have faith it will pick up again. Not so for kids. If a book gets boring, they’d drop it and go and do something else.

How do you create a good hook when you're writing? Do you always drop the reader into the action?


Patricia C. Wrede discusses the importance of creating an opening that fits your story.

Ellen Jackson outlines some key elements for hooking your reader.

Margaret Nevinski talks about the hook pulling the reader through the story instead of into it.

Sue Walker writes about making your readers wonder with your novel opening.

Some thoughts on the impact of your first sentence at From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors.

And some examples of great first paragraphs from Adventures in Children’s Publishing.

Alison Stevens tells us about some elements of a good hook.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Can Five Minutes a Day Lead to a Better Novel?

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to tone up my writing muscles by trying out some writing exercises. I'm sticking to my goal of making time for 5 or 10 minutes of free writing every morning.

I also decided to stop listening to the inane babble of  morning radio announcers on the drive home from taking the kids to school, which I do right before my writing time begins. I wanted to let my own thoughts fill up my mind instead. Sometimes, I even stop outside and just breathe in the fresh air, listening to the sounds around me.

I feel like these simple strategies have really helped to boost my creativity. Now when I'm free writing, I don't want to stop with the timer's bell. Even though what I've written has little to do with my current project, it seems to have helped me generate ideas. I've already come up with a couple of new scenes to stick on my storyboard.

Another exercise I'm trying is to pretend I'm one of my story characters and then just write their thoughts. I've never done this before (except in the context of writing the novel). But just playing around has already helped me to strengthen my character motivations.

If nothing else, these few minutes of thinking each day are building up my enthusiasm for writing/rewriting my story. Now, if only I could make some time and mental space to get started!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Unexpected Writing Tools

After I heard about the cool site WriteWords (thanks to follower Susan Kaye Quinn), where you can paste in blocks of text to check for repeated phrases, it got me thinking about what tools I use when I'm writing. I've already told you about my indispensible notebook, but here are a few more:

1. Sticky notes. I like them small and colourful (thank you dollar store), for writing plot points and sticking them onto my plot charts. They're also helpful for jotting ideas and sticking into my notebook. I used to put sticky notes around the edges of my computer monitor (and not just to annoy my husband). But my new computer has sticky notes for my desktop that appear everytime I turn it on. Of course, they don't eliminate the ones on my desk, but at least I can find some of my notes!

2. Baby name book. I still have this book from 15 years ago when I was picking out names for my first daughter. It's a little out of date (but I can always check popular name lists on line). It gives suggestions for certain types of names, names that are good alternatives for a popular name I don't want to use, etc.

3. Online alarm clock. This is a great tool for when I'm doing those writing exercises I was talking about last week. Even though I write longhand in my notebook, I'm at my desk where my computer is, so I use this handy alarm clock.

Do you have any interesting writing tools?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

G is for Girls Who Read

If you’re writing middle grade fiction, you’ve probably seen the stats: more girls than boys are reading. And they read different kinds of books. Does this mean you should give up on your funny boy book and write for girls? I don’t think so, because there are still many boys out there reading. Besides, lots of girls read books that could be considered “boy books”. But you might want to keep in mind that there are differences in what boys and girls like to read. So, what do girls like?

In general, girls like stories that feature emotional relationships with strong characters they can identify with. Some recurring topics for girl readers:

1. Friendships and their problems, including BFFs. Being popular, friends that drop you, jealousy, girl friend triangles, girl bullies – these are all topics that reflect the experiences of middle grade girls.

2. Princesses. Princesses and happy endings are also still on the tween shelves in bookstores, some with magical elements like dragons or fairy godmothers, others tackling sophisticated ideas like saving the kingdom or searching for a kidnapped sibling.

3. Family issues. Although 9 to- 12-year-old girls are becoming more and more concerned with friends, deeper family issues start to hold their attention, as they begin to develop and voice opinions.

4. Animal Stories. These range from girls helping animals to animal adventures or even stories that feature animals as the main characters.

