Wednesday, June 29, 2011

X is an Unknown

If you’ve noticed that I’ve skipped letter X in my ABCs of writing middle grade fiction, then I congratulate you on your powers of observation!  Since I’m working at making this a useful resource, I didn’t want to include a contrived post about X. The same goes for Z. I considered a few ideas:

X Marks the Spot – All about the place in your novel where your protagonist finally gets what they want.
X is for X-ray Vision and Other Superpowers – Hey, this actually sounds pretty good. Maybe one day I’ll come back to it. I’d love to write a novel with a superhero character.
X is for Unknown – What is that mysterious element that makes your novel stand out to agents and publishers?

Z is for Zoos – How to write cafeteria scenes with middle grade characters, or all about the behind the scenes research you need to write about zoo animals. I could include a list of books that include zoos. Hmmm.
Z is for Zest – Different ways to bring your novel alive that don’t include zoo animals

Z is for Zzzzzzz – How to keep your readers from falling asleep
In the end though, I just don’t have enough material to make one of these work. I don’t rule it out for the future (or maybe a creative guest post).

Now that I’ve pretty much come to the end of the alphabet, you may be wondering what’s next. Well, I’ve enjoyed learning and collecting links for my ABCs series on writing middle grade fiction. So, I plan to continue adding to it, but not in any systematic order (I foresee a lot of posts starting with letters C, F, and P). There are lots more topics to consider…and I’m open to suggestions. 
What do you want to know about writing middle grade fiction? If I don’t know, I’ll try to find out and consider your ideas for a future post.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Bad Guys Need Attention Too

During my latest novel revision, I'm working on bringing out some of the secondary characters in my novel, including a villian.

It's so easy to rely on stereotypical villain traits and behaviours. Sneers. Evil stares. Rudeness. Threats, poisoning, locking the good guy away. I'm working on coming up with some truly unique ways to show his evil nature.

At the same time, I need to balance how much of his scheming to reveal. Since he's not the point of view character, I can't show his thoughts. His schemes are only obvious through his actions and the thoughts and reactions of the other characters. Neither one of these necessarily show the reasons for why he's behaving the way he does, even though the reader will eventually want to know.

Do you have any tips on creating a good villain?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Two Stars and A Wish for My Novel Ending

I've been struggling with revising the ending to my novel. I've gotten great feedback from my critique partners. I've revisited my blurbs and summaries. I've scribbled notes and arrows all over my writing notebook. And all I have to show for it is a jumble of confused thoughts and a cursor stuck on Chapter 26. 

I finally gave up and walked away from it on Wednesday, hoping that taking a break for a couple of days would spark some new ideas. It's so discouraging when a part of the writing just isn't working, it starts to me thinking that the whole thing is terrible.

So, today I'm going to borrow a trick from my day job as a teacher. When students reflect on their work, we sometimes  ask them to think about two things they liked or did well with, and one wish for something they could have done differently or improved on. I'm going to try that with the ending of my novel. I hope it will help me appreciate what IS working as well as to help me pinpoint exactly what it is that I need to fix.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Y is for YA, Or is it MG: Where Does Your Novel Fit?

One of the tricky things about writing middle grade can be knowing whether your novel really should be categorized as MG. Maybe it’s young adult? I’ve heard people say you should just write it and figure that out later. But agent Mary Kole points out that when you’re still working to get published or even early in your writing career, it might be a wise decision to make sure your novel is clearly one or the other.

There are many places where you can find the elements that define MG and YA novels. Here’s a quick breakdown:

Middle Grade:
- range from 20,000 to 50,000 words
- focus on family, school, friends, developing independence with ties to family
- magic and adventure are popular
- protagonists are usually 11- to 13-years-old, but no older than 14
- story needs to be appropriate for kids down to age of 8 or 9
- endings are often happy and mostly resolved

Young Adult:
- range from 45,000 to about 90,000 words
-wide scope that includes anything from sweet to edgy, containing drugs, drinking or sex, but authentic
- usually involves romance, since teens are interested in relationships
- protagonists are usually 15 to 17 years old
- plots where teens face adult problems, such as taboo subjects, violence, coping with tragedy
- endings may be ambiguous, not necessarily happy or having all loose ends tied up

Despite these clear cut elements for YA and MG novels, anyone who reads within these categories can find examples that either don’t contain some of these elements, or fall in a mysterious grey area somewhere between. How can you be sure your novel is MG?
I think you need to start with the basic idea behind your novel. Think about these questions:
What does your protagonist want?
What kinds of conflicts stop your protagonist from getting what he/she wants?

If you can place these key parts of the story as MG concerns vs. YA concerns, I think you will have gone a huge part of the way towards making sure your novel is in the MG camp. It’s easier to play with character ages, and often even the setting, other characters, or the ending.
One tip is to consider getting your critique partners to review your plot synopsis or idea before you begin writing. Their comments might help you firmly place your story as either MG or YA.

