Friday, April 29, 2011

And the Doubts Creep In...

I'm working on creating a "wow" ending for my MG novel. I actually haven't started changing any words, though that's my goal for today. As I tried to come up with alternative endings, I hit a road block. I began to doubt.

Maybe I'm putting too much pressure on myself because I want it to be good. Or maybe it's because I'm so close to the end, I really, really, want to get finished.

I think self-doubt is a writer's biggest enemy. Once it starts creeping in, it can snowball, until pretty soon you think your whole story is garbage. When I start feeling this way, my best solution is to go away from my story and do something totally not related to writing. Then the next day (or whenever) I can come back with a fresh perspective. So that's me today. Taking a chance on one of my endings, determined to make my story bigger and better.

How do you deal with your self-doubts?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

P is for Parents: Dead or MIA

If you write or read middle grade books, you’ve probably heard about the “missing parent” phenomenon. That’s the situation where the parents of kids in middle grade novels are MIA: either dead (a Disney favourite), away on a trip, too busy to have any clue what their kids are up to, or out of the picture in some other creative way.

Why? Because in middle grade books, you want your main character (a kid) to solve the story problem.

Whether or not parent characters contribute the conflict or to the problem solving in the story, you still need to consider the parent-child relationship and how it affects your character. In the life of a ten- or eleven-year-old, parents are pretty important. Even if your main character is an orphan, not having parents will colour his experiences and emotional reactions (just look at Harry Potter).

Some things to consider about the role of parents in middle grade fiction:

Be consistent. If the parent is a workaholic, they should be a workaholic right from the start, not just conveniently when there needs to be an obstacle to the main character getting help.

Add some realism. Book parents sometimes come across as either being stereotypes (e.g. the deadbeat Dad in a divorce situation) or perfect (e.g. Mom always knows how to make the main character feel better). Like any other characters, parent characters have goals, emotions and flaws.

How do you deal with the parents in your novels? Any tips for creating realistic parent characters?

Books that include involved parents (*let me know if you have any more to add):

Belly Up by Stuart Gibbs (MG)
Sugar and Ice by Kate Messner (MG)
Ramona and her Father by Beverly Cleary (MG)
Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A. S. King (YA)

*As always, if you know of any other great resources on this topic, let me know and I'll add them here.

For a humorous take on different ways parents are handled in YA novels (which also apply to MG) read Frankie Diane Mallis over at First Novels Club.

Anna Staniszewski discusses 4 different ways to deal with fictional parents.

In a guest post at Laura Pauling’s blog, Kate Messner author of Sugar and Ice talks about writing a story where parents don’t disappear.

Mary Kole discusses how family relationships are related to creating tension in MG or YA novels.

Robin Fevers has some thoughts on parents in children's fiction and meeting the needs of readers.

For different opinions and thoughts on this issue by other writers, check out the What to Do With Parents thread at Nathan Bransford’s forum.

More Links:

Tracy Marchini on the role of parents in middle grade and young adult fiction.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Endings Are Not Easy

I think I pay a lot more attention to revising the opening of my novel than I do to revising the ending. By the time I get to the ending, most of the loose ends are worked out. It's like I feel, along with the characters, that the tension is over (and the tension of making all those revisions, too) and it's time to chill a little.

I've written before about what I think is important in a story ending. But after reading what James Scott Bell has to say in Plot and Structure, I think my ending needs a little more attention. Some of his points that stuck with me are the need to sum up the characters feelings and the emphasis on carefully choosing words and descriptions.

Bell recommends generating at least 10 alternative endings, then waiting a day or two, and then choosing the top 4, deepening them and choosing the one with the best twist. Hmm. I've tried 2 different endings for my story, but I might try this, just to see if I come up with something that's even more exciting. I want to create an ending that will make the reader think, wow!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday Reads

If you're heading into a long weekend like I am (Easter, anyone?) then you might have a little more time for reading. Some great books I've read lately that take me to a different world:

Across the Universe by Beth Revis. I read all the hype and promos and wow! Were they right! A great story that pulled me into a different time and place. I loved the world building.

Dark Life by Kat Falls. I liked the action and adventure in this book (definitely a fast-paced story) but it was the setting that really intrigued me. The details of living in an underwater city were interesting. So much that I wished there were a few more about how it all worked. But I have a feeling there are more books to come.

