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1. How to Ruin Your Novel’s Opening with a Few Wrong Words


The Girl, the Gypsy & the Gargoyle by Darcy Pattison.

Choosing the right set of words–the diction of your novel–is crucial, especially in the opening pages of your novel. Novels are a context for making choices, and within that context, some words make sense and some don’t.

A novel sets up a certain setting, time period, tone, mood and sensibilities and you must not violate this. If you are writing a gothic romance, the language must reflect this. For thrillers, the fast paced action demands a certain vocabulary. Violating these restrictions means a bump in the reader’s experience that may make them put down the book.

Let’s look at some examples. This is from my book, SAUCY AND BUBBA: A HANSEL AND GRETEL TALE.
S&B COVER3-CS.inddJust from the title you know that this is a contemporary retelling of Hansel and Gretel and this sets up expectations for the language that will be used. This is a first look at Krissy, the stepmother.

Krissy was singing to herself. Gingerbread days were filled with music, too. Once a month, Krissy made a gingerbread house and took it into town to sell to the bakery for $200. The bakery displayed it in their picture window for a month, and then donated it to a day care. Each month, Krissy checked out a stack of architecture books and pored over them.

Let’s substitute a couple words and see if it bothers you as a reader:

Krissy was caterwauling to herself. Gingerbread days were crammed with music, too. Once a month, Krissy slapped together a gingerbread house and took it into town to peddle to the bakery for $200. The bakery displayed it in their picture window for a month, and then dumped it off at a day care. Each month, Krissy checked out a stack of architecture books and flipped through them.

I’ve been extreme here in word choice, of course. The key is to listen to your story. Where are the places where a single word might interrupt the narrative? Work hard to control your word choices and the overall diction of your story. And I’ll stay with you for the whole book.

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2. NonFiction Picture Books: Research Required

  1. How many pages are in a typical children’s picture book?
  2. Who is the audience of a children’s picture book? Hint: It's not just kids.
  3. Are there restrictions on the vocabulary you use in a picture book?
  4. Do I have to write in rhyme? Do manuscripts written in rhyme sell better?
  5. Do EPUB books have to the same length as printed books?
Don't start writing that picture book until you know these crucial concepts. GET THE ANSWERS HERE.

How much research do you need to do for a children’s nonfiction picture book? Tons!

Nonfiction means that you have the facts straight, ma’am.

3 sources agree. Traditionally, writers look fora at least three sources to back up each piece of information. This means the content isn’t just a personal opinion or a poorly researched fact. Facts should be replicated in multiple studies and corroborated by multiple experts.

Primary sources. Just as in any nonfiction writing,it’s important to go to the primary source of information. Talk to scientists, look up research reports and email the authors of the study, go out and try something for yourself.

Dig deeper. Nonfiction picture books should dig deeper for information, for the meaning and interpretation of the facts, and for context. A biography of Shirley Temple, for example, would likely consider the Depression Era and the effects it had on the burgeoning film industry. For some, Temple’s films were seen as a cheap escape from the harsh realities. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said about her, “When the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during this Depression, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.” And of course, if I was writing a book with that quote, I would have to tell you where I found it. (It’s quoted here in the UK Guardian.)

Tools for Research

My favorite tools for researching for a nonfiction children’s book include:
Google, GoogleScholar, and more. Here are tips and more tips for searching on Google. Did you know you can restrict the search to a certain website or ask Google to only tell you about information posted in the last year? GoogleScholar searches research journals. See the full list of Google products here.

Wikipedia. I know, people feel that Wikipedia is unreliable. But Clay Shirky argues in his book, Here Comes Everybody, that over the long run, it’s more reliable because so many people are able to edit it. Crowd-writing-and-editing is both the strength and weakness of Wikipedia. And yet, I find it great for an initial look at a topic; and the references are often the primary sources that I need. Don’t discount this one.

Library Databases. I recently taught essay writing to a group of home-schoolers and we took a field trip to a public library to look at their databases. These are databases that either aren’t available on the web, or cost too much for an individual to subcribe to. Most public libraries subscribe to an incredibly rich set of databases that offer a world of information; often these are available online through your library’s website. It’s one of the first places I look for info.

Follow up leads. Often these resources will send me off in multiple directions scrambling for more information, emailing scientists, reading dense research reports and so on. It’s not where you start, but where you end up that matters. Follow the trails, question everything and search for answers.

Two Nature Books as Examples of Research

My two recent nature books took different tracks for their research.

Wisdom, the Midway Albatross: Surviving the Japanese Tsunami and other Natural Disasters for over 60 Years required me to interview the biologist on Midway Island about the conditions there during the tsunami and its aftermath. I also looked at video of the tsunami that hit Japan, debris fields in the Pacific, and photos of the desolation on Midway Island. Researching the life and times of the 60 year old bird–the oldest known wild bird in the world–meant going back in time to find out what storms had hit Midway in the last 60 years. Other issues arose: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, longline fishing and more. Each subtopic meant delving into the research to find details to include in the story. Though it is only 850 words long, it entailed a lot of primary research.

AbayomiCover-250x250-150Research for my latest nature picture book took a different tack. Abayomi, the Brazilian Puma: The True Story of an Orphaned Cub The illustrator, Kitty Harvill lives in Brazil half the year and is involved in the environmental art community there. She heard about an orphaned puma cub and suggested the story. Because she knew the scientists involved, it meant lots of interviews, including Skyping with the scientists.

The reports about where the cub was orphaned included coordinates for the chicken farm where the mother was killed. I looked on GoogleEarth and found images of the exact locale, which helped me describe the events in more detail. Harvill actually visited the site and took photographs for reference for the art.

For this story, the context meant even more research. Why are pumas important in the Brazilian ecosystem? It turns out that there has been an increase in Brazilian Spotted Fever (similar to Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in the U.S.). The largest rodent in the world, the capybara is the primary host for the ticks that carry the fever; and the biggest predator of capybaras are pumas. I researched ticks and tick-borne diseases, checking the World Health Organization to confirm that the fever has increased in Brazil. I looked at capybaras and their habitats. Puma diet consists of many other small mammals, including rodents. Were capybaras a large portion of what they ate? The questions went on and on.

Through it all, though, there was this main question: where is the story?
For me, it’s not enough just to recite facts. I want the emotional impact of those facts, the story. I found it in the original report of the cub who was orphaned. The owner of the chicken farm where the mother was killed said that he had no idea pumas might be involved in stealing his chickens. He said, “I’ve lived here for over 40 years and I’ve never seen a puma.”

That thought sat around for a long time, before it became the basis of the story: pumas were invisible.

Nonfiction picture books require meticulous research and each project takes on a life of its own.

Check out other 2nd Grade Picture Books for examples of nonfiction titles to study.

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3. 3 Reasons to NaNoWriMo

Now available! Prewriting for the Common Core

Are you ready to write 50,000 words in one month flat?
I am.
For the first time, I will be participating in NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month.


Why this year? Here are 3 good reasons.

  • Timing. My work schedule has some lag time about now and it’s convenient. That is, I want a new novel done some time next year and by banging out 50,000 words now, I’ll have a rough draft next summer instead of start from scratch. I can’t spend more than a month right now.
On the other hand, I do have other projects scheduled and I don’t have more than a month to spend on a new project. And I want to maximize my time and effort. Pouring out a full draft in a month sounds exciting.Because this is going to work really well (do you hear my optimism?), I will also be in better shape next year, when I have time to return to this story. I’ll have a draft, and revisions will be faster for the work done this year.
  • Trust the process. Learning to trust the process must be a life-long project for writers. Because this writer is having to do that over and over this year. So, instead of fighting the process, I’ve decided to embrace the writing process for the month of November.
  • Taking creative risks. Writing a novel is always a risk. In novel revision retreats, I have people walk around and congratulate each other on writing a full draft of a novel. It’s an amazing accomplishment. Each time I start a new novel, I am very aware of the risk, that this novel may be one that lands in a file drawer, or that I will abandon it and not finish. And yet, to be creative means to take risks, to reach for something new and different, and to go where “no one has gone before.” If I’m not taking risks in my work, then I’m going nowhere. But risks are scary and uncomfortable. NaNoWriMo is a contained risk: I only have to write 50,000 words and it’s only for a month. It’s risky, sure. But there’s support, others to follow, inspiration and there’s a definite end to it. I am very glad there will be an end to the month of NaNoWriMo.
  • Of course, getting ready for this, I’ve been reviewing my book, START YOUR NOVEL. I need to take my own advice!