Do you have any other tips for making sure your novel fits into your category?

Links:
Agent Mary Kole on Is it MG or YA?

Over at MiG Writers, my crit buddy Debbie Riddpath Ohi also tackles the difference between MG and YA, including a good look at word counts.

Margo Dill also explains the difference between YA and MG.
Here are Five Fast Differences Between YA and MG from Michelle at YA Highway.

Nathan Bransford’s forum has a discussion thread on YA vs. MG.

And over at The League of Extraordinary Writers, Angie Smibert started a discussion about what really defines YA or MG.
Ani Louise sums up some points to help you tell whether you’re writing YA or MG.

Sheila at the LDS Women’s Book Review discusses how characters change in MG vs. YA novels.
Alissa at The Grammarian’s Reviews considers questions of age, romance and setting for MG. vs. YA.

Kate Coombs discusses the confusion between YA and MG at the Enchanted Inkpot.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Mondays Are Full of Promise

I'm usually full of enthusiasm on Mondays. There's the whole week stretching ahead of me, with all the possibilities for writing. Of course, knowing this can also be a disadvantage. As in, "Eh, I have a whole week. There's no rush."  

What did I accomplish in my writing time today?

Well, I watched some praying mantises squeeze out of their egg case and I helped my daughter collect aphids for them to eat, because of course we need to keep a few to observe...to go along with the butterfly that can't fly and the pond snails from last weekend. I consider this good research for a future middle grade novel (even though I have no plans to ever write about praying mantises) or at least an investment in my daughter's future career as a zookeeper or entomologist.

Did you do anything interesting today? Can you use it in a novel?

In other big news today, I reached 100 followers! I'm so thrilled. Thank you for your support! I actually planned to have a giveaway to celebrate, but I'm going to have to hold off on that until the Canada postal strike is over. Fingers crossed that happens soon.

Friday, June 17, 2011

It Makes Me Smile

I'm a pretty positive person. While I do talk through my worries (and agonize for hours), I usually prefer to focus on the good things in my life. These are often small things, not anything I'd consider "awesome", but just parts of life that I want to appreciate that gave me a little boost. I thought other people might appreciate them too, so from time to time I'm going to post a few.

1. Coming home from work and finding my daughter absorbed in reading a book instead of playing Plants vs. Zombies.

2. Watching the thieving bunny that has been nibbling on my pea plants and noticing how beautiful she is (I didn't have the heart to open the door and scare her away).

3. Kind words from some fellow bloggers (see Carmella's post on Traditions at MiG Writers, Christina's post called The Brilliant Ones at Chocolate for Inspiration, and Debbie Maxwell Allen re-posting my thoughts on first drafts at Writing While the Rice Boils)

4. Sitting on my patio after dinner, without needing a sweater, enjoying a lovely quiet evening with no neighbours playing loud music or cutting grass (they were all watching the hockey game, maybe).

5. Going to the store to grab a few last plants for my pots and finding they were on sale, 2 for 1.

What made you smile this week?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

W is for Words: Choosing Right for Writing Middle Grade

Every writer knows how important it is to get the words right. The words you choose reflect the voice of your character and allow your reader to slip seamlessly into your story. Awkward wording, too many clich├ęs, or word choices that don’t fit with the viewpoint character’s style can pull the reader away from the story.

Consistency. Choosing words to create a consistent tone or style is important. You can create a jarring effect by having adult characters use kid language, or by having kids use the wrong type of slang for the time period. Or even worse, to use slang inappropriately, showing that you are adult trying to sound like a kid.
Descriptions. The words you choose for making comparisons or creating imagery also need to resonate with your readers. That means it’s important to try to think the way kids think and notice what they notice.
These examples from the novel I’m reading now, Flutter by Erin E. Moulton, show how the author has chosen kid-friendly words: “whistley breath”, “frosting that I can lick off the tips of my fingers”, and “spilling a gob of seeds across the kitchen table”.
Vocabulary level. One worry for children’s writers is that the vocabulary or word level is right for different grade levels. I always think that for middle grade, if I’m using mostly words I’d use in ordinary conversation, then they will sound natural and be accessible to my readers.

But some writers are skilled at using a richer vocabulary, as in Lisa Yee’s Millicent Min, Girl Genius. The words you choose need to fit with your viewpoint character. The phrase “I appreciate the intellectual strategies some games involve” wouldn’t work in all middle grade novels, but it’s completely in character for Millicent.

How do you make sure your word choices are right for your novel?

A few fun sites to help you find the right word:
Accents – Here’s some help for getting accents right.

Metaphor – Ideas for common metaphors by category.

Onomaotpoeia or words that make noise
More words that make noise

Rhymes – This unique dictionary allows you to type in any word and it will generate a rhyme.

