Wednesday, March 30, 2011

L is for Language

When it comes to the language you use when writing for middle graders, simple is usually better. But that doesn’t mean you need to “dumb down” your writing for kids. I find that using language at a level you would normally use when speaking is effective when writing for middle graders, whether you are writing narrative or dialogue. Here are a few considerations for making decisions about using language:

Vocabulary. Because middle graders are curious, it doesn’t hurt to sprinkle in some interesting vocabulary. New words can be fascinating. Just be sure not to overwhelm your readers. You want to write a good, readable story, not one that will make your readers drop the book because it’s too much like decoding a weird alien language (though see point #4).

Swearing. While most 9- to 12-year-old readers will have heard (and possibly used) “bad words”, parents still figure strongly in their lives and may have opinions about what they are able to handle emotionally. Also, many middle grade books are sold through school book clubs, signed out at school libraries and/or studied in class. A general rule of thumb is to avoid or use only mild swearing when writing for middle graders. Otherwise, you may be limiting your marketability. If you do decide to include swearing in your story, use it sparingly. One alternative is to make up your own “nonsense” swear word or phrase as a replacement for a contentious word.

Slang. Although slang can add realism to your writing and dialogue, it can be tricky to pull it off so that it sounds like a real kid, rather than an adult trying to sound like a kid. The best way to find out what kids are saying is, well, go listen to some kids talking. Keep in mind that what’s cool/hip/hot/rad this year may not be by the time your story gets published.

Foreign languages. I love the authenticity that develops from using cultural words and expressions in stories (e.g. Linda Sue Park’s novels). It adds a layer of depth to the story and it’s interesting to learn how you say things in a different language. This holds true for the made up words in fantasy or other world stories. Again, the key to doing this effectively is to not overwhelm the reader (three or four new expressions per chapter at most).

Do you have any pet peeves (or great tips) for using language effectively?


Check out these thoughts from a school librarian on using coarse language in middle grade fiction at Susan Kaye Quinn’s Ink Spells.

Another opinion on swearing in children’s fiction at Throwing Up Words.

Over at Let the Words Flow, a few agents and writers weigh in on swearing in YA.

Candy Gourlay has posted some great tips for using slang effectively at Notes from the Slushpile.

Beth Revis talks about using evolved language in futuristic writing at The League of Extraordinary Writers.

Elizabeth Craig asks some questions to help you decide whether or not to use profanity.

Over at From the Mixed Up Files, Rosanne Parry talks about whether or not to use profanity in middle grade fiction.

*If you know of any other links on using language in middle grade writing, let me know and I'll add them to the list.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Plotting (Part 2): Developing an Outline and Synopsis

After I've spent some time collecting ideas for a novel, my next big step is to organize them into an outline. The more novels I write, the more I learn about my writing process. I've learned that I need an outline to keep me on track. The more thinking I can do up front, the better the novel flows when I'm writing. And the easier it is to revise the novel later.

How do I make my outline? I've tried various methods, including The Snowflake method and the Nine-Step method. For my newest project, I'm following the structure I've read about in Blake Snyder's Save the Cat. Here's what I've created:

Visual Storyboard. Using a piece of cardboard and my ideas on sticky notes (or pieces of paper with sticky tack), I can see the general structure for my novel.

Summary of Plot Elements. I made a simple 3-column table in a word document with the headings: Plot Element, Example, My Story.

Plot elements are things like: Opening Image, Thematic Statement, Set Up, Catalyst, Debate, Break into Act II, etc. They're all listed on Blake Synder's beat sheet.

Example helps me remember what I'm trying to do with each plot element. The examples came from Laura Pauling's excellent plot analysis of the movie How to Train Your Dragon. If you want to learn more about plot structure, I highly recommend you read Laura's plotting posts.

My Story is for the events and ideas I'm developing. As I try to figure out how my ideas related to each plot element, I discover how I want to start and end the story, where I have missing pieces, and roughly where key events will go. I don't spell everything out. For example, I have vague sentences like: They do some wilderness stuff, finding water, building a fire, etc. This leaves me with room to discover while I'm writing. At the same time, I have enough direction so that I'll have a coherent story.