    Are you NaNoWriMoing? (How’s that for turning an acronym into a verb?)
    Any words of encouragement for me?

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    4. The 13-Year Picture Book: Anne Broyles

    Now available! Start Your Novel

    guest post by Anne Broyles

    Anne attended a novel revision retreat a couple years ago. Switching from novels to picture books, she applied all the principles of great writing and the result is an amazing story. Here, she talks about her revision process. –Darcy

    Arturo and the Navidad Birds

    With the publication of my third picture book, I took the chance to reflect on the thirteen-year period that brought Arturo and the Navidad Birds to bookstores. If I’d known ‘way back then what I have learned over these years, the book might have been published earlier but I apparently needed time to learn these lessons!

    • Mouse Ornament

      Mouse Ornament

      Christmas 2000: As I was decorating our Christmas tree with our German foreign exchange daughter, explaining the stories behind many of our one-of-a-kind ornaments, I had the initial idea of a picture book about a grandmother sharing family history with her grandson as they—surprise!—decorate a Christmas tree. As soon as the boxes of ornaments were empty and our tree was complete, I stole off to write four pages of notes, listing possible ornaments and their stories. Working title: The Memory Tree.
    • 1/2001: On breaks from other projects, I mulled over the grandmother and grandson. Who were they and what sort of relationship did they have? Having recently studied Spanish in Costa Rica, I decided to root my story in a family with a Costa Rican-born grandmother and American-born grandson.
    • 2/2001: I spent way too much time figuring out a chronology of the grandmother’s life. How much time did I spend on Arturo’s character? Not enough!
    • 7/2001: I wrote the first draft (2000 words in 3 hours) in English with occasional Spanish words, and compiled a list of possible publishers. The story belonged to Abue Rosa, focusing on her back-story and the ornaments’ history. Arturo was not fully developed in this wordy draft.
    • 9/2001: An editor friend gave her opinion on the first draft (“the idea holds a lot of appeal”) but wondered about the chronology of Abue Rosa’s too-complicated back-story. I realized I needed to get into Arturo’s head more. Around this time, I also asked a Costa Rican colleague for comments on language/cultural accuracy and made some small changes. I also asked several Hispanic friends what they called their grandmothers and discovered a great variety as each family chose its own nicknames (English-speaking North American families may call grandmothers Grammy, Nonna, Memaw, Granny Sue, Oma, etc.)
    • 2003: I sent The Memory Tree to POCKETS magazine. Rejection #1.
    • Mouse_Ornament_Image

    • 2004-2009: Although this wasn’t my main work-in-progress, I did share the story with my two critique groups and a writing revision retreat. With their feedback, I realized that I had a “talking heads” story that was too “quiet.” The numerous ornament stories slowed down the action so I deleted all but a few decorations. The word count decreased, little by little, from 2000 to 933 words.
      One colleague commented that her son would never be so calm, but would find ways to play with ornaments. Her words helped me unlock Arturo’s character— he finally came to life as I added the broken bird ornament to give the story tension and meaning. Up until then it had been “Abue Rosa and Arturo decorate the tree together. Isn’t that sweet?” Now, the story had action/reaction, conflict and resolution.
      One reader disliked The Memory Tree title, which “sounded like a genealogical tree.” I liked her suggestion and changed to “The Empty Christmas Tree”.
      In 2008, I sent the manuscript to two editors. One mentioned “a sweet plot”, the other “liked the Costa Rican references and cultural context” but “the initial string of remembrances isn’t enough to pull me into the story.” Rejections #2 and 3.
    • Between 2009 and 2011. I tightened the story to 738 words and sent the manuscript to six more editors for rejections #4 and 5, three no response even with follow-up, and in 2/2010: Pelican’s Nina Kooij said they would hold the submission on their “possibles list,” but I was free to submit elsewhere.
    • 2010-2011: Eleven years had passed since my initial idea. Was this bilingual, multicultural, holiday book fit too narrowly defined? I put away “The Empty Christmas Tree” and worked on other projects.
    • 1/12: I almost didn’t open my SASE from Pelican since it had been two years since I last heard from them. Nina Kooij asked if the book was still available. Yes, yes, yes!
    • 3/12: Pelican requested a new title “that implies the Hispanic culture.” I compiled a list of 22 titles (my own and friends’ suggestions) and tweaked the manuscript, making small changes that better reflected Hispanic culture. They chose Arturo and the Navidad Birds, which I like because it shows the protagonist, his family’s cultural and language background, and the symbols of the problem Arturo must solve.
    • 5/12: Pelican decided to publish Arturo and the Navidad Birds with my English-with-a-smattering-of Spanish text and a separate all-Spanish text. I cut 100 words to make room for the Spanish text.
    • 7/12: Once I had a complete Spanish translation, I emailed numerous Spanish-speaking friends and professional resources for their opinions. Their responses (we would say this instead of that; we don’t use this phrase in our country) convinced me to make the setting more generically Central American or Mexican. I altered some words/phrases to fit this vision.
    • 9/12: I signed a contract with Pelican.
    • 9/2012-3/2012: I worked with my editor and the illustrator to coordinate text and art. KE Lewis’ lovely paintings brought depth to my words, and I especially love how she showed Abue Rosa’s memories in sepia with the contemporary story in brighter colors. There are lots of details for young readers to discover in the book’s pages, and I was reminded of how important is the illustrator’s contribution to a picture book.
    • 9/2013: Pelican released Arturo and the Navidad Birds.

    Arturo-high-res.coverIn hindsight, I realize that my initial idea was more setting than plot. Until I knew both Arturo and Abue Rosa, the manuscript was an exercise in getting to know my characters and making the setting real in my mind. Once I identified a clear problem and brainstormed ways Arturo could try to solve the problem, the story worked. I cut two-thirds of the length, tightened the plot, layered more of Abue Rosa’s culture into the story and built the story’s tension up to Abue Rosa’s statement: “People are more important than things.”

    And it only took me thirteen years to get these 32 pages right!

    BroylesAnne Broyles
    Bio: Anne is the author of ARTURO AND THE NAVIDAD BIRDS, PRISCILLA AND THE HOLLYHOCKS (Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People, Bank Street College’s The Best Children’s Books of the Year, and Massachusetts Book Awards recommended reading list) and SHY MAMA’S HALLOWEEN (Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People, Teacher’s Choice Award and the McNaughton Award). She lives north of Boston with her husband, two cats
    and an old black dog named Thor. For more, see

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    5. Get Your Tone Right

    Now available! Start Your Novel

    “Young man, don’t speak to me in that tone of voice!”

    When you see that bit of dialogue, you know that a boy is talking sarcastically or disrespectfully. We understand that it’s not just the words said, but it’s how the words are used that conveys an attitude.

    Humor, irony, satire, pleasantness, excitement, righteous indignation–the audience’s anticipated reaction is what determines the tone with which you write a particular piece. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown has a soothing tone; Captain Underpants by Dave Pilkey has an irreverent, comical tone; Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse has a spare, restrained tone that matches the mood of the Dust Bowl.

    I’ve been dealing with tone because I’ll have a nonfiction piece, “Don’t Lick That Statue,” in the June 2014 issue of Highlights Magazine for Children. When you turn in this type of manuscript, they require a letter from your sources that states the article is “appropriate in tone and content” for a young reader. Content is easy: just check and recheck your facts, ma’am. Tone is not so easy. What does it mean, anyway?

    Definition of Tone of Voice

    Darcy at the Alamo

    How would you describe the tone of this photo taken at dawn near the Alamo?

    Tone is the atmosphere that holds a story together; it permeates the narrative, setting, characters and dialogue. It can also shape a reader’s response. In a mystery with a dark, gothic tone, the reader is meant to be on the edge of fear.
    Tone gives the author subtle ways to communicate emotional content that can’t be told by only looking at what words mean. We also need to look at connotations and how words work within the context of the story.

    One of the first ways to get a handle on controlling the tone of voice is to look at the adjectives and adverbs within your story. Specific details can fill the reader’s head with clues about how to interpret the story, but without a physical voice. The tone can be cued by adjectives or adverbs: quietly, he said; angrily, he said; sadly, he said. More experienced writers can convey the same tone with connotations of words and not have to rely on these adverbs.

    In other words, the missing words–quietly, angrily, sadly–are communicated by every tool in the writer’s arsenal. That’s a frustrating statement for beginning writers: it’s too abstract. Let’s make it a bit more concrete.