Scumble by Ingrid Law. This struck me as such a good example of what I love about middle grade books. A bit of magic, a bit of mystery, a kid with unusual talents. I actually didn't like Ingrid Law's Savvy that much, even though it got great reviews, but I really enjoyed this one! [Maybe I'll have to read Savvy again.]

By the way, I read these the old-fashioned way, on paper. I'm not sure which is better for the earth, paper or digital? Anyone know? 

Happy Earth Day and Happy Easter, if you're celebrating.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

O is for Observation: Don't Write Without It

For me, observation is one of the most important skills I have as a writer. It’s what allows me to add realistic details to my settings, to create interesting mannerisms, and to write authentic dialogue. Even though it’s tempting to go with the way I think kids might act or talk, it’s not always the best idea. My writing ends up giving the impression of an adult trying to sound like a kid.

If you’re writing for 8 to-12-year olds, you can't just observe how kids act, you also need to know what they are observing.

With my adult eye, I observe how, suddenly when my kids hit grade 6, everyone was wearing jeans. Or how my kids think it’s fun to poke each other and giggle about it in the backseat when their Dad is trying to drive. Or how they have weird conversations on the phone with their friends where it seems like they are saying absolutely nothing, e.g. “Hello”, “Hey”, “Me, too”, and “Okay, bye.” These kinds of observations about what kids do and say help to build realistic details, mannerisms and dialogue in writing.

But I also need to know what kids notice about the world around them and about each other. For example:

“Some candies taste like the stuff dentists put in your mouth.”

“Teachers never seem go to the bathroom. Do they ever go to the bathroom?”

“Parents always ask questions that are impossible to answer. Like “How was your day?” What do they expect you to say? I’m not going to describe every little thing that happened.”

Do kids notice how much swimming lessons cost or how they learned a new way to kick? Do they notice that they are holding their fork awkwardly or that Mom tried to slip some vegetables into their hamburger? What are they thinking about and seeing when they look at the world?

When you’re writing for children, I think you need to observe how kids act and talk, but also what they are noticing. Both kinds of observations will add authenticity to writing for middle grade readers.

How often do you observe kids? What kinds of observations do you make?

*As always, if you know of a good article or resource on this topic, let me know so I can add it to the list.

Laura Backes of the Children’s Book Insider discusses how observation helps you create great characters.

Cornell DeVille writes about how observations can boost creativity.

At the Literary Lab, Domey Malarsan discusses how to add originality through observation.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Time for Brainstorming Anyone?

Major brainstorming sessions are part of my writing process, but they don't occur too often. At the beginning, I spend a lot of time thinking about different directions the story could go, until the outline takes shape. I also have a major think when I get stuck and the writing stops flowing. I spend hours considering possibilities for what might happen next.

In Plot and Structure, James Scott Bell suggests writers have a regular time that's just for generating ideas. Interesting.

I can see how it might help me to move beyond the obvious and find the unique. What's hard would be to make myself take the time, when I already feel that I don't have enough time for writing. But for the next few weeks I'm going to try it: just take 15 minutes once a week and brainstorm about my next novel. I'll get back to you about whether it's useful or not.

How often do you just brainstorm ideas?

Friday, April 15, 2011

What is Your Top Writing Frustration?

I love writing, but sometimes it makes me so frustrated I could scream (actually I take it out on the Inkies in my fav Wii game, de Blob). Here are some things I find frustrating:

1. When it takes so long to get in the right mind space that the time I have for writing is almost all gone.

2. The length of time it takes to finish a novel/wait for feedback/write a query/hear back about a query.

3. When I know there should be another way to say "she waited" (or "she looked") and the options my thesaurus and I are coming up with just aren't right.

4. Endless revisions.

5. When you think you have a great idea and later find out it creates a huge plot hole.

What do you find the most frustrating about writing?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

N is for Names

As a writer, I like to feel that I’ve gotten a character’s name right. A name gives a first impression of the character. Some names seem to go with certain traits. You could argue that once you get to know a character, the name doesn’t matter, and a compelling character will intrigue the reader no matter what her name. True. But how do you feel about your own name? Did you always like it?

Names are pretty important to 8 to 12-year-olds.