Slang - A unique dictionary to help make sure you've gotten the slang right.

TextMessage Lingo

Thesaurus Collections - A great online thesaurus collection for writers that includes ideas for describing emotions, settings, colours, textures and shapes, symbolism, weather and character traits from The Bookshelf Muse  

Urban Dictionary

Links:
YA author Vahini Naidoo talks about how choosing the right words helps you convey the voice and mood of the viewpoint character.

At Project Mayhem, Michael Winchell discusses vocabulary in middle grade novels.
Kid-lit agent Mary Kole discusses word choice and how it affects voice and interiority on her blog, and especially interesting are her workshop examples on snippets of reader submissions. Try Workshop #6 for some insights on word choice.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Reading vs. Commenting on Blog Posts

I've read a couple of interesting blog posts this morning [Talei Loto, Jody Hedlund] about why a blog reader takes the time to post a comment rather than just read and move on. I'm definitely guilty of skimming blog posts and not stopping to comment until one really strikes a chord. I probably do read your blog. If I haven't commented, it's might be because:

1) It has a lot to do with my introverted personality. In face-to-face conversations, I usually tend to be more of a listener than a talker, unless I'm really passionate about a subject. The only problem is, when you're online a blogger doesn't necessarily know you are reading/listening (or even who you are) unless you post some kind of written acknowledgement.

2) Sometimes, I can't think of anything clever thought-provoking to say, and since another commenter has already taken my standard "Great post!", it seems redundant to repeat it.

3) There's a time factor. I read a lot of blogs and it takes time to post. Some blogs still have those verification boxes where you need to type in a nonsense word and may not seem worth the effort when all I'm going to say is "Great post!"

4) I do comment when a post sparks an idea. Perhaps, as I read more blogs, I'm becoming choosier (or lazier). If I don't come across a new way of talking or thinking about something, I don't always leave a comment. This reminds me of how an agent or editor has all those submissions to read, but doesn't respond unless one really catches their eye. It just shows that, like writing a novel or a query, showing some blog personality or originality is important if you want to get more attention.

EXCEPT, when I think about how much I appreciate the comments I get on my own blog, especially for posts where I've taken time to compile a lot of links or spent a long time working on what I want to say, I can see how, in a way, I'm letting my fellow bloggers down when I don't take the time to comment.

As a writer, I often don't know how others react to what I've written. But when I do, wow! It can just make my day. In a way, a comment, no matter how short or simple, is really saying, I appreciate the time you've taken to write this. I'm reading your words.

Ten Good Minutes vs. Hours of Slog

Lately, my energy for writing doesn't match my enthusiam. I still have the desire and determination, but when I have the time, I'm too tired to get into that mental writing space. I know people say that if you want it badly enough, you'll make the time, but that isn't always true. Sometimes, even when you have that small block of time (e.g. the time you wasted watching "The Bachlorette"), fatigue takes over.

I think I'd rather have ten minutes of clear-headed, productive writing time than an hour of the scrambled, stilted or trite stuff that comes out when I'm too tired (which might end up being less than ten minutes worth when I edit it down).

What works best for you...pushing through so you know you'll at least have accomplished something, or waiting until you know you will have a good writing session?

Friday, June 10, 2011

What I Want To (Write) Do This Summer

Over at Writing While the Rice Boils, Debbie Maxwell Allen asked about summer writing goals, prompting me to think about mine. Lately, I've been immersed in my job and family, letting my writing drift a little. So, this seems like a good time to think about what I want to accomplish this summer and get myself back on track.

1. Finish revising The Grand Chef's Apprentice. For those of you following my blog, yeah, this is the book I've affectionately referred to as Novel #4. I've finally decided on a title! I know, it's taken me so long that it should be a cause for celebration.

2. Test the recipes to include in my novel. Yum...this sounds like fun! Maybe I'll do this first.

3. Begin querying The Grand Chef's Apprentice. I even have a query letter written, thanks to my awesome critique buddies.

4. Begin my new project. I even wrote a plan for it, back in March, when I thought I might have time to get started.

If I got these four things done this summer, I'd be happy, and anything else would be icing! Do you have any summer goals?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

V is for Voice: It Might Sell Your MG Novel

Voice is tricky to define, and even trickier to pin down when you’re writing. But editors and agents often say one of the key things they look for in a manuscript is a strong or unique voice. What does that mean?

Voice has been defined as the specific way that you, the writer, put words together so that your writing shows some personality. In novels where the narrator has a strong voice, the writing sounds natural. As a reader, you don’t notice that you’re reading words on a page. You’re in the story and the mind of the main character.  And if that novel is a MG novel, the story sounds like it comes from a real kid, not an adult.
I know this sounds obvious, but if you’re not an eight- to-twelve-year-old yourself, it’s easy to write something you think sounds like MG, but actually doesn’t. How can you develop your middle grade voice?

