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<<August 2014>>
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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: writing tips, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. Can Non-Artists Write Picture Books?

Picture Book Writing Tip

Wanting to write picture books, but you  can't even draw a straight line? Don't despair. This video writing tip tells why.

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2. Copywriting–3 Things You Must Know About Content Writing

Writing Web content is rewarding for many reasons. You […]

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3. Ask an Editor: Nailing the Story

In this series, Tu Books Publisher Stacy Whitman shares advice for aspiring authors, especially those considering submitting to our New Visions Award

Last week on the blog, I talked about hooking the reader early and ways to write so you have that “zing” that captivates from the very beginning. This week, I wanted to go into more detail about the story and plot itself. When teaching at writing conferences, my first question to the audience is this:

 What is the most important thing about a multicultural book?

I let the audience respond for a little while, and many people have really good answers: getting the culture right, authenticity, understanding the character… these are all important things in diverse books.

But I think that the most important part of a diverse novel is the same thing that’s the most important thing about any novel: a good story. All of the other components of getting diversity right won’t matter if you don’t have a good story! And getting those details wrong affects how good the story is for me and for many readers.

So as we continue our series discussing things to keep in mind as you polish your New Visions Award manuscripts, let’s move the discussion on to how to write a good story, beyond just following the directions and getting a good hook in your first few pages. This week, we’ll focus on refining plot.

Here are a few of the kinds of comments readers might make if your plot isn’t quite there yet:

  • Part of story came out of nowhere (couldn’t see connection)
  • Too confusing
  • Confusing backstory
  • Plot not set up well enough in first 3 chapters
  • Bizarre plot
  • Confusing plot—jumped around too much
  • underdeveloped plot
  • Too complicated
  • Excessive detail/hard to keep track
  • Too hard to follow, not sure what world characters are in

We’ll look at pacing issues too, as they’re often related:

  • Chapters way too long
  • Pacing too slow (so slow hard to see where story is going)
  • Nothing gripped me
  • Too predictable

block quote 1Getting your plot and pacing right is a complicated matter. Just being able to see whether something is dragging too long or getting too convoluted can be hard when you’re talking about anywhere from fifty to a hundred thousand words, all in one long file. Entire books have been written on how to plot a good science fiction and fantasy book. More books have been written on how to plot a good mystery. If you need more in-depth work on this topic, refer to them (see the list at the end of this post).

So we won’t get too in depth here, but let’s cover a few points.

Know your target audience

When you’re writing for children, especially young children (middle grade, chapter books, and below), your plot should be much more linear than a plot for older readers who can hold several threads in their heads at once.

Teens are developmentally ready for more complications—many of them move up to adult novels during this age, after all—but YA as a category is generally simpler on plot structure than adult novels in the same genre. This is not to say the books are simple-minded. Just not as convoluted… usually. (This varies with the book—and how well the author can pull it off. Can you?)

But the difference between middle grade and YA is there for a reason—kids who are 7 or 8 or 9 years old and newly independent readers need plots that challenge them but don’t confuse them. And even adults get confused if so much is going on at once that we can’t keep things straight. Remember what we talked about last time regarding backstory—sometimes we don’t need to know everything all at once. What is the core of your story?

Linear plot

Note that “too complicated” is one of the main complaints of plot-related comments readers had while reading submissions to the last New Visions Award.

Don’t say, “But Writer Smith wrote The Curly-Eared Bunny’s Revenge for middle graders and it had TEN plot threads going at once!” Writer Smith may have done it successfully, but in general, there shouldn’t be more than one main plot and a small handful of subplots happening in a stand-alone novel for middle-grade readers.

If you intend your book to be the first in a series of seven or ten or a hundred books, you might have seeds in mind you’d like to plant for book seventy-two. Unless you’re contracted to write a hundred books, though, the phrase here to remember is stand-alone with series potential. Even Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was pretty straightforward in its plotting—hinting at backstory, but not dumping backstory on readers in book one; setting the stage for potential conflicts down the road but not introducing them beforetime. Book 1 of Harry Potter really could have just stood on its own and never gone on to book 2. It wouldn’t have been nearly as satisfying as having the full 7-book arc, but note how seamlessly details were woven in, not calling attention to themselves even though they’re setting the stage for something later. Everything serves the linear plot of the main arc of book 1’s story. We only realize later that those details were doing double duty.

Thus, when you’re writing for children and young adults, remember that a linear main plot is your priority, and that anything in the story that is not serving the main plot is up on the chopping block, only to be saved if it proves its service to the main plot is true.block quote 2Plotting affects pace

In genre fiction for young readers, pacing is always an issue. Pacing can get bogged down by too many subplots—the reader gets annoyed or bored when it takes forever to get back to the main thrust of the story when you’re wandering in the byways of the world you created.

Fantasy readers love worldbuilding (to be covered in another post), but when writing for young readers, make sure that worldbuilding serves as much to move the plot forward as to simply show off some cool worldbuilding. Keep it moving along.

Character affects plot

This was not a complaint from the last New Visions Award, but another thing to keep in mind when plotting is that as your rising action brings your character into new complications, the character’s personality will affect his or her choices—which will affect which direction the plot moves. We’ll discuss characterization more another day, but just keep in mind that the plot is dependent upon the choices of your characters and the people around them (whether antagonists or otherwise). Even in a plot that revolves around a force of nature (tornado stories, for example), who the character is (or is becoming) will determine whether the plot goes in one direction or another.

Find an organizational method that works for you

This is not a craft recommendation so much as a tool. Plotting a novel can get overwhelming. You need a method of keeping track of who is going where when, and why. There are multiple methods for doing this.

Scrivener doesn’t work for all writers, so it might not be your thing, but I recommend trying out its corkboard feature, which allows you to connect summaries of plot points on a virtual corkboard to chapters in your book. If you need to move a plot point, the chapter travels along for the ride.

An old-fashioned corkboard where you can note plot points and move them around might be just as easy as entering them in Scrivener, if you like the more tactile approach.

Another handy tool is Cheryl Klein’s Plot Checklist, which has a similar purpose: it makes the writer think about the reason each plot point is in the story, and whether those points serve the greater story.

Whether you use a physical corkboard, a white board, Scrivener, or a form of outlining, getting the plot points into a form where you can see everything happening at once can help you to see where things are getting gummed up.

Further resources

This post is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to plotting a book. Here are some books and essays that will be of use to the writer seeking to fix his or her plot problems. (Note that some of these resources will be more useful to some writers than others, and vice versa. Find what works for you.)

  • “Muddles, Morals, and Making It Through: Or Plots and Popularity,” by Cheryl Klein in her book of essays on writing and revising, Second Sight.
  • In the same book by Cheryl Klein, “Quartet: Plot” and her plot checklist.
  • The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson
  • I haven’t had experience with this resource, but writer friends suggest the 7-point plot ideas of Larry Brooks, which is covered both in a blog series and in his books

And remember!


keep calm and write on

Further Reading:

New Visions Award: What NOT to Do

Ask an Editor: Hooking the Reader Early

The New Visions Guidelines

Stacy Whitman photoStacy Whitman is Editorial Director and Publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of LEE & LOW BOOKS that publishes diverse science fiction and fantasy for middle grade and young adult readers. 

Filed under: Awards, New Voices/New Visions Award, Publishing 101, Tu Books, Writer Resources Tagged: fantasy, fantasy writing, New Visions Award, plotlines, sci-fi writing, science fiction, writing, writing 101, writing award, writing tips, young adult

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4. How to Write a Great Picture Book

You have a great idea for a picture book. That’s wonderful! Having a great idea is a good start. Having some writing experience is a big plus too. But writing a great picture book takes more than just having a great idea and some writing experience. Writing a great picture book requires work. If you’re serious about writing a great picture book, it pays to do the following:

  1. Read a lot of current picture books. Believe me, picture books have changed since you were little. You have to familiarize yourself with the type, style and personality of picture books that children are reading today. Read as many picture books as you can that have been written in the past year or two.
  2. Do your research. Read different books on the ins and outs of writing a great picture book.  The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books by Harold Underdown is a great resource. There are also a lot of web sites and blogs with good information too, such as www.underdown.org, www.verlakay.com and www.taralazar.com.
  3. Attend writing conferences. Local and national children's writing conferences can be excellent resources for gaining much needed insights on how to improve your writing skills and understanding what makes a great a picture book great.  Conferences are also great places to make contacts with other authors as well as editors and agents. You can find out about various conferences at www.scbwi.org/Regional-Events.aspx.
  4. Join a critique group. A critique group can give you objective advice on your stories. Once again, SCBWI is a good resource for finding out about local critique groups. Even if you’re not a member of SCBWI, the regional coordinator for your area would likely be happy to tell you about critique groups in your area (Visit www.scbwi.org).
  5. Write a lot. Don’t stop with one story. The more you write, the better your writing skills will become. Improve your writing skills even further by taking writing classes or attending writing workshops. Keep on writing.