Even though these are popular “girl” topics, middle grade girls also like the fast pace of adventure stories or the challenge of solving a mystery. Many middle grade books include a female character along with a boy to add some girl appeal. Girls are often more flexible about their reading than boys. Have you ever seen a boy reading a book with pink cupcakes on the cover? Probably not. But some girls enjoy the Percy Jackson books (by Rick Riordan) because they enjoy the adventure. What is important to some girls is not necessarily the topic of the book. Instead, they might be looking for:

Strong characters. Characters with realistic motivations (even within a fantasy or supernatural setting) and writing that highlights their thoughts and emotions, so girls can analyze and think about their problems.

Big ideas. More complicated stories that allow them to stretch their imaginations and question the world around them.

What do you think is important in writing to appeal to girls? Do you have a favourite MG book for girls?


Boys and Girls Are Different at Getting Kids Reading.Com

A few books specifically targeted for middle grade girls.

Some thoughts on going beyond traditional girl topics.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Getting Good News

When a writing buddy gets good news, my first reaction is to scream up and down along with them. Writing is hard and it's important to celebrate those moments! Since I've been with my writing buddies for a long time now, we're more than crit partners, we're friends. I'm genuinely happy when one of them gets news that brings them closer to reaching the big goal of getting published.

I've seen other blog posts about feeling a little jealous or feeling left behind when a buddy has some success. I wouldn't be human if I didn't admit I feel a pinch of something like that when I hear their good news. But it quickly turns into admiration for what that individual has done to achieve their goal. It makes me think, hey, what else could I be doing? She's really great at promoting her work. Or systematic about sending out queries. Or building connections with agents. Or investing in her writing by going to conferences. Maybe I can try that too.

So, yay! Let's cheer for all the good news out there in the writing world. It's a huge reminder that we can do it too.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Awesome Things About Writing

I've recently discovered The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha (I know, I'm slow to catch on to these things) which celebrates the little things that really made up the fabric of life. We think it's the big things (okay, they are pretty great) but the small stuff counts too. The same is true for writing, so here are a few awesome things about writing:

1. Getting an extra few minutes to work on your project.

2. Having a critique buddy give you a positive comment.

3. Coming up with just the right word.

4. Seeing a blank page, waiting to be filled.

5. Finally thinking up a title that works.

What are your awesome things about writing?

Link:  1000 Awesome Things blog

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

F is for Firsts

Although it may seem like “firsts” are prime subjects for picture or chapter books (think losing a first tooth or going to school for the first time), there is plenty of scope for “first time” experiences in middle grade books too.

Do you remember your first dive into a swimming pool? The first time you walked to school alone with a friend? The first time you stayed home alone? Likely, those experiences happened during your middle grade years. Writing about a "first experience" and how your character feels about it offers a great opportunity for character development. Here are a few ideas I came up with:

- first sleep-over
- first time staying at sleep away camp
- first trip to ________________(fill-in-the-blank!)
- first ride on a roller coaster
- first day of middle school
- first time wearing braces
- first pet you are completely responsible for
- first time baking or cooking independently
- first time staying home alone
- first crush
- first time playing laser tag

Some of these "firsts" are easy to think up, because as adults, we recognize or remember the significance of the experiences in our own lives. But there are a couple of things to remember when digging into the past:

1. Firsts that are significant to middle graders may not always be something we adults think of as being significant. For example, my 11-year-old came home all excited the other day because she'd learned a new rule for drawing portraits. Even though I know she likes to draw, I never would've seen that coming.

2. Times have changed. What may have been significant to you as a middle grader may need to be updated. Money is a good example of this. When I was a kid, it was a big deal to see a $5 or $10 dollar bill. Now it might be a $20 or a $50.

3. What makes a "first" significant is the emotions that go along with the experience. And that's what makes a "first" good material for your writing.

4. Adding a "first experience" may be a chance to showcase a character's unusual or interesting hobby. For example, the first time your character finds a whole sand dollar to add to his seashell collection.


Cheryl Reif writes about the joys of firsts.

At her blog Writing Like Crazy, Maribeth Graham discusses how to add a unique element to your story through using your own experiences in your writing.