    Creating Tone of Voice

    Before you begin writing, you should have a tone of voice in mind, so you will be consistent. The tone of voice should shape the story at all stages.

    The opening, especially, should begin with the right tone, so the reader knows what sort of story will follow. Descriptions, dialogue, or even first-person statements are all welcome. The opening scene should give the reader a feel for the book that will be consistent throughout. A dark, gothic mystery should never morph into an action/adventure or a fairy tale. Within the dark, gothic mystery, there is room for variation, but there are also boundaries for when it moves outside the right tone. Set your story’s tone early and stick with it.

    Recognition and Consistency

    Once you have something written that captures the character, the voice of the story and the tone of the story, then you must do two things. First, recognize when that voice and tone is present and working; second, learn to be consistent with the voice and tone.

    Put the work aside for as long as you can stand it, then read it with an eye toward where the voice, tone and character are working or not working. Read it out loud, and pay attention to places where there’s a “bump” for some odd, almost indefinable moment. That’s probably a tone or voice problem. Changing mood is fine; changing tone is not. On a very simple level this means that you can’t start a story with a dreamy stream-of-consciousness and end with an action-packed thriller.
    Consistency is important even when a story has multiple points of view. For novels that switch back and forth between male and female characters, the tone must still be maintained.

    Crafting your Story’s Tone

    While much of the discussion about tone of voice revolves around abstract issues, there are some concrete things that can be considered.

    Choice of details. Choose the sensory details that bring a story to life. Does it matter that Dracula wears black? Of course! Be sure to include as many senses as possible, pulling in visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory and tactile details.

    Plot and organization. Often, picture book stories have simple refrains—which present a reassuring tone by suggesting that there is order in the world. The organization of the text always returns to a phrase that is important; the child knows you’ll get to that point again in the story and feels the ordering of events in the story, which reinforces the tone.

    Language and vocabulary. The language and vocabulary used must also support the tone of a story. Choosing the right word is paramount, but also consider how the words work in context. Connotations are words speaking to other words in a story. You may want to alliteration, assonance, or other literary techniques to make certain words resonate. But the technique should be subtle enough to work without calling attention to itself.

    Dialogue. Dialogue can carry tone of voice, too. Avoid stilted and extended sections of talking heads. Instead, work for a snappy exchange—or whatever is appropriate for your tone. Sometimes, it helps to be intentional and say to yourself, “My story’s tone is XXX and that means my dialogue should be XXX.” Then evaluate to see where you need to adjust.

    Write Your Story Your Way!

    If all the above feels too abstract, if you want more detailed how-to instructions, if you have trouble recognizing voice much less tone of voice, you aren’t alone. Yet, editors and teachers of writing can’t be more specific. “It depends. . . ,” they say. It always depends on the story, the characters, the setting, the author’s intent, and so many other minor and major decisions about a story.

    The tone is the end result, but it is also the beginning. The author must solve the problem of tone of voice in different ways for each story they tell. You have an arsenal of weapons: setting, characterization, language, rhythm, vocabulary, plot, organization. In the end, there are no right or wrong answers; there are only stories that work or don’t work.

    Can you suggest stories that portray a certain tone? How would you describe the tone of IVAN, THE GREAT AND MIGHTY? Of HUNGER GAMES?

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    6. Frosty the Snowman’s Top 5 Writing Tips

    MIMS HOUSE: Great NonFiction for Common Core Prewriting for the Common Core

    The story of the oldest known wild bird in the world. At 62+, she hatched a new chick in February, 2013. Read her remarkable story. A biography in text and art.

    Happy Holidays

    Just got an e-newsletter from the North Pole and Santa passed along these writing tips from the Frosty the Snowman, posted for the young-at-heart who are writing novels this year.

    Back by popular demand is my series on writing tips from popular Christmas figures. First published in 2007, they are updated here for your Christmas cheer.

    Santa Claus’s Top 5 Writing Tips
    12 Days of Christmas Writing Tips (live on 12/3)
    The Gingerbread Man’s Top 5 Writing Tips (live on 12/4)
    Frosty the Snowman’s Top 6 Writing Tips (live on 12/5)
    Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer’s Top 5 Writing Tips (live on 12/6)

    Frosty The Snowman’s Top 5 Writing tips

    These tips are based on the popular song, “Frosty the Snowman.” Read about the history of this song. Oh, what a great 3-D snowman cake pan!

    Frosty's Top 6 Writing Tips

    Image by Daniel Novta

    1. Frosty the snowman was a jolly happy soul,
      With a corncob pipe and a button nose
      And two eyes made out of coal.
      Frosty the snowman is a fairy tale, they say,
      He was made of snow

      Extended character descriptions.
      Don’t be afraid to take time to describe the main character. One the continuum of character descriptions, this one is longer than you’ll find in most children’s picturebooks. But it works because this is a character story.

    2. but the children
      Know how he came to life one day.
      There must have been some magic in that
      Old silk hat they found.
      For when they placed it on his head
      He began to dance around.

    Point of view. Notice the point of view here. The attention is squarely on Frosty, not on the children who found the old silk hat. When you write a story for kids, you don’t always have to put the child as the main character.

  • O, Frosty the snowman
    Was alive as he could be,
    And the children say he could laugh
    And play just the same as you and me.
    Thumpetty thump thump,
    Thumpety thump thump,
    Look at Frosty go.
    Thumpetty thump thump,
    Thumpety thump thump,
    Over the hills of snow.
  • Language play. This section doesn’t add much to the plot, it’s just pure language play. But this is perfect for the younger audiences, who know that playing around with language is half the fun of reading a story or singing a song. Great onomatopoeia.

  • Frosty the snowman knew
    The sun was hot that day,
    So he said, “Let’s run and
    We’ll have some fun
    Now before I melt away.”
  • Conflict. Every good story needs conflict. And the character’s attitude in the face, well, in the face of certain death, is evident. It’s an attitude of taking joy where you find it and facing the future with courage.

    Darcy’s Best Writing Advice: Fiction Notes Books

  • Down to the village,
    With a broomstick in his hand,
    Running here and there all
    Around the square saying,
    Catch me if you can.
    He led them down the streets of town
    Right to the traffic cop.
    And he only paused a moment when
    He heard him holler “Stop!”
    For Frosty the snow man
    Had to hurry on his way,

  • Development of the conflict.
    The traffic cop provides an extra bump of conflict that adds to the story’s development. For picturebooks, it doesn’t have to be much; in fact, it can’t be huge, or you’re writing a novel. This is perfect, just the introduction of an authority figure who yells, “Stop!” but can’t really do anything to stop the breakneck speed of Frosty’s life.

  • But he waved goodbye saying,
    “Don’t you cry,
    I’ll be back again some day.”
    Thumpetty thump thump,
    Thumpety thump thump,
    Look at Frosty go.
    Thumpetty thump thump,
    Thumpety thump thump,
    Over the hills of snow.
  • Hope. Children’s stories may end in tragedy, but the best offer a spot of hope. Notice also the nice repetition of the language play that sends the story off with a nice echo.

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    7. Nonfiction Picture Books: 7 Choices

    2013 GradeReading.NET Summer Reading Lists

    Keep your students reading all summer! The lists for 2nd, 3rd and 4th, include 10 recommended fiction titles and 10 recommended nonfiction titles. Printed double-sided, these one-page flyers are perfect to hand out to students, teachers, or parents. Great for PTA meetings, have on hand in the library, or to send home with students for the summer. FREE Pdf or infographic jpeg. See the Summer Lists Now!

    I’ve written before about writing a children’s picture book in this 30 Days to a Stronger Picture Book Series and the basics remain true. However, nonfiction picture books are currently getting a fresh look, mostly because of the education reforms known as Common Core. It requires elementary students to read 50% nonfiction, 50% fiction. That percentage of nonfiction rises to 70% in high school, which impacts longer nonfiction. But today, I’ll concentrate on the impact on picture books.

    One of the more interesting developments is that educators, publishers and writers are looking at nonfiction in seven new ways.

    1. Narrative Nonfiction. The last 25 years has seen the rise of narrative nonfiction, or nonfiction that is told with fiction techniques. Sometimes called creative nonfiction, this genre emphasizes the story embedded in the search for information. Nonfiction writers use scenes, sensory details, and work for a traditional story arc with a problem that is resolved in a climax. This type story has been popular because it readily engages readers.