They sometimes explore different variations of their own name and they are interested in what their name means. They might take on or suddenly reject a cute family nickname, or decide they’d rather be called by their middle name.

Kids also like to experiment with names while they play. They give their action figures names of friends and names of characters they’ve seen in books or on TV. They are creative and make up unusual names.

Names can be tied to a lot of emotion. What if you have a cultural name that sounds funny to people of another culture? What if people tease you because your name is unusual or different? What if your name is boring and you want to shine like a star?

I’ve even seen some kids consider rejecting a book because they don’t like the main character’s name.

Here are a few considerations when coming up with character names:

Remember your story world. Depending on your setting and time period, readers will expect certain types of names. You can find popular names for a specific year in the U.S. by consulting the Social Security Popular Names database.

Set characters apart. Think about the names of all the characters in your story, including minor ones. Names that sound the same or even start with the same letter can be confusing for your readers.

Reality or fiction. Think hard before you decide to use a real person’s name for a character. I actually make an effort not to use the names of people I know. For me, it’s easier to avoid comparisons between real and fictitious personalities.

Be original. Kids may be intrigued by names they’ve never heard before. Also, think about what other book characters might already have the name you choose. Could you ever name a character Hermione after the strong impression left by J.K. Rowling’s character?

Do you have any good tips for coming up with character names? What is most important to you in choosing names for your characters?

*As always, if you know of a good article or resource on this topic, let me know so I can add it to the list.

Check out It's resource for finding names with interesting posts like, Cool Baby Names: The –Er Names.

Jan Fields talks about considerations for character names in children’s stories.

At Let the Words Flow, Biljana Likic discusses some issues related to naming characters and Samny Bina gives us some great resources for finding names.

Sherrie Peterson talks about researching the meaning behind a character's name.

Gail Carson Levine considers finding a suitable character name.

Over at Nouveau Writer, Hannah Gilead gives us a thorough discussion of how much character names matter.

Plot to Punctuation describes effective ways to use nicknames.

Darcy Pattison has some strategies for coming up with nicknames.

Fellow blogger Skye suggests a resource for looking up theme names.

Livia Blackburne at A Brain Scientist's Take on Writing has an interesting discussion about the sounds of names.

Monday, April 11, 2011

When Writing Changes How You Read

All the things I'm learning about structure and writing are starting to sink in. Maybe a little too much. I'm having trouble just reading to enjoy. Instead this is what happens:

1. The opening lines and paragraphs of the books I read are beginning to sound like they are all constructed the same way.

2. I keep thinking about what the main character's goal is and what the obstacles are.

3. I notice the author's use of interesting phrases and stop to consider how they fit with the writing style.

4. I think about how the author uses details or dialogue to enhance the characters.

Does this happen to you? I love being a writer, but at some point, I hope I can get back to reading just to enjoy a story. I'm not sure there is any turning back now, though.

Friday, April 8, 2011

What Do You Give Up to Write?

As writers, we all know about making sacrifices. Some are easier to make than others. It's easy for me to skip vacuuming one day to score more writing time. Or to skip a television show if I'm really immersed in solving a plot problem.

Today I gave up on my plan to attend a writing conference because my youngest was asked to run in her first marathon on the same weekend. I don't have to be there at the finish line, but would I miss it? No way. She'll be there for me, cheering me on, the day I finally get a novel published.

It'd be easy for me to say that my family always comes first, ahead of my writing. But it doesn't. Sometimes I skip watching a family movie because I won't let go of my writing. Or I say "just a minute" and let it turn into an hour. I'm sure I sacrifice my health, every time I decide to sit at my computer instead of taking a brisk walk.

I guess my point today is that sometimes I need to stop and think about what I'm giving up for writing, whether I'm making a choice or giving in to an obsession.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

M is for Mannerisms

According to, a mannerism is “a habitual or characteristic manner, mode, or way of doing something; a distinctive quality or style, as in behavior or speech.” In writing, mannerisms are used for several purposes:

Adding authenticity. Details of behaviour and habits help to make characters realistic.

Distinguishing characters. Unique habits or actions set characters apart.

Showing personality or emotions. Effective mannerisms fit the situation and/or personality of the character. They have a purpose, adding another layer to your story.