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5. Tips on Content Writing - Think Like a Newsman

This is a guest post that focuses on news articles, but it's important information for the content marketer also. The same strategies are used to create content that first grabs the readers' attention then turns that attention to interest then closes the deal. Tips on Writing For the Newspaper: Think of the Pyramid Guest Post by Janice Gillgren The simplest way to build a news story is by

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6. Working Out the Details

erikaphoto-45Hello again! Jersey Farm Scribe here on…

PATIENCE: Working out the Details

Speaking from my own personal situation, I just did a major revision on my chapter book. It brought my story a bit more full circle, drawing some of the ending and pulling piece of it into the beginning.

Exciting stuff and I love the way it’s reading now.

But that was a pretty major revision for me, and I’m realizing that in some ways, it’s set me back a good bit. There are parts that don’t flow as well now, character reactions that don’t make sense and redundancies that are just plain annoying.

While I knew it would happen, to be honest, it’s quite frustrating.

Grumble, grumble… I JUST went over all this stuff…

There is a part of me that instinctively desires to push things back the way they were so I can make certain scenes read through properly again.

Plus, I have this crazy voice in the back of my head. It keeps thinking about the SCBWI conference I attended at the end of June, the people I talked to, the editors and agents who showed interest and who I have this amazing opportunity to submit to. And the voice says:


Voice absolutely hates the idea of letting too much time go by. It thinks that the agents and editors will wonder… what took so darn long???

And while you may get different opinions from different people, the logical side of my brain knows that Voice is simply wrong. They knew I had revisions to do, and I’m talking an extra month or two, not years.

Agents and editors, of all people, KNOW how long revisions can take. All the ones I spoke to, not only understood, but respected writers for taking the time to do revisions correctly and present the absolute BEST manuscript possible.

Now, don’t get me wrong, deadlines are important, and being realistic is important. In this case, there is no “deadline”. But still, I don’t want the agents and editors who were open to seeing my work to wait an entire year to see it. Largely because the chances of them still remembering who I am drop pretty dramatically. And if at all possible, I definitely want that little light to go on.

But revisions often lead to more revisions, and I think it’s important to ride that train until it naturally evens out and becomes the story that it’s meant to be.

So whenever making a major revision, keep in mind that you may end up producing more necessary changes than you expect. And don’t be afraid to change things that may cause large re-writes or entire character redevelopment.

After every major revision, I remind myself that I need to take the time to do what I call domino revisions

How did my revision affect the arc and rhythm of the story? Is there too little or too much action at any particular point now? Does a chapter break or mini climax need to be altered?

How did it affect the characters? Experiences shape our interpretation of everything around us. If a character’s experience changed at in my revision, their reactions to things later on may need to change as well.

Did my revision involve the scene, timeline, family dynamics… anything where I need to check for congruence throughout the rest of the manuscript.

The list goes on.

Manuscripts develop like the people created on their pages. Growing up can take much longer than we’d like, and the stage before we become adults can be the most frustrating part.

Who hasn’t met a teenager who makes dramatic changes? It’s not easy. But whether they stick with those changes or not, they are often a big part of what shapes them as an adult.

Our manuscripts need a lot of patience, as they are becoming the living beings they are meant to be. But you know what…. they’re worth it!

Thank you Erika for another great article to help all of us improve our skills.

Talk tomorrow,


Filed under: Advice, article, authors and illustrators, Process, revisions, Writing Tips Tagged: Erika Wassell, Jersey Farm Scribe, Revision Tips

5 Comments on Working Out the Details, last added: 7/29/2014
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7. New Visions Award: What Not to Do

Stacy Whitman photoStacy Whitman is Editorial Director and Publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of LEE & LOW BOOKS that publishes diverse science fiction and fantasy for middle grade and young adult readers. In this blog post, she discusses what she is—and is not—looking for from New Visions Award contest submissions.

This year is the second year we’ve held our New Visions Award, a writing contest seeking new writers of color for middle grade and young adult science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. Tu Books is a relatively new imprint, and so is our award, which is modeled after the New Voices Award, now in its 15th year of seeking submissions.

Much like the editors who are in charge of the New Voices Award for picture books, for the New Visions Award, I love seeing submissions that follow the submissions guidelines and stories that stand out from a crowd. I look for science fiction, fantasy, and mystery stories that understand the age group they’re targeted at, with strong characters, strong worldbuilding, and if there is a romance, I hope that it avoids cliches.

During the first New Visions Award, our readers made notes on the manuscripts explaining what they enjoyed and what made them stop reading, particularly the things that made them not want to read further than the sample chapters in the initial phase of the contest. For the next few weeks, I’ll delve a little further into those things that made readers stop reading, and then we’ll talk about making your writing have the zing that makes an editor want to read more.

Today, let’s cover the most obvious reasons a New Visions Award reader might stop reading immediately.

  • Main character isn’t a person of color
  • Unclear if main character is a person of color (& not made clear in any supporting materials)
  • Basic formatting rules ignored: single-spaced, no tabs, no paragraph breaks, rules of punctuation ignored to the point it was impossible to read the text
  • Chapters at times seemed to be combined to ensure more text would be read, which made them super long and terribly paced
  • Duplicate submission from the author (stopped reading the duplicate—of course we read the original!)
  • Already read as a regular submission and didn’t see any significant changes
  • Author not eligible (published previously in YA or MG, not a person of color, not based in the US)
  • Book was a picture book (this would be a New Voices submission, not a New Visions submission) or a short story (not long enough to be a novel)

The obvious solution to making sure your submission is right for this contest is to make sure to read the contest submission guidelines before sending your submission. If you are not a writer of color, or if you live in a country outside the US, we do want to read your manuscript, but not for this contest. Watch our regular submission guidelines for when we’ll open again to unsolicited submissions.

Make sure you format your manuscript in a way that it can be read. If you’re new to writing, be sure to have someone check it over for typos, correct grammar and spelling, correct punctuation, etc. We won’t reject your manuscript for a typo or two, but there is a point at which the story is no longer being communicated because the reader gets tripped up by the errors. Make sure your manuscript is as clean as you can make it.

Next time, we’ll talk about hooking the reader with your story. Happy writing!

Filed under: New Voices/New Visions Award, Publishing 101, Tu Books, Writer Resources Tagged: formatting manuscripts, weneeddiversebooks, writing award, writing contest, writing tips

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8. Confessions of a Serial Novelist (Part 2) by Clara Kensie

Hey gang! Welcome back to the Adventures in YA Publishing series on... serials! Last week, I told you about the surprising pleasures of reading serialized novels. I hope I convinced at least some of you to give serials a try! This week, we’re continuing our discussion by talking about how to write a serialized novel.

Source: Adam Franco https://flic.kr/p/7BKqTL

How, exactly, does one go about writing a serial? While revising my RUN TO YOU manuscripts after my publisher's decision to release them as serials, I learned that it takes more than simply chopping a full-length novel into equal parts. Whether you’re an indie author who decides to serialize your books, or you’re a traditionally-pubbed author whose publisher wants to try it, there are certain things you must keep in mind when writing a serial:

PACING: You must have a strong sense of pacing as you develop the highs and lows that bring the characters and plot to a new level with each installment, but still leave them more to do and learn, giving the reader a breathing point, yet leaving them wanting to know what happens next.

INSTALLMENT BREAKS: One piece of advice writers always hear is, “Never give your readers a reason to put your book down.” But a serial forces your readers to put your book down after every installment! Therefore, it is imperative to end each episode in such a way that your readers must read the next one to find out what happens next. End your installment in the middle of the action. RUN TO YOU is a thriller with lots of plot twists and life-or-death situations. Many chapters end on a cliffhanger. But a serial’s episodes don’t have to end on a life-or-death cliffhanger, leaving the reader wondering if a character is going to live or die. Emotional cliffhangers can be equally as compelling. You want to end each episode in a way that your readers must know the secret the hero is about to reveal, or which suitor the heroine will choose to bring to the ball, or if the hero and heroine’s relationship will survive the latest turn of events. In fact, though many RUN TO YOU chapters end on a life-or-death cliffhanger, all of its installments end on an emotional cliffhanger.

BEGINNING THE NEXT INSTALLMENT: To begin episodes two, three, four, etc, you will want to remind your readers what happened at the end of the previous installment. I recommend keeping this very brief; just a few phrases in the opening paragraphs to help them recall what happened last time and to re-establish the mood and tone. But don’t simply give them a bunch of flashbacks. You want to weave in what happened last time in a natural way. The shorter your release schedule—weekly, bi-weekly, monthly—the less reminders you’ll have to give them. (We’ll talk more about release schedules next week, when we discuss marketing your serial.)