      Examples of narrative nonfiction picture books:

      • Turtle Tide
        Turtle Tide: The Ways of Sea Turtles This book is one that has you hanging on the edge, waiting to see if any of the 100 sea turtle babies will survive. Fantastic build to a satisfying climax.
      • Wisdom, the Midway Albatross. My own picture book about the oldest known wild bird in the world uses a series of vignettes that climaxes with the Japanese tsunami overrunning Midway Island.
    2. Data (Facts First). Let’s face it: some kids just like facts. Browseable books like the Dorling Kindersley books (white background with stunning photos and related facts) are filled with data. It’s rather like flipping through an encyclopedia of a certain topic until you find the information that fascinates you, stopping to read, then flipping on. It’s the Guiness Book of World Records. Just the facts, Ma’am.
    3. Expository (Facts Plus). Taking it a step farther are nonfiction books that give facts but connect them in some way. It’s an explanation of some kind, but doesn’t have to have the story. Often in a picture book, the author reaches for a poetic voice, but the intent is still just an explanation. For an example, look at Frogs by Nic Bishop
    4. Books in the Disciplinary Thinking or Experts at Work are nonfiction books that ask how scientists and historians ask questions, evaluate research and develop theories. Sometimes these are biographies of a scientist or historian.

      The Scientists in the Field Series from Houghton Mifflin is the perfect example of this type books. See the 2011 Siebert Winner Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot , written by Sy Montgomery, photographs by Nic Bishop.

    5. In Inquiry (Ask and Answer) Books, the author begins mimics the process of scientific discovery by asking a question and then allowing the readers to follow the process of finding the answers.

      The Elephant Scientist is one of the Scientists in the Field Series from Houghton Mifflin, and a 2012 Siebert Honor book. Unlike some of the other book in the series, this one begins with a question: how do elephants hear? Is it possible that they hear sounds through their feet? This leading question is woven throughout the book and indeed, gives it even more of a narrative nonfiction feel. It’s easy to from this book that the subgenres will be hard to tease out. Is this book narrative nonfiction, Experts at Work, or Inquiry? It’s all three. Still, even thinking about it in this way means that we, as writers, have more choices, even when we choose to cross subgenres.

    6. Interpretation or Point of View nonfiction titles are not popular right now, but may become a stronger subgenre under the Common Core, as it asks students to do analytical thinking. Here, an author researches a subject in detail, then provides an interpretation of the information. Such books would model what students are required to produce in their own essays.
    7. Action Books invite kids do more than sit in a chair and read. Some include activities or experiments, and some are a call to action. They encourage kids to go out and do something that will make a difference in the world.

      I Love Dirt! 52 Activities to Help you and your Kid Discover the Wonders of Nature asks kids and parents get outdoors and do something.

    Writing the Nonfiction Picture Book

    When you look at a topic—maybe Dads in nature—there are multiple slants you could take on the subject. And now, there are multiple ways to approach the research and writing.

    Narrative nonfiction. For this category, there’s no book without a storyline. As you research, you are looking for the story embedded in the details.
    Data/Facts. Here, you are looking for solid, reliable, verifiable facts. Of course, you are in any of these categories, but for this category, it is the facts that shine. You will have to organize the book in some way, but the natural divisions in the data will determine the book’s structure.

    Expository. Explanations include facts that back up a certain premise or statement. As you research, you are looking for an overarching idea that the facts will explain. Sometimes you’ll start with what needs explanation but sometimes, it will emerge from the research and writing.

    Experts at Work. This is a fun category because it means you must seek out experts and follow them around. Writer George Plimpton, who recently passed away, if famous for joining the Detroit Lions American football team in order to give his readers the most intimate sense of playing in this team. This type of immersive journalism may be an extreme example of Experts at Work, but it certainly fits the goals. The story here (and it is often a narrative) is about the expert not necessarily about what the expert is studying or doing.

    Interpretation or Point of View. In some ways, picture book biographies are an interpretation of a person’s life. Because the space is limited, these biographies can only cover a portion of a person’s life and by necessity become an interpretation. Dizzy, by Jonah Winters, is about Dizzy Gillespie, the famous Be-pop trumpeter. It leaves out many issues of his family and uses literary techniques to create a sense of what be-pop music is like. It’s a definite point of view. When you write this type story, look for what grabs you personally in a story or set of facts; how can you bring that to the forefront? Are these popular? Dizzy got starred reviews in five different review journals.

    Action Books. While facts inform the action book category, it’s what the reader does with those facts that matters. In fact, the emotions evoked by the facts are as important as the facts themselves. It turns into a sort of persuasion essay, using facts to back up the need to do something. Look for facts that back up the actions you want readers to take. Build a strong, emotional case for that action.

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    8. START YOUR NOVEL: A Fiction Notes book


    Six Winning Steps Toward a Compelling Opening Line, Scene and Chapter
    Start Your Novel by Darcy Pattison
    • 29 Plot Templates
    • 2 Essential Writing Skills
    • 100 Examples of Opening Lines
    • 7 Weak Openings to Avoid
    • 4 Strong Openings to Use
    • 3 Assignments to Get Unstuck
    • 7 Problems to Resolve
    The Math adds up to one thing: a publishable manuscript. Download a sample chapter on your Kindle.

    My latest Fiction Notes book is now available!

    Six Winning Steps Toward a Compelling Opening Line, Scene and Chapter

    You want to write a novel, but you don’t know where to start. You have a great idea and—well, that’s all. This book explains the writing process of starting a novel in six winning steps.



    • Starting the Journey
    • Why Editors Focus on Page 1
    • STEP ONE: Clarify Your Idea
    • STEP TWO: Review Your Skills
    • STEP THREE: Plan the Opening Chapter
    • STEP FOUR: Plan the Opening Line
    • STEP FIVE: Now, Write!
    • STEP SIX: Revise

    Writing teacher and author, Darcy Pattison, is the author of NOVEL METAMORPHOSIS: Uncommon Ways to Revise, How to Write a Children’s Picture Book, and The Book Trailer Manual. She brings extensive experience in teaching writing to this exciting new book and helps you get started with the creative writing process.

    Read a Sample Chapter

    Jane Friedman posted Chapter 2 on June 10, 2013 and you can read on her blog. Or go here to download a sample chapter on your Kindle.

    Confidence to Begin Your Novel

    • 29 Plot Templates
    • 2 Essential Writing Skills
    • 100 Examples of Opening Lines
    • 7 Weak Openings to Avoid
    • 4 Strong Openings to Use
    • 3 Assignments to Get Unstuck
    • 7 Problems to Resolve

    The Math adds up to one thing: a publishable manuscript.


    In 1999, Darcy Pattison started working with fiction authors on revising their novels. In order to come to a Novel Revision Retreat, participants need a complete draft of a novel and we spent an intensive weekend revising. The results? Many published novels, including Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson, winner of the Newbery Honor award.
    Now, I am turning to beginning writers and bringing order to the writing process. If you start well, you have a better chance of writing a publishable manuscript—and needing fewer revisions. Start Your Novel is a natural extension of my teaching of fiction and will get you past the terror of the blank page.

    Now available:

    Please do me a favor!
    As you know, reviews are extremely important! Please, post your honest opinion about the book on Amazon, GoodReads, B&N or other online sites. It isn’t necessary to enjoy and profit from the writing help you’ll find in the book. But I would appreciate it. Thanks! Darcy

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    9. Re-inventing Oneself

    Funny words. It suggests that there was something wrong with the first invention something that needs fixing. I suppose that is true. When something isn’t working you should look for another way. You should fix the thing.

    I began working on a new set of children’s books. I was hammering away at a story, trying to get something good down in order to illustrate it. Everything was flat. Nothing was working, nothing felt right. My characters were looking at me like I was crazy. They were all yawning! Try writing when your characters are shaking their heads!

    It was then that I realized I was going about it all wrong. As an artist, I need to star with the art!!!! …the story would follow.

    I sat with sketchbook in hand and began drawing little cartoons. One thing led to another and star was born! I will share more. This is a discovery for me. I will let you know how I make out in the days to follow!

    For now, I’ll just keep sketching!


    Filed under: how to write, Kicking Around Thoughts

    10 Comments on Re-inventing Oneself, last added: 7/5/2013
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    10. 5 Quotes to Plot Your Novel By


    Six Winning Steps Toward a Compelling Opening Line, Scene and Chapter
    Start Your Novel by Darcy Pattison
    • 29 Plot Templates
    • 2 Essential Writing Skills
    • 100 Examples of Opening Lines
    • 7 Weak Openings to Avoid
    • 4 Strong Openings to Use
    • 3 Assignments to Get Unstuck
    • 7 Problems to Resolve
    The Math adds up to one thing: a publishable manuscript. Download a sample chapter on your Kindle.