Having used several different methods for outlining, I like the "Save the Cat" method the best. Once I figured out all the plot elements, I had everything I needed to write a story synopsis.

Synopsis. This is a key part of my planning process. It gives me a sense of the whole story and motivates me to get writing! I also use it to create my one-sentence pitch and, later, my query letter. When I copy the My Story column from my table as text only, I have the bare bones of the synopsis already done. I just have to make it sound a little better.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Taking Revisions to a New Level

I've realized lately that intention is important to revisions. Normally, I take the feedback from critique partners, comments from my super-critical children, and my own thoughts when reading after a rest period and try to work my novel into shape to improve it. The result is that I tend to make changes to many different aspects of the novel at one time.

This time, I'm intentionally thinking about what elements of the novel are weak, e.g. the plot, showing the emotions of the main character, or whatever, and just working on that aspect of the novel to improve it. It feels as though there is more purpose behind each change. But I worry that I'm going to overdo it with revisions.

How do you revise? Do you focus on one aspect of your novel at a time or many? Will being too intentional about the process take away from the spontaneity of the writing?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

K is for (yuck) Kissing

If you want to write for middle grade readers, you need to be able to think like one. Nine to twelve year olds experience a lot of changes in their lives, including changes in how they feel about expressing emotions and the act of kissing.

For some, kissing is a subject that is sure to start some nervous giggling. For others, it’s totally below the radar. In thinking about kissing and MG, it’s useful to think of the category in terms of younger and older middle grade readers.

For younger readers of middle grade books (ages 8 to 10), it’s probably still okay to accept kisses from parents and relatives, maybe even a younger sibling (with some quick face wiping if you’re in front of your friends). The thought of kissing a “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” is yucky. It’d be better to kiss your pet dog or cat.

Readers of “upper” middle grade books (ages 11 and 12) may be curious about kissing, even if they won’t admit it. I think this is especially true for girls. Boy readers probably don’t care if there’s any hint of romance or kissing in a novel, as long as it has lots of action and adventure. But older girls often connect with a bit of light romance, because they’re starting to experience the feeling of “liking” a boy or may have been wondering what it’s like to kiss a boy. The trick is to keep it light. As for kisses from parents? Probably rejected, especially in public. But that goodnight kiss when parents sneak in before they go to bed? Well, that one's okay, because you’re pretending to be asleep.

Have you ever included kissing in your novel? How did you make it work for your readers?


This discussion at Through the Tollbooth brings up some issues related to “upper middle grade” books.

Blogger Sara Nicolas talks about how the first kiss scene can make or break a YA novel.

Writer Jenn discusses some challenges of writing a kissing scene (mostly for YA but provides some food for thought).

Monday, March 21, 2011

It's Only Possible During Revisions

Revisions can be hard, but they are so worth it. Some parts of a story only emerge once that first draft is laid out, after the basic structure is there to work from. Even though I try to make my early drafts as complete as possible, like magic, some parts of the story only happen if the conditions are right. Here are a couple of the things that I can only do during revision:

Make Connections Inside the Story.  It's so cool when I realize that a bit of the story at the beginning can be tweaked slightly to set up an event later in the story. It makes it feel like all the pieces are coming together. Like it's a real novel, rather than just a tangled mess of words trying to be one.

For example, in one scene, I had two girls talking and one was trying to find out some information from my main character. But I realized my main character could also be trying to find out something she needs to know. Revealing a tidbit of the information for my MC here paved the way for the later scene where she finds out more, and made that "girls talking" scene so much stronger.

I know I couldn't make connections like this without having reached the end of the story. I have to know what the pieces are first and which pieces turn out to be important. They aren't always the ones I've noted as important in my outline.

Cut Out Some of the Drama. I've heard so often that you need pile on the obstacles for your character, so that they face one challenge after another to make it almost impossible to reach their goal. I do this naturally when I'm writing. But three obstacles in one chapter? It makes my head spin! Sometimes, it's just artificial drama that I include because I think it will keep the reader hooked. In revisions, I cut down on the drama and increase the tension at the same time by finding the obstacle that affects my character the most emotionally. It doesn't always look as dramatic, but it tugs at the reader's emotions.

What aspects of writing do you find are only possible during revision?