STRUCTURE: Each episode of your serial does not have to be self-contained, but there should be an over-arching plot for the book as a whole: each installment must build toward a satisfying conclusion at the end of the book. While your complete serial should be structured as a typical book, with setup, turning points, climax, and conclusion, you may have to add extra turning points within your overall plot to allow for cliffhanger endings of each episode, or you may have to arrange your chapters so the cliffhangers fall at the installment breaks. I found this to be the most challenging aspect of writing my serials: following the standard structure of a whole novel while putting major turning points or cliffhangers at the installment breaks.

NUMBER AND LENGTH OF INSTALLMENTS: This point is both a writing issue and a marketing issue. It’s important to understand your market before you determine the number and length of your installments. There is no industry standard: the number of installments varies per serial. In my case, Harlequin Teen determined RUN TO YOU would have three parts per book. Each part has between 99 and 120 pages. Other serials have six, eight, or ten installments per book. There may be serials with even more installments, especially on Wattpad or in fanfic. Generally, the more installments in a book, the less pages per installment. You should keep your audience and your price point in mind as you decide the number and length of your episodes. You want to give your readers an installment that’s short enough to consume in a single sitting, but long enough that leaves them feeling satisfied with both the story and the price they paid.


So, my friends, now that you are armed with this information, would you ever try to write a serial? If your publisher decided to serialize your manuscript, how would you react: would you run away in tears, or would you be up to the challenge?


Clara Kensie grew up near Chicago, reading every book she could find and using her diary to write stories about a girl with psychic powers who solved mysteries. She purposely did not hide her diary, hoping someone would read it and assume she was writing about herself. Since then, she’s swapped her diary for a computer and admits her characters are fictional, but otherwise she hasn’t changed one bit.

Today Clara is the author of dark fiction young adults. Her debut series, the romantic thriller RUN TO YOU, is Harlequin TEEN’s first serial. Book One is First Sight, Second Glance, and Third Charm. Book Two is Fourth Shadow, Fifth Touch, and Sixth Sense.

Her favorite foods are guacamole and cookie dough. But not together. That would be gross.

Find Clara online: Website   Twitter   Facebook   Tumblr   Instagram   Goodreads  Newsletter

About the books

Good news! The first installment of my serial, RUN TO YOU Part I: FIRST SIGHT, is still free across all e-tailers! 
In Part One of this romantic thriller about a family on the run from a deadly past, and a first love that will transcend secrets, lies and danger…

Sarah Spencer has a secret: her real name is Tessa Carson, and to stay alive, she can tell no one the truth about her psychically gifted family and the danger they are running from. As the new girl in the latest of countless schools, she also runs from her attraction to Tristan Walker—after all, she can't even tell him her real name. But Tristan won't be put off by a few secrets. Not even dangerous ones that might rip Tessa from his arms before they even kiss…

RUN TO YOU is Tessa and Tristan's saga—two books about psychic gifts, secret lives and dangerous loves. Each book is told in three parts: a total of six shattering reads that will stay with you long after the last page.

Grab FIRST SIGHT now for free, then join Harlequin Teen and a whole bunch of book bloggers and fans at the RUN TO YOU read-along. We're discussing FIRST SIGHT this week, SECOND GLANCE next week, and THIRD CHARM the week after that. We’re having a great time, and we have some fun prizes to give away. Get more details on my blog: http://bit.ly/readR2Y. I’d love to see the Adventures in YA Publishing gang at the read-along!

For more about each installment of the RUN TO YOU series, click here

Find RUN TO YOU at your favorite e-tailers, including:

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9. A Little of This, A Little of That...

I haven't done a links roundup in a while. That's mainly because I'm so far behind on my e-newsletters and other online reading that I've got an enormous backlog to go through. I put all that stuff in a separate email folder and instead of making me... Read the rest of this post

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10. Pitch is Concept

artshow jasonSHORE sketch 6

This Team Sand Castle Contest was illustrated by Jason Kirschner and won Honorable Mention Unpublished Illustrator Award at the NJSCBWI Artist Showcase. http://www.jasonkirschner.com/jasonkirschner.com/Home.html

erikaphoto-45Hello all! Jersey Farm Scribe here. Last time we talked I was giving you my take away on how to Attack a Conference. I promised I’d tell you some of the specific, tangible things I learned at the NJ SCBWI.

So here is one of the biggest:


It seems so simple. But I hadn’t thought of it like this before.

Pitch IS Concept.

I took Jill Corcoran’s workshop on concept and selling through to readers. I wasn’t sure what I expected, but I knew Jill is revered for her grasp of plot and revisions. I’ve been over her website A Path to Publishing, quite a few times, and gotten invaluable information from her blog, so I was ready to see what she had to say in person.

One of the first things that struck me was how interchangeably she seemed to use the words “pitch” and “concept.”

To me, pitch was what you practice saying over and over to be prepared to present my idea to one of the editors and agents walking around. It was what I put in the beginning of my query letter. That elevator, two or three sentence wrap of what my book was.

Concept was…. actually, to be honest I hadn’t really thought about it.

As Jill said in the workshop, and as she explains in the beginning of her free video on PlotWriMo (Revise your novel in a month), the CONCEPT is how you’d convince someone to read your book.

Okay, so that means it’s what’s the book about, right?

Well… yes and no.

If I want to go see a movie, and I have to convince other people to want to go see it, what would I say? What makes it special? What draws me to want to see it? Why should someone else want to see it?

That’s more than going over the plot. It’s more than what happens, or who the main characters are. It’s what gives the movie meaning, substance, interest and originality.

And that’s not easy to do in a few sentences!! As Kathy has said, write it all out first. go back to cut and condense.

But how do we know if we’re cutting the right things?

In the workshop, a few of us read our “pitch” to Jill. And a common theme in her response was, “You’re not really TELLING me anything. I know you think you are. But you’re not.”

A lot of it came down to specifics. The pitch has a reader. That reader needs to know what’s going on. It’s a book about heroism! Great. But how so? The kids are going to save the world? Excellent. But WHY? What’s wrong with the world in the first place? Shelby finds herself confused and alone. Okay. But why? And who isn’t? So what’s so special about her confusion?

So how to attack punching up the concept/pitch? I learned to do three things:

1) How will a publisher SELL the book? I hadn’t really thought about this before either. At all. It was especially meaningful for me, because I have a chapter book with a surprise ending. Sure, a surprise can be great. But TOO much surprise makes for a pretty weak back flap on the back of book! How do you sell that?

I don’t want a publisher sitting there thinking. “Yeah, it’s great. But I can’t TELL potential readers why it’s so great or else it’ll ruin the whole thing!”

You’re looking for a pretty serious commitment from someone, whether it’s an agent, editor, publisher, or even the final buyer of the book. Whatever is going to make them go: THIS IS IT! This is the next book I want to my devote time and money to! That’s your concept. That’s your pitch.

Then it’s time to examine it closer:

2) One line at a time:

I read each sentence of my pitch at a time. Then ask myself, WHY?

Four fearless friends save a town from despair.

Okay. There is some element of plot in there. But honestly, the fact is, there is probably millions of stories this could be describing. So let’s see… why? Why do they do it?

What drives them to do it? How much despair are we talking about? Can I express that level of despair in just a few more words?

3) One WORD at a time:

Once I have the sentences I want to say on paper and I’m confident with WHAT they say, it’s time to look at HOW they say it. Am I using the right words?

We only have so many words we get to use in a pitch. And let’s be honest, as someone brought up in the comments of my last pitch, being specific leads to a longer pitch. It’s just a fact. So every word is even more important. Let’s look at the beginning of that same line:

Four fearless friends…….

Four: Does it really matter that there are four of them? Probably not. Maybe I can replace it with something more meaningful.

Fearless: Really? I couldn’t have done better than that? How did I ever think that sounded good?


Every single word gets analyzed, condensed, replaced, sometimes even re-envisioned entirely, which ends up leading me back to step one and starting all over again.


…….Sigh. It’s definitely not my favorite part of the process.

But Jill’s workshop really made me feel like now, I have a plan of attack, a process, specific, tangible things to look for, to look at and to strikethrough.

And again, you know I’m a big believer that, well…. our manuscripts are worth it!

Thank you Erika for another great article to help all of us improve our skills.

Talk tomorrow,


Filed under: Advice, article, demystify, How to, Process, Writing Tips Tagged: Erika Wassall, Jill Corcoran, Path to Publishing, Pitch is Concept

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11. Can You Quantify Successful Writing Style?

"Needs more adjectives."I ran across an interesting news item in the Writer's Chronicle March/April issue entitled "Scientific Study Claims Ability to Predict Best-Selling Novels." Yes, I will admit there is a small part of me which is intrigued by... Read the rest of this post

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12. Celebrating Words and Voice

Writing voice.