    I am currently slogging through plot development of a new series of novels. Here are some helpful quotes.

    1. “A plot is just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.” Margaret Atwood.
      It is hard to narrow down the possibilities of a story to a particular “WHAT happened next?”. It is a tricky process of going back and forth between character and interconnected events, refining both at the same time you make a decision about WHAT. Because I am planning a series, I am writing three plots with the same characters, which gives each character an internal conflict arc for individual books, as well as for the series overall. If an individual plot line doesn’t give me an idea for WHAT, I switch to series conflict; or I switch to a subplot.
    2. Terror: The Doorway to Great Plots

    3. “Real suspense comes with moral dilemma and the courage to make and at upon choices. False suspense comes from the accidental and meaningless occurrence of one damned thing after another.” John Gardner.
      In the midst of all the WHAT, I am constantly searching for the moral dilemma. Versus. Good versus good. Understandable versus understandable, even if you might disagree. Moral dilemmas make for great plots.
    4. “Writing about writing, Checkhov instrucs us that no gun should go off unless we have first shown it hanging on the wall: every surprise must have its sublimated genesis.” Cynthia Ozick.
      If WHAT happens at the end of Book 3, how can I prepare the reader for it and surprise the reader at the same time? How needs to remain unstated in Books 1 and 2? In Acts 1 and 2 of each book?
    5. “Years ago, someone said to me, ‘Jackson, your books must be printed on scar tissue.’ I was pleased.” Richard Jackson
      Beware of characters who are too perfect, of plots that fit together too neatly. Life is messy and while art works to make sense of that mess, if it is too structured, it fails to connect emotionally. Embrace the scars of your characters. Embrace your own scars as a writer, as a person.
    6. “Get your character in trouble in the first sentence and out of trouble in the last sentence.” Barthe DeClements
      Pacing of plots is crucial; never give the reader a place to put the story down. This focus on tension on every page begins at the stage of slogging out a plot and continues till the last copyedit.

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    11. First Readers v. Manuscript Critique


    Six Winning Steps Toward a Compelling Opening Line, Scene and Chapter
    Start Your Novel by Darcy Pattison
    • 29 Plot Templates
    • 2 Essential Writing Skills
    • 100 Examples of Opening Lines
    • 7 Weak Openings to Avoid
    • 4 Strong Openings to Use
    • 3 Assignments to Get Unstuck
    • 7 Problems to Resolve
    The Math adds up to one thing: a publishable manuscript. Download a sample chapter on your Kindle.

    When you finish your draft, do you look for a manuscript critique or a first reader? They are different and serve different purposes.

    Manuscript Critique. The reader puts on his/her critical glasses and looks at your manuscript through that lenses. How does this story match up with the ideal novel? Of course, that assumes that you have common concepts about the ideal novel and that your concepts will match up with the editor’s understanding of ideal novels.

    For beginning to intermediate writers, or for those particularly difficult stories, a manuscript critique can be helpful. It shows you where the story fails to touch a reader. It points out weaknesses and strengths. For example, you may find out that you failed to write the climax of the story; instead, you skipped over that chapter and wrote the aftermath of the climax. That’s a common problem and a critique can remind you why you need to actually write it.

    A disadvantage of the critique is that it is by nature a process of tearing apart your novel and matching up the parts to the ideal novel. It is destructive in many ways. The intent is to help you reconstruct, but it can be devastating. Editors, by and large, are manuscript critiquers and a ten-page revision letter is normal.

    First Reader. On the other hand, a first reader has one task: to monitor his/her impressions as s/he reads and report those impressions to you. Some suggest a structured approach and ask readers to write in the margins something like this. B=bored. C=confused. E=emotional.

    You can make up some sort of code like that, or you can just let the reader report as they wish.

    The advantage of this is that it gives you feedback on what you actually put on the page. I often think that I’ve communicated anger, but the reader is merely confused. Especially after a revision, I need a first reader–and a naive one who hasn’t read the story before–to find out if I inadvertently added or subtracted something in the process of revising.

    I am ALWAYS surprised by what a first reader will say. They are confused, bored, angry, or emotional in ways that surprise me–both good and bad. In other words, I need to fine-tune the story to the needs of a reader.

    The disadvantage of a first reader is that you don’t always know the structural and technical problems that a manuscript critique might point out. A first reader might report that s/he was bored with the ending and then you’ll have to figure out why. The manuscript critique will tell you that you left out the climax. You get to the same revision, but by different routes.

    Which do you prefer? A manuscript critique or a first reader?

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    12. Keeping Relationships Consistent


    Six Winning Steps Toward a Compelling Opening Line, Scene and Chapter
    Start Your Novel by Darcy Pattison
    • 29 Plot Templates
    • 2 Essential Writing Skills
    • 100 Examples of Opening Lines
    • 7 Weak Openings to Avoid
    • 4 Strong Openings to Use
    • 3 Assignments to Get Unstuck
    • 7 Problems to Resolve
    The Math adds up to one thing: a publishable manuscript. Download a sample chapter on your Kindle.

    On my current WIP novel, I am revising to make sure the character relationships are consistent. The main character has three main relationships in the story, with a friend and traveling companion, with her father and with the villain.

    Among other things, a first reader pointed out some inconsistencies in these relationships. I agreed and decided to tackle this. The first thing I did was the re-read the manuscript and find the places where the main character interacts with each of the others.

    It was actually fairly easy because each interaction had about three chapters each, at least in the first half of the novel that I am working on. I physically separated these into three stacks of paper and then marked them up. I was looking for emotional content, reactions to each other, all those small things that create a relationship. Surprisingly, these can be a small part of chapter/scene. You’ve got to have the action going along and the plot will take up a lot of space. There’s description and dialogue. Some of the emotional stuff is in all of this because you can and should color any of it with an attitude.

    But surprisingly little of it directly reflects the relationship between these two characters.

    Now, I just need to decide on what the relationship should be–actually the hardest part of all. For a father-daughter relationship, should the father be wishing for a son, instead of a daughter? Or does he support his daughter in all her hopes and dreams? Of course, we know what the perfect father would do. But this is fiction, which about dysfunctional families, and the ways in which relationships can get tangled up. Once I decide where it should go, then it will be easy to see where to revise.

    Then, I just need to repeat it for the other two relationships.
    For me, it is easier to gain consistency by pulling out chapters like this to look at a specific aspect of the story.

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    13. Trust the Writing Process: Of Anteaters and Spider Webs

    Goodreads Book Giveaway

    Start Your Novel by Darcy Pattison

    Start Your Novel

    by Darcy Pattison

    Giveaway ends October 01, 2013.

    See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

    Enter to win

    I am working on a first draft of a story and am reminded of a couple things.

    First, you must write the story. You can plan all you want, but the story comes alive in the actual writing. A small thing this week: my main character is afraid of all bugs. That includes insects and anthropods (spiders)–anything that crawls or flies. So, there they are, the Main Character(MC) and Best Friend (BF) sitting in art class and painting. Guess what the BF paints? An anteater! It’s a perfect addition to the story but I hadn’t planned on it. It came about simply because I wrote the first draft of the first chapter. And there it was.

    We don’t know what we think until we write.
    We don’t know what the story is until we write.

    It’s like sports. You can predict who will win or lose a game, but the teams must still play the game. And there are always surprises.

    Write your story. It will surprise you.

    The second thing that is happening is not as nice. The story is boring.
    I am still feeling my way through the story to find the line of tension, the exciting bits. I’ll keep writing even if it’s boring, because I am digging up anteaters. To use another bug metaphor, I’ve spun a web and I am sitting like a spider monitoring the web for the slightest hint of movement. When the movement–or story excitement–happens, I’ll be ready to pounce. It’s called trusting the process. It’s the most exciting and satisfying thing about writing, when a story comes together on many levels. It’s also scary: I KNOW this is a boring chapter, too full of static action and talking heads. I KNOW it’s bad. I could throw up my hands and just quit. Instead, I’ll plod along and write through the problems until I find something exciting. I can delete this boring chapter later (and, I will!). For now, I am trusting the writing process to get me to a stronger story. And it will.