Think like a kid as you write. When you’re writing, you really need to see the world of the story and the story events through the eyes of a middle grade character. Kids and adults don’t notice the same kinds of things. They don’t talk the same way. They don’t react the same way. As much as you can, you need to take on that “kid perspective”.
Read middle grade fiction. One of my best tips for writing MG fiction is to read a lot of it. It gives you a feel for the language structures and style of speaking that 8- to-12-year-olds actually use. I know my own writing took a huge leap forward when I started reading more books written for the age level I’m actually writing.

Practice. I practice writing with a MG voice. I write about issues relevant to kids from my character’s point of view. Even if I don’t use my character’s opinions on whether they should be allowed to play more video games in my novel, I find that writing about them really helps to build that middle grade reader perspective.

What do you do to bring out your middle grade voice?

Links:

Anna Staniszewski writes on finding your middle grade voice.

At the SCBWI 2010 Conference blog, you’ll find some thoughts on voice from Jennifer Rees.
Here's a great post on voice from Notes from the Slushpile called Finding Your Voice: An SCBWI Master Class with Beverley Birch by Addy Farmer (added September 2011)

Miriam Forster has an interesting series of blog posts on voice, beginning with the difference between a writer’s voice and the character’s voice.

At Word Play, K.M. Weiland also discusses the differencebetween author voice and character voice.

Alexandra Sokoloff began a great discussion about voice with her blog post That Elusive Voice.

Lynda R. Young gives some strategies for developing a unique voice.

At MiG Writers, Debbie Ohi talks (and draws) about writers and voice.

Jeff Hirsch writes about a strategy for developing voice at The League of Extraordinary Writers.

At Let the Words Flow, Jennifer Fitzgerald writes about the struggle to get the right voice.

And at Writer Unboxed, Juliet Mallier tells some of her thought processes for choosing the right voice.

Shannon Whitney Messenger offers some tips for finding your character’s voice.

Over at The Bookshelf Muse, Becca posted a list of three good reasons why you should work on developing the voice of your novel and some tips for creating a strong character voice.

For more tips and links on developing voice, visit Adventures in Children’s Publishing.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Awesome Power of Words

Today I heard Laurie Halse Anderson's poem "Listen", which incorporates reader responses to her novel Speak. If you haven't seen this, go check it out (when you get to the link, scroll down to her YouTube video).

It's inspiring how written words can mean so much. I just sat in silence for a long time afterward, feeling awestruck by the power of her words.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Dear Writing, I Miss You

I haven't had time for my writing this week and I miss it.

I miss the way my brain wakes up when I'm working on my book. I miss thinking about my characters and how they react and think. I miss the sense of satisfaction that comes when all the words fit together and sound right.

In the past few years, probably the longest I've gone without writing is a couple of weeks. Maybe less. Last year, I even took my writing on vacation ('cause writing and having fun too was awesome). How long can you be away from your writing before you start missing it?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

U is for Unlikable Characters: Can They Hook MG Readers?

 Most of the advice I’ve read about creating characters emphasizes the need to make them likable. Some people question whether that is necessary. After all, “likable” is subjective. What is likable to one reader might not be to another.  A character with only positive, redeeming qualities could be boring, since there’s no room for growth. Starting with an unlikable character leaves more room for character growth.

Still, I think that readers of MG fiction usually want the book's hero or point of view character to have at least some likable qualities. Eight- to twelve-year-olds have a fairly “black and white” view of the world. They notice when friends or their parents aren’t following the rules. And they appreciate knowing who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

Kids also have a lot competing for their attention. They’re likely to give up on a book if there’s something about it they don’t like. And that includes the characters. So, it’s okay, and even preferable if the villain is or becomes highly unlikable. (That follows the rules.) But the hero? If you’re trying to create a main character your readers connect with, they need to be able to see a little bit of themselves in the character…and would you see yourself in character you don’t even like?
That doesn’t mean your main character can’t be the playground bully. But even if your heroine has some traits most people would say are unlikable, such as bossiness or a bad temper, there have to be reasons why the reader should care about her.

Have you read any MG books with an unlikable main character? Any tips on making your own main character more likable?

Links:
Jody Hedlund began a great discussion on whether the maincharacter needs to be likable, and some ways to create likable characters.
Over at Adventures in Children’s Publishing, Martina talks about the issue of character likability, with examples from The Hunger Games.

Juliette Wade writes on whether we need to like characters or just relate to them.
At the Blood Red Pencil, Janet Fitch uses examples to show how to help readers connect to a character that seems unlikable.

Roni Loren gives practical tips for helping readers connect to unlikable characters.
And more tips from L.B. Schulman, writing about creating likeable characters we love.