Do kids have different mannerisms than adults? Definitely. For example, a nervous kid might chew on their sleeve, whereas an adult might instead rub their lip. In writing for middle graders, you want to capture mannerisms that are specific to kids. Good ways to come up with kid-friendly mannerisms:

1. Search through your memory and list all the different mannerisms you remember from childhood friends and relatives. Here are a few to get you started:

-chewing erasers off pencils
-jiggling a leg at the table
-scraping at fingernail polish
-bouncing instead of standing still
-mimicking an adult with a deep voice
-standing and observing instead of getting into the action
-pretending to kick a ball while standing in a group
-clutching at a shirt
-nibbling instead of taking big bites

2. Use your powers of observation and study real kids in action. Pay special attention to details of action, speech and even how they might be subtly showing feelings.

3. Read MG books to get a feel for how other authors use mannerisms to develop their characters.

4. Watch child actors in movies or TV to get a feel for actions that might set your characters apart.

Okay, so now you have a list of kid's mannerisms. How do you use them in your writing?

Remember less is more. Too much focus on mannerisms could detract from your characters and story. A couple of mannerisms are probably enough for each main character. Don’t overwhelm your reader. Choose your details carefully and make them count.

Be consistent. Make sure those carefully crafted mannerisms stay with your character all the way through your story. One tip is to keep a list of mannerisms and traits associated with each character and use it to check for consistency during revisions.

Try to be original. How many books have you read where people roll their eyes when they are exasperated? Or where their lips tremble when they’re feeling upset? While sometimes using these almost universal mannerisms can get across what you want, other times you might want your character to show more individuality. Think up a unique behaviour that you haven’t seen in every MG novel you’ve read for at least one of you character's mannerisms.

Have you noticed or used any effective mannerisms in your writing? Do you have any tips to share?

As always, if you are aware of any additional links that would be useful, let me know and I’ll add them.

Mervyn Love discusses the basics of using mannerisms.

This great article at Plot to Punctuation teaches you how to use mannerisms to strengthen characters during the revision process.

Wendy Toliver over at Books, Boys, Buzz gives some excellent advice on how to use body language to bring out character.

Here's a peek at some common kid mannerisms related to stress to help get you thinking about those details of how kids behave.

Nicole Humprey talks about thinking beyond obvious mannerisms in trying to capture a person’s uniqueness.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Stop Writing To Think

This probably sounds crazy, but I sometimes feel so caught up in the need to use any spare moment for writing that I forget to take time to think. As I move along with rephrasing, adding emotions, or enriching descriptions, I'm thinking, but not deeply enough.

It's usually a comment by a critique buddy that makes me stop and really consider one of the elements I've put into my story. Does it need to be there? Why did I put that there? How can I make it work? Lately, I've been stopping a lot, even for elements that seem to be working, to think, 'What if...'

And it's been exciting. Even when I thought I had my story all worked out, thinking about what might happen if one element was a little different has led me to changes that increase tension, deepen character motivation and streamline the plot.

Do you ever ask "what if" when you're revising?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Friday Fun - Taking a Look at Writing Habits

I don't usually do blog awards, but because Girl Friday passed one along (thank you!), I've decided to share seven things related to my writing habits:

1. My best writing time is first thing in the morning, even though that's not always when I actually get to do any writing. Sometimes if I'm really intrigued in my project, I write in the evenings too.

2. I never write on Thursday nights if new episodes of Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice are on.

3. Don't even think about what my desk looks like. I could never do one of those lovely interviews about my writing space unless I spent a couple of days (or weeks) tidying up.

4. My ideal readers are my notoriously hard-to-please daughters.

5. I have 20 notebooks full of snippets of my life and writing projects, ideas, and inspiration and information about writing. I'm working on my 21st.

6. My favourite day of the week for writing is Saturday, because I can usually write for a few hours without interruptions.

7. I used to write picture books, but after I had no luck getting any of them published, I decided to move on to middle grade novels (those ideal readers got older, too). Ironically, I'm now working on a picture book for a freelance project.

8. Okay, I said 7 but I thought of another one. You may have noticed that my blog doesn't have many (or any) pictures. That's because I used to have an older computer that seriously objected to loading up images. Of course, I've had a new computer for at least 6 months...but I imagine there are some readers out there who might have trouble loading up blogs that are heavy on visuals too.

Do you have any interesting writing-related habits? Do share!