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    14. Deadlines are Useful

    Goodreads Book Giveaway

    Start Your Novel by Darcy Pattison

    Start Your Novel

    by Darcy Pattison

    Giveaway ends October 01, 2013.

    See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

    Enter to win

    Do you find deadlines inspiring or stressful?
    I have recently set some deadlines for myself for finishing a couple projects. For me, deadlines aren’t inspiring or stressful; they are useful.

    One deadline was this weekend, September 15. The last couple days of last week, I realized the deadline was near and, WOW!, did I get working hard on the project. Yes, it was a self-imposed deadline, but that didn’t matter, it was a deadline. I was actually two days late meeting the deadline–September 17–but without the deadline, the project would still be languishing.

    One reason it is useful is that it forced me to prioritize this project. At any one time, I might have 5-6 projects ongoing that I could work on. That includes things like writing for this blog, nonfiction projects, freelance projects and a couple fiction projects. What bubbles to the top of my To-Do list is anyone’s guess. Unless, I set a deadline. The self-imposed deadlines help me determine what to do each day or week.

    Deadlines are also useful in fiction. This is the idea of a time bomb that will explode unless the characters accomplish something. There may be a real time bomb if you’re writing a thriller. Or, it may be a deadline such as an event; the character must accomplish such and so before the Halloween party, or the end of school, or before someone finds out something.

    Time bombs and deadlines are useful in fiction because they up the tension. Time is short. How can the characters possibly accomplish everything in such a short time period? They can’t. Except, of course, they do. But not till the timer is at 0:01 seconds left. It’s important to give the reader frequent updates on the time frame, so the tension stays high.

    Deadlines–for your writing or in your story–

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    15. Shame, Vulnerability and Hiding

    When you write, do you put yourself on the page? Of course, you do. You can’t do otherwise. But the real issue is, how much of yourself do you allow to show through? Do you censor yourself? Do you deliberately reword because something you may say will reveal too much of yourself?

    Admit it. It’s hard to talk about real issues, about how you really feel, with friends. And then, you expect to put it on the page? For example, I grew up with an alcoholic step-father and, believe me, those years are hard to talk about. Even the mention here is hard.

    Our fears revolve around issues of shame. You would be embarrassed if someone knew this one thing about you. You wouldn’t be able to show your face, if you revealed such and so. (Once, I found one of his hidden bottles and opened it and dumped the whole thing out and then put the empty bottle back where I found it. He never said anything–because of his shame and embarrassment, I presume.)

    Vulnerability–showing our real face to others–is essential if your fiction will have an authentic voice, a deep impact on readers. Sure, there’s fluff writing, pure entertainment. But what sells are stories about real issues, told in a way that impacts others deeply.

    To resolve those issues of shame, to allow yourself to be vulnerable, I recommend you start by watching this video by Brene Brown, which has been viewed over 7 million times. The description sounds like a definition of the task of a novelist: “Brené Brown studies human connection — our ability to empathize, belong, love. In a poignant, funny talk, she shares a deep insight from her research, one that sent her on a personal quest to know herself as well as to understand humanity.”

    If you can’t see this video, click here. TED also includes a transcript in multiple languages.

    I am preaching to myself, most of all. I know that in 2013, I want to write the most honest, most vulnerable stories I’ve ever attempted. Someone once asked, “What are you scared to write?” Then, recommended that you attempt that very thing. I am most scared of stories which will lay my soul bare, leave me vulnerable. That’s what I need to attempt next.

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    16. I am in Charge of My Own Writing

    As 2013 starts, it is traditional to write down writing goals and I am doing that. But I am also pondering the fact that I am in charge of my own writing, and that is a double-edged sword.

    As 2012 drew to a close, the Congress was debating fiscal matters, trying to prevent the country from falling off a so-called fiscal cliff. As much as I might care one way or another, it was all out of my hands. I voted for a Congressman and for a President. But beyond that, the decisions were not a part of my daily life.

    My writing, however, rests squarely on my own shoulders. Will I write today? (Duh!) What will I write–today? That isn’t President Obama’s business, it’s mine.

    In the amazingly relevant book, ART AND FEAR, Bayles and Orland say that we daily face a specific fear: “. . .–the fear that your fate is in your own hands, but that your hands are weak.” (p. 3)

    For me, the overriding drive isn’t the fear of failure, it is the fear of never-having-tried. I don’t want to hit 100 years old and look back and regret that I never tried. Tried what? The stories that scare me, that I think I am too weak, too bad a writer to pull off, too inadequate to tell such a moving story.

    I don’t know what I will write this year, there are many factors to weigh. But one of those is the need to accept the challenge of telling stories that are important to me–even when I am terrified of trying. That’s my only goal for 2013: to write with more courage and determination than ever before. Because I am in charge of my own writing.

    What story have you been too scared of writing? What story did you think you could NEVER write? Let’s do it together this year!

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    17. Mentor Texts: Market Your Book to Teachers

    Guest post By Marcie Flinchum Atkins
    What is a mentor text?
    As a writer, do you read as many books as you can get your hands on? When you are stuck on how to write a particular scene, or you can’t get your beginning quite right, do you go to some of your favorite books to see how that writer handled it? If you read like a writer, then you are using mentor texts.
    Mentor texts are stellar pieces of writing that are used to “mentor” another writer. It’s teacher-speak for a book that a teacher uses as an exemplary example of how to write well.

    Market Your Book as a Mentor Text

    You are a professional writer. Just like athletes who want to become better observe and learn from the pros, young writers should look to your writing as a model.
    As a teacher, I don’t teach kids how to write from a textbook. I use real examples from books they love. Of course, teachers love to find books that can be used to entice reluctant readers to read. We search for books that tie into our Social Studies and Science curriculums. But we also want to find books that can help us show kids how to write.
    I’m not suggesting we are looking for how-to books. Teachers are using their favorite books to teach kids how to read like writers. As a writer, you can market your book to teachers to use as a mentor text. We aren’t just looking for an interesting story (although that is VERY important), we are also looking for ways to show kids how you put your story together. How did you use description to make the reader “see” the setting? How did you use shorter sentences to speed up the pace? We want to show students how you stitched your story together.

    Mentor Text Lessons

    There are hundreds of writing lessons that you could do with a text and each teacher will gear specific skills to his/her state standards and the level of the students. Take a look at the standards for the grade level of your book (Common Core or individual state standards) to see if you can capitalize on your writing strengths and pair it up with what teachers need to teach in the classroom.

    Some common ideas for lessons include:

    • Word choice—including vivid verbs, specific vocabulary, sensory words
    • Word play—onomatopeoia, puns, figurative language, made up words
    • Description—including descriptions of setting and characters
    • Beginnings and Endings
    • Organization of text—this is useful in non-fiction
    • Sentence Variety

    I teach fourth grade, and in the last month, I have used THE NIGHT FAIRY by Laura Amy Schlitz, SAVVY by Ingrid Law, and OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW by Kate Messner to help students use vivid verbs in their own writing. I used COME ON, RAIN! by Karen Hesse and HEAT WAVE by Eileen Spinelli to show them how sensory words can make their writing better. I find myself going back to some books over and over again because they are full of so many writing gems.

    For a sample lesson plan, see how I suggested 3-5th grade teachers use Darcy Pattison’s WISDOM, THE MIDWAY ALBATROSS: Surviving the Japanese Tsunami and other Disasters for Over 60 Years.

    Do you do school visits? Speak at teacher conferences? Have a teacher resource area on your website? These are all good places to market your book to writing teachers and give examples of how your book can be used in the writing curriculum.

    Resources for Mentor Texts

    I have a link on my website that lists books and online resources I like for mentor texts. They are resources for teachers, but they will be helpful for writers to see how teachers use books as mentor texts.

    You have spent years perfecting your craft of writing. Help teachers not only inspire readers to enjoy your story, but also provide ways they can inspire budding writers in their classroom as well. Market your book as a mentor text for young writers.

    Marcie Atkins

    Marcie Atkins

    Marcie Flinchum Atkins teaches fourth graders to write using mentor texts and trains teachers on how to use mentor texts in their classrooms. In the wee hours of the morning, she also writes picture books and novels. For more resources on mentor texts, check out her website: http://www.marcieatkins.com. Click on the “For Teachers” tab.

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    18. How Powerful are Your Words?

    Yesterday, I went to a local elementary school to tutor, something I’ve recently started. My second grader, CL, brought a nonfiction, information worksheet to go over. He read through the information on what makes popcorn pop and did pretty well in the reading. But his understanding was weak.