Hard to define.

Difficult (impossible?) to teach.

But there's nothing I love more in a book than a distinctive writing voice.

I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it. Or, more correctly, I know it when I HEAR it.

And if you think about it, that is really the literal meaning of the word "voice" - something that you HEAR.

To me, a distinct writing voice is one that sounds unique. It has a rhythm and flow and melody to it that sets it apart from another author's writing voice.

So here are a few examples of voice that I love:

From Patricia MacLachlan's Sarah, Plain and Tall (even the TITLE has a wonderful voice):

He was homely and plain, and he had a terrible holler and a horrid smell. 


There will be Sarah’s sea, blue and gray and green, hanging on the wall. And songs, old ones and new. And Seal with yellow eyes. And there will be Sarah, plain and tall.

From Cynthia Rylant's Missing May:

Whirligigs of Fire and Dreams, glistening coke bottles and chocolate milk cartons to greet me. I was six years old and I had come home.


Home was, still is, a rusty old trailer stuck on the face of a mountain in Deep Water, in the heart of Fayette County. It looked to me, the first time, like a toy that God had been playing with and accidentally dropped out of heaven. Down and down and down it came and landed, thunk, on this mountain, sort of cockeyed and shaky and grateful to be all in one piece.

From Kate DiCamillo's The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane:

Lolly was a lumpy woman who spoke too loudly and who wore too much lipstick.


The days passed. The sun rose and set and rose and set again and again. Sometimes the father came home and sometimes he did not. Edward’s ears became soggy and he did not care. His sweater had almost completely unraveled and it didn’t bother him. He was hugged half to death and it felt good. In the evenings, at the hands of Bryce, at the ends of the twine, Edward danced and danced.

 From Kate DiCamillo's Flora and Ulysses:

He looked exactly like a villain.
That’s what Flora’s brain thought.
But her heart, her treacherous heart, rose up joyfully inside of her at the sight of him.
 From Natalie Lloyd's A Snicker of Magic:

I think that’s one of the best feelings in the world, when you know your name is safe in another person’s mouth. When you know they’ll never shout it out like a cuss word, but say it or whisper it like a once-upon-a-time.


Lonely had followed me around for so long. That word was always perched somewhere close, always staring down at me, waiting to pounce out my joy.

From Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting:

The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.




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13. Writing Tip: A Moment Journal

Hi, folks. Glad you are dropping by. News about PLUMB CRAZY is at the end of the post. Today, I'm going to chat about a little habit I have that others have found interesting.

I keep records of moments that strike me. For example, today I drove to Navasota to have lunch with my dad at The Wrangler Steakhouse. It was sunshiny when I left and sunshiny when I returned, only somewhere in that one hour, a huge torrential rain storm dumped massive puddles of water on the roadway. Weird.

And here's another. Yesterday, I was driving down my street and suddenly a huge beach ball rolled across a yard in front of my car and into the street, across another neighbor's yard and then back onto a side street. I watched it until it disappeared. I gave it a whimsical title. Beach ball takes a roll.

And a last moment, a couple of days ago I was driving down in front of Bryan High school, listening to a talk show about the World Cup and Japanese fans who wave blue trash bags during the match and then clean up after. Arigato gozaimasu, Japanese fans. Right then I drove by a "Big Blue" sign in front of the Bryan High stadium and felt this whole the universe is full of cosmic harmony thing.

I put all these moments into what I call a moments journal. I keep several journals and to stay organized I buy journals of different sizes. I like long sort of grocery-list-sized journals for moments. Short fat journals for complaining (Ok, those are supposed to be a gratefulness journals. I'm working on that.) I write in my moment journal when I feel like it. It's a total creative exercise. Journal writing keeps my imagination flexible. Maybe my weird habit will spark something in you.

I will be back next week with a new series. I hope you make tons of creative progress this week.

Doodle for the week:  Blue girl.

Quote for your pocket.
Don’t get it right, just get it written. James Thurber
Now PLUMB CRAZY news: I recently an article on USA Today: Quirky Girls Need Love Too. I offer some tips that I follow when writing quirky characters. You might want to check that out.

There is also the ebook giveaway that is still running: Go here. 

The ebook version of PLUMB CRAZY from Swoon Romance but will be out as paperback soon. Try here for a copy from Amazon US. Here is Amazon UK. Here is Amazon Australia. Here is Amazon Canada. Try here for a copy for your B&N Nook .

Also consider participating in my upcoming book tour. Here is the link. 

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14. Free Fall Friday – Sarah LaPolla

sharonJune illokathy temean art

This fun illustration was sent in from illustrator Sharon Lane Holm. Sharon is an illustrator/author who has over 20 years of experience in children’s book publishing. She has also written and illustrated 2  apps. available on Itunes, “Kids Counting Kitties 1-10, and Kids Counting Kitties 10-1″; available in English and Spanish.

Carolyn Chambers Clark, SECRETS, YA Coming of Age

Logan Spenser roars his convertible across the school parking lot and idles alongside my half-open window. His black leather jacket shines in the morning sun, setting off his chiseled jaw and the beauty of his mocha skin. I’ve seen him in the halls without the reflective sunglasses he’s wearing now. Something buried deep in his eyes tells me he’s been through some rough stuff himself.

He points his finger at me. “Raz Rinaldi! Thief.”

Chelsea gawks at me from the driver’s seat as if to say answer him, Her yellow sunglasses make her pale face look even more like vanilla pudding, while her blonde hair lies in perfect order against the shoulders of her expensive sweater.
“Thief? You’re calling me a thief?” My words tumble out and I want to duck my head, but force myself to pull back my shoulders and glare at him.

He doesn’t answer me, just laughs and zooms off.

My face gets hotter while I tick through my actions of the last week and find the worst thing I’ve done is “forget” to do the dishes my stepmother left in the sink. “What’s he talking about?”
Chelsea, AKA Speed Demon of Ash City High, and the closest thing I have to a friend, shrugs and laughs. “It’s destiny. The hottest guy in school knows your name.”

I love Chelsea, but she gets everything wrong. “I’m not looking for a hot guy. I have to keep my grades up. You know that.”
Chelsea laughs. “You are one boring chick. I can’t think of one reason why I like you.”


Carolyn Chambers Clark, SECRETS:

A clear strength to the writing here is the dialogue, which feels realistic and not forced. We don’t yet know these characters, but I felt like I had a good sense of who they are on the page. However, I felt the writing was expository at times. For instance, “Something buried deep in his eyes tells me he’s been through some rough stuff himself” felt like leading the reader in a very specific direction. I’d much rather get to know Logan as the story progressed before I saw the narrator jump to this conclusion. Similarly, the description of Logan in the first paragraph didn’t feel authentic to a teen voice, which surprised me given the way the teens actually speak in dialogue. Shining leather jackets, chiseled jaw, and roaring convertibles gave the impression of the 1950s and, to me, the adjectives used in this paragraph felt dated, or at least from an older perspective, as well. I appreciated how quickly the love interest – and possible conflict – was introduced right on page 1, and I’m interested in Raz’s friendship with Chelsea. Though, when Logan calls Raz a “thief” I expected more context. Is this a joke they share? Why is Chelsea so shocked he knows Raz’s name if they seem to have a natural banter with each other? We move on to Chelsea and Raz driving away before we get a chance to learn more about Logan, even though the novel opens with him.


MARK OF THE SIFTER by Laura Rueckert - YA Contemporary Fantasy

Deep in my chest, I could feel it: the girl was asleep. The itch to jump into her dream almost overpowered me, but I lingered in the arched entrance hall of Rainthorpe Manor, the mansion we’d used as home base on Earth the last twenty years. A new recruit had died this morning, and Beatrice would bring her by any moment to meet me. Not even the peaceful glisten of snow through the leaded windows could curb my urge to depart, and I leaned around the corner to check the grandfather clock again.

Beatrice and an older woman with brown, wind-toughened skin materialized in front of me. I nodded to both of them.

“This is the Head Sifter, Seth,” Bee said, gesturing in my direction.

The new Sifter’s eyes flicked to Bee and back to me.

“Welcome.” I didn’t ask her name. The details of her former life had been included in her contract.

Her voice wavered as she asked, “Are you the one shielding it?”

I gave a short nod, and her hard face looked like it might crack. “Thank you. It was horrible.”

Bee caught my eye and raised a finger to show she understood my impatience. “I’ll introduce you to your partner,” she said, drawing the woman from the hall. “And we’ll go over some of your duties.”

“Thank you!” the woman called over her shoulder, but I was already fading out, diving into the dream world of the destroyer.