While these next two are more oriented towards YA, it might be useful to check them out to see what might be too mature for an MG novel (beyond the obvious sex, drugs or alcohol):

Over at Magical Words, Carrie Ryan writes about teen firsts and their emotional impact, and why she's made a conscious decision to write YA.

From a parenting perspective, here are some thoughts on firsts for tweens and teens.

Have you ever used a "first experience" in your writing? How did it strengthen your story?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Writing Exercises

The title isn't referring to physical fitness, though I think that I could do more of that to improve my writing too. [A recent article in the Globe and Mail reminds me that staying active boosts the brain.]

It's about getting back to basics and well, just writing. A long time ago, I was advised to sit down and write for a few minutes every day, without taking my pen from the paper. About anything. It's been a long time since I've done that. I get caught up in novel editing, fussing with my plot, critiquing other people's writing, or working on blog posts. I forget that what my writing needs is some freedom to meander and go where it takes me. Not following a plot outline. Not fitting in to what I need for my novel. Not worrying about whether I can use it later.

Five minutes a day of writing play can easily fit into my schedule. So, I'm going to start. Today.

How about you. Do you ever just play with words or free write?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Oh, Not Again! Revising at the Word Level

I'm not getting anywhere with actually writing, so I've decided to go back and work on more revision of Novel #4. I'm making word clouds of chapters or sections of the book to help uncover overused words. Then I use the Word "find" feature to search for all instances of the word.

Who knew there were so many ways to use the word "back"? Once I started  looking for them, they drove me crazy:

back home
lean back
shrink back
whisper back
go back
turn her back
back at...
smile back
back away
come back
look back

Argh. I've even used it at the beginning of this post!

Some of my other problem words are look, know, and saw (but at least I already knew about those). How can my third draft sound so much like a first draft? Getting rid of overused words is a great way to make your writing stronger. In many cases, deleting is the best solution.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

E is for Emotion

To create a satisfying experience, a story has to have an emotional impact on the reader. This is true whether you’re an adult or a child. Some ways emotions enhance your writing:

Emotion keeps your readers engaged. It’s not always about action and plot. A few days ago, my 11-year-old was reading the novel Drizzle by Kathleen Van Cleve, and she got so angry about something one of the main characters did, she said she didn’t like the book anymore. But she kept on reading right to the end. It wasn’t just that she wanted to find out what happened. She also wanted to resolve her own emotions that had been stirred up by the story.

Showing character feelings creates a deeper level of attachment. I always appreciate it when my critique buddies point out places where they don’t feel enough emotion from my characters. When there’s no emotional side to a character, the reader often feels detached.

Emotions enhance the action. While no one would argue that showing a heart-stopping fight scene or a breathless chase wouldn’t grab your readers, adding some emotion makes it more powerful. Feeling is part of the way we react to events, and so your characters should feel as well as act in their reactions.

Some tips for creating emotions in stories for middle graders:

1. Be realistic. What bothers a kid might not bother you. Fears are a prime example. What were you afraid of at age 9? Some typical kid fears might be being alone in a dark house, watching a scary movie, or being hurt in an earthquake. It’s also important to keep in mind that the age range from 8 to 12 can show a wide difference in emotional development. A realistic emotion in a story for 8- and 9-year-olds might seem silly to 11- and 12-year-olds.

2. Avoid clichés. Middle graders aren’t always familiar with clichés, and may not interpret them the way you do. Besides that, clichés can may your story seem boring and stale.

3. Don’t overload your reader. A good idea to build in some emotion might be to list the emotions and ways of showing them that could work for your scene. But don’t include everything. Choose words carefully to create a mood that goes with how your reader is feeling. Remember, middle graders don’t like to read through a lot of description.


A review of Drizzle by Kathleen Van Cleve

Anna Staniszewski talks about how important it is to think about the emotional development of a character, e.g. what a character fears, as well as the character’s goal or want in the plot.

Christine Fonseca, author of Emotional Intensity in Gifted Students, discusses how emotion creates character motivation.

Don Fry talks about using details to show emotions.

Sherry blogs about building emotion into your writing.

The Emotion Thesaurus over at The Bookshelf Muse is a great place to find alternatives for clichéd phrases.

Do you have any tips for creating an emotional experience for your readers?