Don't forget to check out the MiG Writers contest to celebrate Debbie Ohi's big news....enter by March 26th.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Spring Break...and a Contest!

Since it's spring break, I'm enjoying some bonus writing time and having some family fun. So I'm taking time off from my regular blog posting schedule this week.

In the meantime, check out what some critique group buddies and I did to surprise Debbie Ohi! And enter our contest to win one of Debbie's favourite books!

Friday, March 11, 2011

More Awesome Things About Writing

Yay! Last day before spring break! I'm looking forward to some sleep, fun and games, and uninterrupted blocks of time for writing (not necessarily in that order, though probably sleep will come first). To inspire myself, I checked back to read a few of your comments on my February post, Awesome Things About Writing:

From Anna Staniszewski:  "That feeling of going back to a project after a break and realizing, hey I still like this!"

Elle Strauss:  "Rewriting a sentence/paragraph/scene and knowing it's much better now!"

And from Laura Pauling:  "Loving my character and story even during the rewrites."

I have a few new ones to add to the list:

1. When the solution to a tricky plot problem appears out of nowhere.

2. The rush of getting positive feedback from a critique buddy on a specific section of writing you sweated over.

3. Realizing you've found just the right name for a character.

4. The anticipation of a block of obligation-free time to work on writing!

5. Finding that the word "was" didn't appear as many times in the chapter as you thought.

What is awesome in your writing world this week?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

J is for Journal or Diary Format

I recently read that one of the trends in writing for children is the journal or diary format. While I’m not advocating that you write to suit a trend, it’s interesting to explore some of the advantages of this popular format for middle graders.

The thrill of secrets. A story written as a series of journal entries creates an expectation that the reader will be learning the private thoughts of the narrator. Already, there is built-in anticipation. It’s like you’ve already got part of the hook to get your reader to open the book.

Connecting with the reader. The conversational writing style of the journal format brings the narrator close to the reader, almost inviting the reader to share in their experiences and feel the emotions they are feeling. In some schools, students in higher elementary grades keep writing journals, so they may already have sense of the journaling process, or may even keep a diary or journal. I’ve seen this style used to bring to life historical subjects that kids might otherwise consider boring.

Space for imagination. The journal format allows the writer to be creative, possibly including diagrams, letters, lists, margin notes, large or bold text for exciting moments. Breaking up the text in smaller chunks by days or events also can make it appeal to kids who want a lighter read and tend to shy away from dense text.

Passing time. Because journal entries are specific to a certain time period, it provides a convenient vehicle for showing how time is passing.

One challenge of writing in a journal or diary format is the showing vs. telling dilemma. It’s easy to describe an event you are writing to “tell” it to someone and possibly more challenging to “show” actions that allow the reader opportunities to construct their own interpretation. However, trying out a different form of writing could bring a new energy to your story.

A few (of the many) books with a journal or diary format:

Amelia’s Notebook by Marissa Moss
Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel by Ruth McNally Barshaw
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
Dork Diaries, Tales from a Not-So-Fabulous Life by Rachel Renee Russell
McKenzie Blue - Friends Forever by Tina Wells
The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow
The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger


10 Trends in Children’s Books from 2010

An article about diaries and The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow from the Seattle Times.

A perspective on the diary format in children’s books from the Barnes and Noble book club.

Have you read any great books with a journal or diary format? Or, have you ever tried using this form in your writing?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Plotting (Part 1): The Early Stages

A while ago, one of my blog followers, Susanna Leonard Hill, asked about how I plot my novels. That’s an interesting question, because I feel like I still have a lot to learn about plotting. It’s definitely not my strength. Sometimes, I think my writing is so much better than any of my plots (except maybe for my most recent story). But I’ll share some of my thoughts on what I've learned so far.
In the early stages, once my mind has been consumed by an exciting idea, there I are few things I do to work on developing a plot:
List possible situations or events. Basically, I just brainstorm different things that could happen in the story and record them in random order. 
Write a one-sentence summary.  I find this really helps to focus my thinking on what the main problem will be in the story. I don't always stick to this summary, and often find I need to re-write after the first draft, but at least it gives me a starting point. As well as some confidence, if I think it sounds good.
Describe the characters. I don't usually do a lot of in depth thinking about my characters. I like to find out more about them as they react to things that happen in the story. But I do like to have an idea of what their role will be in the story, their strengths and weaknesses, and their relationships to other people in the story. I also really need to know their names. For some reason, that tells me something about their personalities.