It was time to find the problem. Stealing, cheating, taunting—despite our normal methods, none under my command were having any luck with the girl who was supposed to annihilate my team of Sifters.


Laura Rueckert, MARK OF THE SIFTER

I really liked the voice here. It’s calm without being passive, and I feel like Seth is a narrator I can trust. I wondered, though, about the genre, which is labeled as “contemporary fantasy.” To me this read much more like sci-fi, in both tone and in what was being said. The mention of “home base on Earth” and being part of a mysterious group of “recruits” that jump into dreams have an Inception-like science fiction concept. The idea of dream-jumping is an interesting premise, and I like how this opens with Seth’s desire to jump into this sleeping girl’s mind. It tells me a lot about him as a character with very few details. Though, overall, I was left with more questions about this concept than intrigue. Who is the sleeping girl and why is she not mentioned when Beatrice enters the scene? Is Seth no longer with her at that point? I also wanted the phrase “dream world of the destroyer” explained a bit more. Is “the destroyer” a person? A threat? Why is Seth involved? Without context, it’s hard to get immersed in the world, and in sci-fi – and fantasy – that is the key element in attracting a reader on the first page. I needed to know what a Sifter was in order to know who our main character was, and also know enough about his world to want to learn more.


JUST GO AHEAD by Valerie McCammon, Picture Book

My annoying big brother, Patrick Robert, doesn’t think I can do anything right.
I’ll show him.

I tell him I’m going to swing as high as the sun.

“You just go ahead and do that, Nick.”

I pump and I push, flying higher and higher. I’m Astronaut Nick zooming across the Milky Way.

“Fire the rocket boosters.”

I gain speed as I dodge whizzing asteroids.

Clunk! One hits me in the head. [Illo note: acorn falls]

Patrick laughs and walks away.

I tell him I am going to sail across the ocean to rescue the tribal princess.

“You just go ahead and do that.”

I ready my ship. I hoist anchor, and Captain Nick shoves off.

“To the Skeleton Coast.”

The sail billows in the wind as I shout orders to the crew. [Illo note: Swab that deck, sailor. Batten down the hatches, mates. Report to the brig, cadet.]

Uh-oh. Pirates are boarding. [Illo note: dogs jump in]

As the hull fills with water, one last command: “Abandon ship.”

I lunge for shore as Patrick moors the sinking vessel. He sighs as he also rescues the crew.

I remain confident. I tell Patrick I am sure I can find hidden treasure.

“You just go ahead and do that.”

I don my pith helmet and claw through the attic jungle. Patrick trails me from a safe distance.

Hiss! An anaconda, poised to strike. [Illo note: coiled up garden hose]


Valerie McCammon, JUST GO AHEAD

As a picture book concept, I thought this was really fun. I love the idea of a younger brother trying to get the attention of his older brother, and the escalations of each attempt. Though, the illustrator notes left little interpretation for the scene. It’s important to use descriptive language in picture books, but the illustrator should be able to add to that vision with their own. Another thing I liked about this book was that Nick’s first attempt at “swinging as high as the sun” was a realistic thing he’d be doing at a playground, and that in his mind it went to a completely fantastical place. But, the next declaration is to “sale across the ocean to rescue the tribal princess.” This, to me, was the fantastical thing in his head, but didn’t fit the pattern you set up of “real thing vs. imagination.” What also confused me a little bit was the opening line, “… doesn’t think I can do anything right.” None of the scenes that follow really demonstrated him trying to do anything “right” so much as trying to prove he can do something amazing. The phrasing there didn’t really set up what the story was going to be about. That said, I think this is a strong concept overall and can be very fun with a few tweaks for consistency.


The Outlands, a middle grade novel by Julie Artz

The first rule the village elders teach us in Graz? Curiosity kills. It’s the first lesson, the last lesson, and just about every lesson in between from what I can tell. They only let up for a sprinkling of history and a dash of survival. I should know. I’m in year seven of this, the final year before apprenticeships start.

So I’m not surprised to see Curiosity Kills written in tidy script on the whiteboard when I walk into class. I slide my bag under my desk and power on the tablet that’s bolted to the desktop. My fingers trace the graffiti on the wooden surface before swiping at the screen and picking up where yesterday’s notes left off.

Paper is scarce so we type everything. It’s a good thing, too, because my chicken-scratches wouldn’t pass muster with my teacher, Ms. Imma. She’s standing at the front of the class now in a dress as neat and precise as her handwriting on the board. The wooden shutters of our tiny schoolroom are opened wide, hoping to capture enough breeze to keep us from roasting. Or falling asleep.

I tap some of her words with a few added “blah, blah, blahs” into my tablet and glance over at Lisbeth, who types like a bird skimming the surface of the creek at a mayfly hatch. Zip. Zip. Zip. She notes every single word, and probably studies them every night before her bedtime prayers. It makes sense, really, because Ms. Imma is her mother.

Lisbeth is the only one of the year sevens who seems happy with the plan the elders have for her. My best friend, Nico, fidgeting at the desk in front of mine, will dig wells with his father, Aitor. Pablo will tend goats. Both jobs involve hard work and a strict master. Lisbeth will become a teacher. She’ll be perfect after years of practice nagging the three of us.

Then there’s me. Unlike the others, I can’t follow in my father’s footsteps. He’s already got an apprentice. My brother Rim. I feel my ears getting hot just picturing the glee on Rim’s face.



I loved the opening line of this, and the opening paragraph overall is strong as well. It sets up an interesting premise and I was curious to read further to find out just why curiosity kills and what, exactly, this apprenticeship was all about. I liked the voice, but did have a few concerns about word choice. For example, “chicken scratch” felt like an old-fashioned phrase that a MG-aged character wouldn’t refer to himself. I also didn’t know whether a “bird skimming the surface of the creek at a mayfly hatch” was supposed to mean very quick or very carefully. This, of course, might be regional, but the phrasing of it also felt like the voice of someone much older. I couldn’t picture a young person speaking that way, particularly with the use of simile and metaphor. It didn’t feel true to the voice we opened with. I also wasn’t sure if this was a futuristic world. Paper is scarce, but they don’t seem to be typing on anything that doesn’t already exist. The jobs that are described for the other Year Sevens feel very rural, but without any futuristic advancements that may exist. It made me wonder if it isn’t futuristic, why is paper scarce and why does curiosity kill? I think the world could be better developed here. I also didn’t see the narrator very much after that opening paragraph. I was curious why the story itself begins here and where the plot of the novel is set into motion.


Thank you Sarah for sharing your time and expertise with us. We can all learn a lot from reading and first page and hearing what an editor or agent thinks.

Talk tomorrow,


Filed under: Advice, Agent, Process, Writing Tips Tagged: Bradford Literary Agency, First Page Critiques, Free Fall Friday - Results, Kids Counting Kitties, Sarah LaPolla, Sharon Lane Holm

0 Comments on Free Fall Friday – Sarah LaPolla as of 6/27/2014 12:25:00 AM
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15. Ask an Editor: Worldbuilding in Speculative Fiction, Part II

Stacy Whitman photoStacy Whitman is Editorial Director and Publisher of 
Tu Books, an imprint of LEE & LOW BOOKS that publishes diverse science fiction and fantasy for middle grade and young adult readers. Parts of this blog post were originally posted at her blog, Stacy Whitman’s Grimoire

Last week, I discussed why worldbuilding in speculative fiction can be so challenging for authors. How do we introduce a completely new world without infodumping or confusing readers? I gave some examples of worldbuilding done well in popular YA science fiction and fantasy: The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Twilight. In all these cases, the starting point is in some way relatable, or there is something about the character (Tris, Katniss) that hooks the reader. First pages should be character- and plot-driven, and worldbuilding should support rather than dominate. That gives these books an easy entry point and wide appeal.

There are three primary approaches to worldbuilding:

Reader learns world alongside character

Readers of Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Twilight figure out the world alongside the main character. Information is spooled out as the character learns it, so the reader doesn’t have to absorb everything at once. This is a low bar for entry, not requiring much synthesis of information. The character is almost a stand-in for the reader.

Exposition: questions raised, then answered

What about Hunger Games? Now it gets a little tougher. Suzanne Collins starts out with a perfectly relatable (if a tiny bit cliche) situation, the main character waking up and seeing her family. We get some exposition on Katniss’s family and the cat who hates her.

But it becomes non-cliche by page 2, when we learn about the Reaping. Ah! What’s the Reaping, you ask? We don’t know yet. Now the bar for entry is raised. There is a question, the answer for which you’re going to have to read further to find out. The infodumpage level is low, but there is still some exposition in the next few pages, letting us know that Katniss lives in a place called District 12, nicknamed the Seam, and that her town is enclosed by a fence that is sometimes electrified—and which is supposed to be electrified all the time.