    The paper said that popcorn kernels pop because the water in the kernel gets heated up into steam, which cracks open the hard cover and the popcorn pops out.

    OK. I asked CL, “What is a kernel?
    He didn’t know. In fact, he consistently had trouble pronouncing the word. And yet one of the exercises was to draw popcorn before and after popped.

    Even more crucial to understanding the text, I asked CL, “What is steam?”
    He didn’t know.

    The writer of this informational piece made assumptions about his audience, that they would understand certain vocabulary words: kernel and steam. Further, these words were crucial to understanding the piece. In my opinion, the writer failed in communicating. (Yes, in the context of a school assignment, maybe CL just needed to learn a couple words. But these weren’t presented as vocabulary words; instead it was an informational piece that he needed to comprehend, but crucial information was missing from the text.)

    How often do we fail to engage our audience because of our vocabulary, our sentence structures, the organization of our stories. Do you consider audience at every turn?

    For fun, go to Up-Goer Five and try to write something only using the Ten Hundred most common English words. How does this compare to your usual writing? How should it compare?

    Of course, even when writing picture books you don’t have to worry about vocabulary level because these books are usually read by an adult to a kid. However, you do need to make sure the adult will understand the book. Also, many unfamiliar words can be understood in context.

    Vocabulary Level. Make sure your vocabulary levels will be understood by the reader. For unfamiliar words, create a strong context, or define it in the text.

    Dialect or Diction. THE HELP was written in dialect and it almost turned me off from reading it. It wasn’t the topic or the events, just how it was told. It’s also part of the charm of the story.

    Insult or Bless. Remember, too, that your words have the power to tear down or build up. Yes, in fiction, there are awful conflicts that must be expressed honestly. Yes, characters tear each other down. But overall, does your story end in a note of hope? Does good triumph over evil? I know there are dark stories without hope, without success. But they aren’t the type of stories I want to write. My stories end with hope.

    Too Intellectual? When I write fiction, I use the words that are appropriate for my story, words that convey exactly what I mean. And yet, I also know that I tend to be a bit too much in love with my words. Sometimes, I will replace words–for my audience’s sake.

    What do you do for your audience’s sake? What are you assuming they will know that will make your communication fail?

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    19. Picture Books: Trust the Writing Process

    A friend and I are working on an idea for a picture book based on a true life event. The challenges in doing this are multiple.

    First, it has to has to interest the audience of small children and adults, because picture books really have two audiences, the kids and the adults who read to the kids. It means that there has to be a surface story and a deeper story.

    Second, while I must remain true to the events, there still needs to be a story. I know there is a lot of discussion about some kids wanting “straight up science”, you don’t have to use a narrative arc; nevertheless, narrative nonfiction is my preference. The biggest challenge, though, is to find a story in the facts, one that resonates with the audience(s).

    Third, one reason to write a nonfiction picture book is to educate readers about topics that are important. In this case, the topic is endangered species and how loss of habitat is putting stress on certain populations of animals. It’s also about some successful intervention strategies that are current and could be a hot topic. Oh, wow, that sounds SO boring, even to me. And therein lies the challenge: how do you make the information accessible to a picture book audience, i.e. put it in words they can understand? And how do you make them care about the issues at stake?

    Fourth, all the while, you must tell a story and it must be under 1000 words. It must have a beginning, middle and end, setting up a conflict and resolving it someway.

    I kept asking my friend: “Where is the story?”
    She had no answer. I had to find it myself.

    To do this, I looked at primary source materials: I looked up the exact place the event occurred on Google Earth and looked at photos uploaded from nearby locations; I read original reports on the event from scientists involved; I researched the animal in question and its habitats. I immersed myself in everything I could for 48 hours. I slept. Then, I wrote.

    I didn’t outline, because the story line was totally clear. What was at stake was the writing itself. How you write it is everything.

    And the process worked. This is a time when I could not have predicted that the story would turn out as it did. Sometimes, you simply have to write a first draft and see where it goes, let your subconscious do its work. But at the same time, my analytic side was watching: where was there a spark of emotion? where did something get written that might create a pattern?

    In the end, I am thrilled with the draft. I didn’t think the story would work as a picture book. But I trusted the process: I wrote.

    What do you need to write today? Trust the process.

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    20. Narrative Arcs and Progressions

    A narrative arc is a necessary part of fiction and is often a key component of nonfiction, especially narrative nonfiction. The arc indicates that there is some sort of progression.

    Emotional Progression. The most common sort of progression is for the emotions to build to a climax. If two characters are arguing, the intensity, complexity and depth of the argument grows over the course of the story. It is mad, madder, maddest. If it is a verbal argument, it spills over into physical actions.

    Character Progression. Similar to the first is the progression of a character through stages of change. This could be a change from doubt to faith, or loyalty to betrayal. The direction of the change can be in any direction, from moral to immoral or vice versa. The main thing is that there isn’t a steady state for the character, but there is change.

    Plot Progression. This is partly the time-line of the story, but plot progression also implies that the events included int he story are intertwined in some way that leads to a bigger event or an event that means more than the previous events.

    For narrative nonfiction, there can be other sorts of progressions, which will mimic or replace the narrative arc. Fiction writers will want to pay attention to these, too, because within a story, there may be places where some information would benefit from strategic organization. For example, my first picture book, THE RIVER DRAGON, had a series of descriptions of a dragon’s voice. Here’s the progression I used in which the metal mentioned became more base and the sounds became louder: a voice like the clink of copper coins, voice like the gong of a brass cymbal, and voice like a hammer on an iron anvil.

    Here are some other options for progressions.

    Time-line. The life and times of a scientist, for example, may be enough of an arc for some articles or simple books.

    Physical progressions. For some nonfiction, it may be enough to organize the information around some physical characteristic. Perhaps discuss birds in order of size starting with the tiniest hummingbird and progressing through condors and other large birds. Or, you may discuss birds beaks and organize on that basis.

    Logical progression. Often narrative nonfiction attempts to logically explain some issue. Here, the organization revolves around the logic of arguments, that of laying out the basic thesis and then providing supporting information.

    Spatial progressions. Little used, but often effective, is a spatial progression. Here, you may describe the countryside to the north, then east, south and west. The progression may go from a person’s hat to their shoes.

    When we write and readers read, we are looking for meaning, for coherence and cohesion. We want the writing to make sense of events, rather than a random collection of facts. Even browsable nonfiction imposes some sort of organization on facts, by grouping elephants on one page and mice on another. Look for narrative arcs and progressions to help you create the strongest organization possible.

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    21. It’s an Info Dump, But It Works

    When writing a novel, one common admonishment is to keep in mind the goal of entertaining the reader. Fiction’s purpose is to entertain; non-fiction’s purpose is to inform. But the lines between the two can often blur, as when non-fiction uses narrative techniques.

    This week, I’ve been reading Cory Doctorow’s book, For the Win and he uses info dumps like crazy, putting in lots of technical discussions, potentially boring information. He does it–and it works? What is he doing right?

    For the Win by Cory Doctorow

    Story comes first. For the Win is first and foremost a wide-ranging global story of online gaming and how the workers across the world join together to fight for better working conditions. There’s a strong plot, strong goal and an interesting series of developments.

    Interesting characters. Doctorow also pulls together a fascinating cast of characters, drawn from the four corners of the globe. There’s the uneducated, but smart Indian girl from the slums, a disillusioned teen from California, Worker activist from Singapore, determined striker from China, and equally fascinating radio personality from the Pearl Delta of China. They are all fleshed out with real-world needs, wants, goals, and their individual circumstances come alive.

    Setting. For each character, their setting is particularized with specific sensory details. You get spicy chai and well-water in an Indian slum juxtaposed with the luxury of a wealthy California home.

    In short, Doctorow tells a stirring, interesting tale.

    But he goes a step farther. As long as he has your attention, he wants you to know something about the online gaming world. If you look at the top ten world economies, many of them are virtual worlds and economies of an online game. Sometimes, he stops and gives an info dump on economics, gaming rules, worker unions and so on. And sometimes, he has one character ask another to explain something.

    For example, the Indian girl who is such a great gamer they call her General is uncertain about economics. She asks the college-graduate economist to explain something, then because the General dosen’t understand the complicated economics, the Economist explains further, in simpler terms.