Focus on the main character. I spend more time thinking about the main character than any of the others. After reading about plot from The Plot Whisperer and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, I see how essential it is to make the main character's goal something really important to them. This needs to come through in the writing early in the story. So, I spend a lot of time thinking about what my main character wants and how to bring that out in the story.

Talk to my kids about my ideas. Since I'm always trying to write stories that my kids will want to read, I find it helpful to get their take on my great idea. Hopefully they don't say, "That's lame." If they do, they often make suggestions that turn out to be helpful in shaping the direction of the story.

What things do you do in the process of developing a plot?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Do You Know Your Critiquing Strengths?

One of my crit partners is really good at writing queries (thank goodness!) and another one always notices when my novel world is inconsistent (yay!). But I'm not sure I know what my strengths are in the critiques I write. Here are a couple of things I think I'm good at noticing:

Age-related inconsistencies. I can often point out when the writing for the viewpoint character seems inconsistent with their age, e.g., using expressions or slang that seems too old for them, dialogue that doesn't seem like what a kid would say.

Making space for the reader. I also notice when the writing seems to spell things out too much, and doesn't leave enough space for the reader to think and figure out things for themselves.

I wonder if the qualities you bring to your critiques reflect strengths in your own work. What do you think? What are you good at noticing when you give critiques?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

I is for Ideas

Ideas come from everywhere – a snippet of a news article, dream, a bit of overheard conversation, your own brain making a connection between something you’ve read and something else that happens…The list goes on and on. If you’re actively engaged in writing, you probably have a system for collecting ideas. Maybe index cards or a writing notebook. But once you have your ideas, what do you do with them?

As you begin to develop your idea into a story, think about the type of story problem it creates. It’s a good bet that if there’s romance or a lot of violence related to your story idea, it’s more suitable for a YA story. If it’s too “cute”, with really one only problem, it’s likely more suitable for a picture book or an easy reader.

You can also think about the developmental issues middle grade readers are facing as a guideline for whether your idea is suited to middle grade readers.

Of course, an idea is only a starting point. How do you know if your idea is worth developing into a story?

Questions. A good idea should generate lots of questions in your mind. What characters to do you need to create conflict related to your idea? What place could the story take place to make this idea more interesting? What would happen if…?

Enthusiasm. You need to feel excited about your idea and the way it can develop into a story. If you’re writing a novel, you’ll likely have to live with the idea for months, maybe even years, if you count revisions. It should be something that you’re passionate about, so you can bring that passion to your readers.

Research. Even though your enthusiasm for the idea is always critical, it’s often a good idea to do a little research and see what other books have been published on that topic. It can help you see what your idea needs to make it suitable for the middle grade market. And it gives you an idea of what’s already been done.

Uniqueness. As you develop your idea into a story, it really helps to have something that makes it unique – an unusual twist, an exotic setting, something that will surprise the reader. You might have to spend some time, generating “what ifs” related to your idea to develop it into something interesting.

How do you know when you want to turn your great idea into a story?


A great list of some considerations when trying to develop an idea that stands out.

Jami Gold asks some good questions to help with idea development.

Over at the Nouveau Writer blog, there are some strategies for stretching ideas by looking beyond the obvious.

Brian Yansky writes about the importance of waiting for several ideas to connect when trying to shape them into a story.

David A. Kennedy suggests some strategies for generating new ideas.

When you’re stumped, Rick Walton’s Rock Canyon University Free School of Writing For Children has these awesome lists of activities and places to help get your brain in gear.

Nathan Bransford blogs about the drawbacks of settling for your first idea.

Mary Kole clarifies the difference between a situation and a plot.

My crit buddy Christina Farley has an interesting post about finding the right idea.

Kristen Lamb has a great post on testing out your story ideas before you start writing.

Another interesting link:

Although not really on the subject of ideas, this blog post about the difference between the book category Middle Grade and the age of kids in middle school is interesting.