Collins’s approach to spooling out a little information at a time is to explain each new term as she goes, but some readers think that feels unnatural in a first person voice because the narrator would already know these things, so why is she explaining them to the reader?

It depends on the story, in my opinion—Collins makes it work because of how she crafted Katniss’s voice. It is a very fine line to walk—I can’t tell you how many submissions I’ve received that start out with, “My name is X. I am Y years old. I live in a world that does Z,” an obvious example of how this approach becomes downright clumsy when not handled with Collins-esque finesse.

“Incluing”: questions raised, then reader infers answers bit by bit

Then there is the opposite end of the spectrum, in which the reader is given clues to work out rather than having any new terms explained to them. This approach needs just as much, if not more, finesse. It’s a process that some readers who are new to speculative fiction might stumble over the most, which is why I think there’s so little of it in middle grade and YA fantasy and science fiction. I’ve seen it called “incluing,” which is a silly word, but I don’t know of another name for it and the description of incluing in that Wikipedia link is exactly the kind of worldbuilding I—as a lifelong fantasy fan—prefer to see in the beginning of a book, particularly one set in a world that has no connection to our own, or if it’s in the future of our world far enough into the future that the society is unrecognizable to us, such as the society in Tankborn. Karen Sandler does a wonderful job at incluing readers as we read chapter 1 of the first book in the Tankborn trilogy.

The prominent example I like to give writers for this kind of worldbuilding is from The Golden Compass. Check out the first paragraph of that book:

“Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. The three great tables that ran the length of the hall were laid already, the silver and the glass catching what little light there was, and the long benches were pulled out ready for the guests. Portraits of former Masters hung high up in the gloom along the walls. Lyra reached the dais and looked back at the open kitchen door, and, seeing no one, stepped up beside the high table.”

Pullman jumps right into the scene, with Lyra sneaking down the dining hall with her daemon. We’re hooked—she’s doing something sneaky, and we don’t know what. And we want to know. We don’t even know what the daemon physically looks like until paragraph 4, and even then we don’t know why he’s called a daemon or what makes a daemon special.

What is a daemon, anyway? We don’t know! In fact, this is one of the major conflicts of the book—we need to read more to find out about daemons, and further mysteries are revealed as we read that deepen our understanding of daemons and of Lyra’s world in general. As we discover more clues that intrigue us, we want to know more, and keep reading.

But the line between intriguing the reader and confusing the reader is very thin, and I would argue that for some readers it’s in a different place than for others. Those of us who are familiar with fantasy might be more willing to patiently wait for more information about daemons because we trust that this author will let us know what we need to know when the time is right. We know that they’re teasing us with this information so as not to overburden us within the first few pages of the book (or, in the case of The Golden Compass, because the reader can’t know what the majority of people in that world don’t know, either).

Tankborn coverIn situations in which you need to establish a world that’s entirely different from our own, I find that putting a character in a situation that’s somewhat familiar to the reader can help with establishing the unfamiliar. In Karen Sandler’s Tankborn, for example, Kayla has to watch her little brother instead of going to a street fair with her friends. While Kayla calls him her “nurture brother” instead of just her brother, it’s still a situation to which a lot of readers can relate, even if it is set on another planet and her brother is catching nasty arachnid-based sewer toads instead of familiar Earth frogs and toads.

M. K. Hutchins, author of Drift, approached it in a completely different way. She starts with a dangerous situation—a family on the run from authorities, splitting up. The mother, our main character Tenjat, and his sister Eflet are embarking on a terrible journey that’s almost certain death, setting off on a raft in the middle of the night into an ocean full of snake-like monsters, and leaving the family’s father and smallest brother behind to face unknown punishment. While perhaps no reader has been chased by authorities in the middle of the night, it is a dangerous situation and a parting of family—mixing the familiar (family) with the unfamiliar (a dangerous situation in a completely new setting).Drift

It’s the difference between showing and telling. Philip Pullman, Karen Sandler, and M. K. Hutchins all show us how their worlds works, rather than pausing to tell us how it works (“in this world, all people are born with an animal companion called a daemon”).

Telling can work, though, especially in small doses—Katniss’s voice is so conversational that the brief moments of telling in the first few pages of The Hunger Games work, particularly because Collins is mostly showing what Katniss is up to. The brief pauses to “infodump” feel like the reader is being told a story by a storyteller, like a friend telling a story over the kitchen table after a nice big meal would pause and explain something you didn’t understand (a friend who’s a very good storyteller). It’s an awareness of audience that most speculative fiction doesn’t have the luxury of.

Showing isn’t always better, and telling isn’t always bad, when done right and mixed in with showing. Whichever method you use, remember that sometimes readers will trip over new words so you need to give them as much context as possible without over-infodumping.

And here is where the art comes in. I can’t tell you what that balance is, but if you look at examples like the ones above, you’ll get a better feel for how much to reveal and how much to hold back in your first few pages—revealing enough to orient your reader and give them a sense of the differences of this world (while grounding them in something familiar like Lyra’s hallway or Katniss’s humble home) while seeking to avoid overburdening them with too much all at once.

What about you? How have you found the right balance of introducing your world without overburdening the reader? What books do you recommend that do this particularly well?


Filed under: Publishing 101, Tu Books, Writer Resources Tagged: fantasy writing, science fiction, Science Fiction/Fantasy, stacy whitman, Tu Books, worldbuilding, writing advice, writing resources, writing tips, young adult writing

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16. Ask an Editor: Worldbuilding in Speculative Fiction, Part I

Stacy Whitman photo

Stacy Whitman is Editorial Director and Publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of LEE & LOW BOOKS that publishes diverse science fiction and fantasy for middle grade and young adult readers. Parts of this blog post were originally posted at her blog, Stacy Whitman’s Grimoire

During the first week of June, I attended the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore. At the conference, I met writers from all over Asia and the Pacific, discussing craft, marketing their books at home and abroad, and translation. I even ran into Mark Greenwood and Frané Lessac, the Australian author/illustrator team behind the LEE & LOW picture book The Drummer Boy of John John. I enjoyed all the panels and the chance to see Singapore and meet so many people from the other side of the world—it gives you a perspective as an editor you might not otherwise have.

One of the panels I participated in was a First Pages event, in which I read about 20 first pages of picture books, middle grade, and YA novels and then gave feedback on whether the pages were working for me and if I’d want to read more.

Stacy Whitman with author Mark Greenwood and illustrator Frané Lessac

Stacy Whitman with author Mark Greenwood and illustrator Frané Lessac

For the fantasy and science fiction entries, a common problem was—and is in any new writer’s writing—revealing enough about the world that you create interest and intrigue, but not too much. Too much, and you risk alienating your audience, confusing them, or simply not hooking them. Reader reactions are so subjective. One person might think there’s not nearly enough worldbuilding in a book (“give me more! MORE!”) and another might say of the exact same book that what worldbuilding there is was way too confusing (“I couldn’t keep all those made-up words straight!”).

So how do you, as the author, balance the needs of such a wide range of readers when you’re working in a complex world? And how do you balance the need to establish your characters, setting, and plot with the need to spool out information to your reader to intrigue them rather than confuse them?

This is a question that almost every author and editor of speculative fiction struggles with, particularly because we, as veterans of the genre, are already more comfortable with a lot of jargon than your average teen reader, particularly teen readers whose preference for fantasy runs more toward the contemporary paranormal variety.

Singapore 2

Stacy Whitman at the famous Singapore merlion fountain

There are a number of reasons why I think Twilight was so popular on such a broad scale, but one of the biggest ones was the relatability of the initial situation. Not vampires showing up at school—before that. We start with a simple story about a girl who is leaving her mother behind in Arizona to live with her father in an unknown small town on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. Relatable: divorced parents, fish out of water, adapting to a new school and a new climate.

Think about all the really big fantasy hits of the last decade or so in children’s and YA fiction: Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Twilight, Hunger Games, Divergent. Of these books’ beginnings, only the dystopian tales start all that far outside the everyday experiences of your average young reader, and even The Hunger Games starts with a relatable situation—a coal mining family lives in a desperate situation and must hunt for food.

While most kids who would have access to The Hunger Games don’t live under a despotic regime, it’s plausible that it could happen in the real world. Every kid has been hungry at some point, though perhaps not as hungry and desperate as Katniss. Every kid has taken a test in school, and sometimes it feels like those standardized tests do determine your everlasting fate, as they do in Divergent, even if Tris’s Abnegation explanations are a little tedious. Harry Potter and Percy Jackson are ordinary kids going to school, living somewhat normal lives (even if abusive ones, in the case of Harry) before their worlds change with the discovery of magic.

Stacy Whitman speaking on a panel at the Asian Festival of Children's Content.

Stacy Whitman speaking on a panel at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content.