    It works. Really, it shouldn’t work, it’s an info dump and at that point of the novel, Doctorow is just trying to teach me–the reader–something about economics. (I am denser than the General sometimes!) And I don’t mind a bit. I keep reading. Because in the context of the exciting story, I don’t mind a bit of explanation, in fact, it adds to the enjoyment of the story, because I understand motivations and the worker’s dilemmas better. Doctorow makes me root for the worker’s revolution because I understand it better.

    If I was just reading about economics, my eyes would glaze over. Reading this novel, though, I am fascinated and I try harder to understand. It matters because he’s made me like the General and hope that her life gets better.

    Likewise, if you need another example of how an info dump works well in a novel, read Doctorow’s book, Little Brother.

    Go ahead: break the rules and give us an info dump in your novel. But please–tell a story first.

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    22. Imperfect Dialogue: Making Characters Sound Real

    A cat says ________.
    A dog says________.
    A skunk says______. (We don't know!) Watch this video to hear a skunk, a ground hog, a bison and more.

    I’ve been reading manuscripts lately and one thing keeps jumping out at me: dialogue that is too perfect. It’s grammatically correct, perfectly punctuated. And totally unreal.

    Characters don’t talk that way. Kid-characters, especially, in the midst of an exciting bowling tournament or soccer or other sports games do NOT talk in complete sentences.

    Use Sentence Fragments for Realistic Dialogue

    You must get over the fear of sentence fragments in order to write believable dialogue. Really. Right now. Commit to at least one sentence fragment on every page of your manuscript, just for practice.

    Here’s an example from Clementine, Friend of the Week by Sara Pennypacker:

    “What does that stand for, M.V.P.?” I asked.
    Margaret scratched her head like she was fake-remembering. “Oh, right! Moron-Villain-Pest,” she said. “He wins it every year. No competition.”

    That is three sentence fragments: Oh, right! Moron-Villain-Pest. No competition.

    What if Pennypacker had filled out those sentences?

    “Oh, you are right! M.V.P. means Moron-Villain-Pest. He wins it every year. There is no competition.”

    That is clumsy to read, more boring, and destroys the voice of the novel. Sentence fragments work better here to keep the rhythm, keep the pace interesting and maintain the ironically-innocent voice of Clementine.

    Sentence fragments also allow the writer to put emphasis where needed to direct the reader’s attention. Here, the emphasis is on the definition of M.V.P and how well the M.V.P fulfills his role. No competition.

    Are you struggling with believable dialogue? Look at writers like Elmore Leonard, David Mamet and Woody Allen.

    What authors do you admire for their dialogue?

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    23. 5 Ways First Pages Go Wrong

    A cat says ________.
    A dog says________.
    A skunk says______. (We don't know!) Watch this video to hear a skunk, a ground hog, a bison and more.

    Withholding information

    When a reader first opens your novel or story and reads the first line, the first paragraph, have you welcomed the reader and tried to put them at ease? It is imperative to invite the reader into a story in a way that puts them at ease. This means clarity must rule. The reader must never question where the story is taking place, or what—exactly—is happening in this scene. You do not have to spill all the backstory at this point—that doesn’t work. But the reader should know when, where and who and a hint of why.

    Setting. The setting should be clear and specific, with sensory details appropriately sprinkled throughout the opening scene. This includes information on the geographic location, time frame (e.g. 6th century BC or 2017A.D), and something about the emotional territory.

    Character. In the opening pages, the reader should meet a character that intrigues. Please, don’t name five characters on page one and expect the reader to stay oriented. Instead, give each important character a grand entrance. The inner life of the main character should start to come alive, as well. What does s/he fear, love, long for?

    Cautions: The worse drafts hide information, wrongly believing that just giving a hint here or there is the best strategy. Instead, the reader becomes confused and closes the book, never to open it again. The great sff writer Orson Scott Card wisely said, “The only thing to withhold is what happens next.” Within the context of a scene, this is exactly right. The reader should understand exactly what is going on—and be so enthralled that s/he turns the page to find out “what happens next.”
    Don’t use this as an excuse to include backstory, though! Backstory comes ONLY at the point at which it will create an emotional crisis in a reader. Instead, when the reader is deep within a scene, they should only care about what happens next.

    Voice is too formal

    In the search for a great voice, some writers fall back on their English class and write too formally. Great fiction is informal writing. This means you can use slang, jargon, curse words (when appropriate), incomplete sentences, sentence fragments. You can, and should, interrupt someone when they are speaking. Characters can be rude. A great novel is not a tea party! Stop being so polite, so formal.

    Try making up rules for yourself–play with the formality of your novel; keep what works and discard the rest. Don’t like my rules? Make up your own. But play!

    • For every ten sentences, you must use a sentence fragment.
    • You must use one slang/jargon word per page.
    • You will write one section of dialogue (about 10 exchanges) and every bit of dialogue is incomplete sentences.
    • In every chapter, someone must be rude.


    Yawn. What happened in this chapter?
    Then, why is the reader turning pages?
    They aren’t!
    A good exercise is to go through each chapter and write one sentence that summarizes what happens. Something important must develop or change in some way in every single chapter. Novelists do not have the luxury to stop and give us back story or tell every single detail of the setting. You must pick and choose from among the myriad of details, bits of dialogue, actions, thoughts and arrange them in an exciting, fascinating, intriguing order.

    Stoic Character

    For every action, your main character should have an emotional reaction. Why else is the reader following this character around? OK. Not every single action. But it’s a good exercise to try: underline the actions, and circle the main character’s emotional reaction to what just happened. How do they correlate? Do we have 100 actions and only one emotional reaction? Where ever you are on the continuum from no emotional reaction to 100% emotional reactions, evaluate it in terms of your character, your novel. Is the reader getting enough of your MC’s inner life to keep turning the pages? From my experience as a first reader, most novelists err on the side of not enough emotion. If this is hard for you, push yourself toward too much emotion and you may wind up about right.


    Writing a novel is a continual decision-making process. For each detail you might include, there are dozens of great ways to put that into words. We go from words to sentences to paragraphs—and each word selection carries connotations and denotations. It’s complex! The variety of ways to tell a story are amazing. What scenes do you include/exclude, and why? What character is the main character? The point of view character?

    Throughout the process of writing a novel, it’s a balancing act all the way. We walk a tightrope upon which we build a story. One misstep and the reader falls off.
    This is one of the main reasons why first pages go wrong. 90% of a story may be working, until a sentence here, a word there, a questionable emotion in the midst of the scene—and the reader puts the book down. Fine tuning the novel is crucial. Here is where first readers can really help, by marking the places that are “off.” Even if they can’t articulate WHY this section is OFF, they know it when they read it. You don’t want an English teacher marking up the story with red marks. You want a sensitive reader saying, nope, this doesn’t fit. Don’t know why, just know it doesn’t fit.

    It’s a matter of balance: every word must belong. Nothing must be out of place. The reader must keep turning pages with no interruptions in the flow.

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    24. How To Write For Children – Tips by Author Alan Dapre

    I’ve had over 50 books traditionally published in a range of genres. Can’t remember the exact number but some have been plays for teenagers and younger children. Other books tied into characters on TV (such as Brum) and were joke, … Continue reading

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    25. Help Me Write a Book: 10 Books to Help you Get Started

    2013 GradeReading.NET Summer Reading Lists

    Keep your students reading all summer! The lists for 2nd, 3rd and 4th, include 10 recommended fiction titles and 10 recommended nonfiction titles. Printed double-sided, these one-page flyers are perfect to hand out to students, teachers, or parents. Great for PTA meetings, have on hand in the library, or to send home with students for the summer. FREE Pdf or infographic jpeg. See the Summer Lists Now!

    It’s a question I often hear: Can you help me write a book?

    Yes. Absolutely.

    Here are ten books that will help you write a novel or a picture book. Some are my books, some are other author’s.

    1. Help with Basic Writing Skills–how to write a sentence.The Art of Styling Sentences
    2. Help Understanding Basic Story Structure: The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller
    3. Help Writing a Picture Book: How to Write a Children’s Picture Book
    4. Help Writing a Memoir: Old Friends From Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir
    5. Help Writing a Mystery: How to Write a Damn Good Mystery
    6. Help Writing a First ChapterStart Your Novel
    7. Help Writing a Young Adult: Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies
    8. Help Writing a Screenplay: Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting
    9. Help Revising a Novel: Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise
    10. Help Writing a Blockbuster Novel: The Blockbuster Novel

    Other Writing Resources on This Website

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