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?