There are three primary approaches to worldbuilding:

Reader learns world alongside character

Exposition: questions raised, then answered

“Incluing”: questions raised, then reader infers answers bit by bit

Next Thursday, I’ll go into detail about each of these techniques and give some examples. In the meantime, think about your favorite science fiction and fantasy books. How do they bring you into their world? What works best for you as a reader? Answering these questions about your own reading preferences can help guide you as a writer.


Filed under: Publishing 101, Writer Resources Tagged: fantasy writing, science fiction, Science Fiction/Fantasy, stacy whitman, worldbuilding, writing advice, writing resources, writing tips, young adult writing

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17. How Writing for Charity Can Earn You Money: Guest Post Over at Operation Awesome

That's right! I share with you all the secrets about getting rich AND being a fabulously good person. Isn't that lovely?

Heehee well maybe not all the secrets. Anyway, my dear battle buddies, do click on over to Operation Awesome to find out how writing for a charity can help you as a writer--as long as you don't try to get it to help you as a writer.


Seriously, go check it out.

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18. What Makes a Great Picture Book - Tip 4

Pull Readers in Early

Too often beginning writers delay the introduction of their story’s plot or conflict. Delaying that introduction can cause readers to quickly lose interest and not bother reading any further. A great picture book pulls the reader quickly into the story by introducing early on the problem faced by the main character – typically on the first spread and preferably on the very first line.

I WANT MY HAT BACK by Jon Klassen is a perfect example of this. In the very first sentence we learn the bear’s problem. His hat is gone. The second sentence builds on the conflict telling us the bear wants it back. This immediate introduction to the story’s plot pulls readers in quickly and has them turning page after page until they know how the problem ultimately gets resolved.

Of course, even worse than not introducing the conflict of the story early, is not introducing it at all. A great picture book needs an engaging plot and it needs to be introduced as early as possible.

Time is running out to register for the Picture Book writing workshop I'll be teaching at the WIFYR conference June 16-20.

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19. Writing Tip – Google Maps = Magic Carpet Ride

Guest Blogger: Johanna Bilbo Staton  

Map Program = Magic Carpet

You’re writing about a particular place, but your description feels flat. What you want, instead, is for your reader to feel as though they are actually “there.” Time for a field trip? But maybe that’s not possible—it would take time and money, lots of both if the location is far away from you.

I’ve discovered another solution: the map program on my computer and in particular the satellite and street level views. Granted, they will not give you the sounds and smells of a place, nor how it will look in a variety of seasons and weathers. Yet a map program can provide you with a surprisingly useful amount of detail.

Here are two examples of how I have used this resource:

Those computer maps are likely less than ten years old. How much use could they be for a story set almost five hundred years ago? Answer: quite a bit. Part of my story is set in Quarley, a tiny village of thatched-roof cottages in Hampshire, England. I know for a fact that they are at least forty years old. Four hundred plus? Maybe not. But in that relatively flat countryside there is one high spot, Quarley Hill, and it would have been there at the time of my story. I’ve seen it in person, but before that, I had seen it on Google Maps, and had written about it:

By mutual agreement, we angled toward Quarley Hill, a bump in the landscape that was our one local claim to any sort of height. Trotting up and down it, Frydd declared, was the best way for Bonesy to regain his mountain legs.

Later in the same manuscript, the main character and her companion are riding west toward Wales. Obviously there’s a big difference between modern roads in the UK and those of Tudor England. But I compared a British Ordnance Survey Historical Map of ancient Britain (also a useful resource) with a modern Ordnance Survey map of the same area, and so had a good idea of the probable route my riders took. Going to the area on Google Maps and going to the street view gave me this detail:

The Salisbury Plain had been flat. Now we rode through rolling countryside. We were in a valley, with slopes rising up on either side of the road.

Chances are I may find the program useful in a possible future project to be set in medieval Scotland—find a modern road through a wild area (plenty of those in the Highlands!) , and see what there is to see.

(However, Google seems to have changed its map program slightly since I did that. Instead of being able to move a little person-on-foot icon to a road, the program shows me a selection of street-level pictures. But this ought to be helpful also.)

I’ve also used the map program capabilities in my freelance copyediting, but in a way that would be just as useful for my writing. The text in question was from a contemporary novel set in New York City, in a scene that was set on the roof of a major theatrical landmark, and concerning what the characters could see from there. From the map program, I was able to determine which of the details given were, in fact, visible from that location, and which ones were iffy or impossible.

Writer’s block about your setting? Call up your map program, tell it where you want to go, let it get you down on the ground, and see what inspires you.

Filed under: Advice, article, authors and illustrators, Internet, Technology, Tips, Writing Tips Tagged: Jody Staton, Writing: Goodgle Maps

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20. Agent – Author Revision Tips – Book Giveaway

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Skila Brown  (author of CAMISAR a novel in verse) and agent Tina Wexler  of ICM team up on Casey McCormick’s and Natalie Aguirre’s excellent Literary Rambles Blog and share Five Tips on Revising after getting Feedback from an Agent. Here is an excerpt:

1. Drop your defenses. Think the agent doesn’t get what you were trying to do? Maybe that’s because it wasn’t clear enough. Think the feedback was overly-critical? Maybe that’s because you’re thinking this is about you and not about your story. Either way, you’re on the right track if an agent connected with so much of your story that s/he wants to help make it stronger. Celebrate that.

Tina Wexler: This is a great first step. I know it can be disappointing to receive an offer to revise instead of an offer of representation, but if a writer can shake off that disappointment and welcome the creative feedback, oftentimes an offer of representation will follow. My relationship with several clients started this way, and I’m grateful they were able to drop their defenses and let me share my thoughts on their work.

2. Listen. Before you begin revising, listen to what the agent is suggesting. If you’re lucky enough to have more than one person weighing in, search for commonalities in their feedback. At first glance, it might seem contradictory. One agent says, “I think the romance needs to be stronger,” while another says, “I think you should lose the romance.” The commonality? Both think that your book is teetering on romance without deciding if it is or it isn’t. Which means you need to make a decision – cut it or enhance it. Maybe the agent’s comments are prescriptive in a way that you don’t really like, but listen hard to what problem s/he is identifying and see if you’ve got another idea on how to fix it.

Tina Wexler: I often try to suggest solutions when pointing out problems in a manuscript, mainly because they
help illustrate what my concerns are. But I’m not a novelist, and it’s not my story. As such, I really appreciate it when an author is able to come up with their own way of fixing a problem. It’s almost always a better solution than the one I’ve proposed.

3. Don’t lose (the) heart. Think long and hard about what is sacred for you in this story. This can sometimes be the spark that initially drew you to the piece. Maybe it’s the relationship between two characters or the setting or the fact that you’re telling it in a specific way – like verse or multiple points of view. These sacred seeds might not be something you’re willing to alter. And that’s okay. If this story, in your heart, is really about a girl on the brink of suicide and an agent tells you, “I think you should lose the suicide bit,” this might not be the right agent for this novel. But be careful labeling something as sacred. Most things shouldn’t be.

4. Give it a try. You might not be on board with the agent’s suggestions right away, and that’s okay. But what’s the harm in trying? If you spent time researching an agent, if you felt s/he might be a good match for you and your work, then you must already respect this person, right? So keep that in mind as you read over the feedback and have some faith in the professionals. Give these suggestions a try and just see where it leads. You might be surprised that things work out better than you hoped.Tina Wexler: Yes! I love this advice, especially for writers who are asked to change the story’s point of view. (It’s more common than you may think.) A rather daunting task, with or without an offer of representation in hand. So, you take baby steps. Rewrite the first page. Is it working? Yes? Rewrite the first chapter. Still like it? Keep going. As you say, there’s no harm in trying.

Here is the link to read the full post and make sure you don’t miss the book give-a-way they are offering. http://www.literaryrambles.com/2014/04/agent-tina-wexler-skila-brown-guest.html
Talk tomorrow,

Filed under: Advice, Agent, Author, Book, Process, revisions, Writing Tips Tagged: Caminar, Literary Rambles, Skila Brown, Tina Wexler

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21. Backstory Basics

Businesswoman lifting heavy elephantBackstory can be essential to understanding a character and his/her journey. It can deepen conflict, reveal motivation and elicit sympathy for a hero or secondary character.


Nothing can kill pacing faster than an info-dump of backstory, especially in the first half of a novel.  So when and how best to include it?

Here are 5 tips on how to artfully weave backstory into a middle grade or YA novel:

  1. Hint at your character’s backstory early on, but hold off on revealing it until the information is crucial for readers – or characters – to know.
  2. Reveal it piecemeal. Instead of an extended flashback, pick 2 or 3 key moments you can drop in here and there in small chunks – a sentence or two at a time, rather than paragraphs. This allows your reader to play detective and piece the clues together to form the whole picture.
  3. Have it be activated by something sensory – a sight, smell, sound, taste or feeling. These are powerful memory triggers, and can connect a present experience to a past one, making the details of the backstory feel more germane.
  4. Put it in a moment of interiority. (This only works if you are writing in 1st or close 3rd person, of course.)
  5. Reveal it in as few words as possible, artfully chosen. How many of those lyrical details do you really need? Let go of the writerly padding, no matter how much you love the imagery, and focus on the details that move the story forward. Young readers are less interested in backstory than they are in forward moving action.

For more writing and revision tips and tools such as this, take one of my home-study writing courses – Just Write for Kids, Just Write for Middle Grade or Just Write for Young Adults.

Visit: http://justwritechildrensbooks.com for details.

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22. What Makes a Great Picture Book - Tip 2

DonkeyFlat, one-dimensional characters will doom a picture book. Similar to being larger-than-life, the main character in your picture book needs to be dynamic. By the end of the story, great picture book characters experience growth. Of course, for a character to actually experience growth it follows that the character must have shortcomings or flaws. A perfect character is a boring character.

It might seem obvious, but multidimensional characters need to have multiple characteristics or aspects of their personality to give them depth. Or as Shrek might say, great picture book characters are onions. Onions have layers. Great picture book characters have layers. Or if you prefer to be in the Donkey camp, you could also say that great picture book characters are like parfaits. Especially if you’re talking about parfaits with layers of melted chocolate, vanilla pudding, bananas, chocolate cookie bits and whipped cream on top. With all those delicious layers you can’t go wrong. Bottom-line, whether you prefer onions or parfaits, your picture book’s main characters need layers to make them more dynamic, interesting and irresistible.

Creating multidimensional, parfait like characters will be another topic of discussion at the Picture Book Writing workshop I’ll be teaching at the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers (WIFYR) conference from June 16-20.

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23. What Makes a Great Picture Book - Tip 3

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Use Voice to Make Your Picture Book Come Alive

Many editors and picture book authors will tell you that the single most distinguishing feature between a great picture book and an okay picture book is “voice”. The problem is that “voice” is hard to define. Some think of voice simply as character dialogue, but voice is much more than that.

For me, voice is what gives your story personality. It’s the way your language usage and style create the mood for your picture book and stimulates emotions in your reader.  It's the rhythm of your story. It's the way you structure your sentences. It might be how you leverage simile, metaphor, rhyme, repetition or contrasts. All of those things add up to the personality of your story and determine whether or not your picture book has the fresh, unique voice that an editor might be looking for.

The books PIGGY PIE and OWL MOON do a good job of illustrating how these elements work together to create two strong, yet very different examples of distinctive voice.

You can learn more about developing distinctive voice in your stories at the Picture Book Writing workshop I’ll be teaching at the WIFYR conference in June.

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24. When is it right to kill off a character?

I think about this a lot. So now I'm going to talk too much. 

So, Unqualified Death Philosophy 101. 

Obi-Wan's death is a good example of "death via natural character arc."
Just after WWII a lot of "realist" writers began to really promote the Classical Greek idea of a "needless death," and that's a trend that's continued into a lot of writing today (George R.R. Martin is super-fond of this). But I really believe "needless death" is not actually realistic. All deaths have reasons and arcs behind them. We die because of a logical series of events, either through a natural progression of a disease we picked up, or through choices we and others make--not necessarily bad choices, either. Death is a natural progression in a story, and shouldn't be shoved in just for the sake of death's impact (eg, hopelessness, emotional pull, loss, all the stuff that comes with death). We never "randomly" die, and we don't die just for the sake of death. Even if I walk under a book shelf and a vase randomly falls on my head to kill me, in real life there was a progression before the vase, a story, a series of "butterfly wing flaps" that put the vase exactly where it was, a cause and effect: even if in my limited experience I don't KNOW the cause and effect, it's still there.

"Okay, duh, a death needs cause/effect plot and all that." But I'm actually not talking about plot. That's just the surface. I'm actually talking about character development. Maybe I'm full of it and this is bullpoop, but I'm a firm believer that a character dies in a story when he's thematically "ready." That doesn't mean that he necessarily feels ready, or even expects death, but either he's finished his emotional journey, or he's embarking on a new emotional journey in the memory of another character impacted by the death. I say it that way on purpose, instead of saying he's triggering someone else's emotional journey: a dead character is still a character, and remembering that helps us avoid turning our characters into plot points and killing them off just for the sake of moving other characters along (eg., Woman in a Refrigerator Trope). I'd almost ask: "is it in this character's best interest, not as a person but as a character, to die?"

That's a weird question, 'cause we think it's never in someone's best interest to die, but for a character arc it really can be. Putting a villain to rest is often in his best interest as a character arc, to finalize his emotional story and personal tragedy; a sacrificial death is often in a character's best interest to solve the struggles he's worked through and to highlight his triumph above his own self-interest; the tragic death of an innocent can be in a character's best interest to give him immortality in the other characters' minds, and to give him a strength he never had in life.

So, perhaps look at what's in the character's best interest emotionally, and don't just look at what the death will do to other characters. Forget your big story as a whole for a moment, perhaps. Each character, even minor characters, are protagonists in their side stories, even if the reader doesn't see it, so death should be a major point in THAT CHARACTER's story, not just because of what it does to the MC or the overall plot, but because it individually advances the minor character's theme. Does your character's emotional arc wrap up well with death? How will he, as a dead character, continue to work in the story (absence is a way to work in a story!), and is that future post-death existence a natural and logical answer to his pre-death existence?

That may make no sense whatsoever, but that's how I decide character deaths. Death is punctuation--it's the period after a fully-realized life sentence, or it's the dash that drives a character's impact into the next scene.

Okay, Imma shut up now. As always, ignore me if that's useless information for you, and thanks for letting me share!

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25. Study Guide – Darlene Beck-Jacobson



  1. Change is the overriding theme of this novel. Discuss good vs. bad change and how the characters accepted or rejected change. CCSS RL 4.9
  2. How did Emily’s ideas about change evolve throughout the story? CCSS RL 3.3
  3. What does the horseshoe symbolize? Do you think it really had power? Explain. CCSS RL 5.4
  4. Do you think Beatrice’s personality and behavior are her own or as result of trying to please her mother? CCSS RL 3.3
  5. What characteristics made Charlie a good friend for Emily? Vice versa. CCSS RL 3.3
  6. What do you think of Emily’s reaction to Mrs. Peabody’s comments at the tea? Was Emily justified in dumping tea in Mrs. Peabody’s lap?   Explain why or why not. What would you have done? CCSS RL 4.3
  7. 1908-09 was a time in history when segregation was common. Do you think Mr. Soper was courageous in employing an African-American? Explain. CCSS RL 3.3
  8. Was life easier or harder in 1909? What did you like about the time period?
  9. The roles of males and females were more sharply divided in the early 20th Century. Do you think Emily’s resistance to learning proper lady-like behavior was typical for girls her age? Why or why not? CCSS RL 4.3
  10. How did Emily’s relationship with Mama change? CCSS RL 5.2
  11. The story takes place when there were fewer luxuries in everyday life – especially regarding entertainment. What would you do if you had no radio, television, telephone, electricity or car, like most of the people in the story? CCSS RL 4.9
  12. Learning skills and being self-sufficient was important during this time in history. Why? Do you think these values are still important today? Explain.
  13. Emily and Charlie were expected to help the family by doing daily chores. If they weren’t completed, the household and family suffered. Does your family depend on you to do certain jobs? What would happen if you didn’t do them? CCSS RL 4.9
  14. What did Emily expect President Roosevelt to do for Papa? CCSS RL 4.3
  15. What did you think of Emily’s suggestions for changing Papa’s business? What might you have done to help? CCSS RL 4.9
  16. Do you think it was foolish or brave of Emily to stay in the barn during the fire? What would you have done? CCSS RL 3.3
  17. There were limited opportunities for women at the turn of the 20th Century. Single women who were not from wealthy families could teach, work long hours in a factory under awful conditions, or work as maids, governesses, or servants to wealthy families. Once married, they were expected to stay home and care for their husband and children. Do the opportunities enjoyed by women today make their lives easier or more difficult? Explain. CCSS RL 4.9
  18. When Mama first meets Mrs. Jackson, they seem ill as ease with one another. Why? CCSS RL 5.2
  19. Do you think it was unusual for Emily’s best friend to be a boy? Why or why not?
  20. If the story took place today, do you think it would be easy for a girl to become a blacksmith? Explain.

Hope this gives you some ideas of how proceed when you publish your book.

Talk tomorrow,


Filed under: demystify, How to, inspiration, marketing, Process, Writing Tips Tagged: Darlene Beck-Jacobson, Study Guide, Study Guide Example, Wheels of Change

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