Tips For Writing a Story That Editors and Agents Will Love! (AKA the four essentials of chapter book or novel writing)
When Becky gave me a list of topics that she thought might be helpful for you all, I chose this one because I’ve wanted to say for a while how there's really no one-size-fits-all solution to writing a story that agents for love. And the reason for this is because it such a subjective business. You all know the stories of Kate diCamillo's 300+ something rejections and J. K. Rowling's multiple rejections by agents and editors who didn't "get" their work until finally someone did. And the rest is history.
However there are things you can do to increase your chances of an editor or agent "getting" your work and loveliness. I call these things – the four essentials of chapter book or middle grade novel writing. But first an apology - I kind of got into this and as Mark Twain allegedly said, “I’m sorry if I’d had more time, this would have been shorter.” So let’s get started.
1. Character - your main character has to be sympathetic, or charming, or intriguing enough for the reader to want to read on. If your story has multiple protagonists or a protagonist and an antagonist, each character has to have at least one of these qualities. This is where doing character interviews and character maps can come in handy as well as doing character arcs of how your character changes over time, even if it's just small or subtle changes, there has to be a difference between the beginning and the end to have what is known as a satisfying character arc. Your story always starts with your characters. Who are they? What do they need or want? What gets in their way both internally (fears, lack of confidence or strength, inability to follow directions or listen) and externally (takes the wrong turn, their partner drops out of the contest and now they have to find a new one, huge boulder in the middle of the road) from getting what they need or want, or solving that initial question or problem that sets them off on the book’s journey.
2. Emotions – emotions are core in engaging the reader to make them care for, or fear for the characters in your story. Will Jimmy find his way home? What is that shadow in the woods? Will Jenny be her friend? Can frog save the wetlands from a terrible destruction? You want to create a world where both the characters and the reader have strong emotions. Amp up the drama, heighten the conflict, make us feel. I want to encourage you to either get a copy of The Emotions Thesaurus or start your own emotions database. Here are a few examples to start your own: anger, disappointment, fear, envy, frustration, surprise, joy, happiness, love... And here’s a great free resource for using emotion amplifiers from the Thesaurus co-authors http://writershelpingwriters.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Emotion-Amplifiers_A-Companion-to-The-Emotion-Thesaurus-2016.pdf While a lot of this is geared towards older readers, there’s a lot here that will be helpful.
Getting back to the topic at hand, there are two kinds of emotions you need to take into account. The emotions you want your characters to feel and express through actions and the emotions you want your readers to feel (also preferably through action – laughing so hard they cry, feeling so deeply touched they cry). Hmmm, maybe you don't want that editor or agent crying. But this idea of emotion and action is important so let's move onto that.
3. Action – there are a couple of ways to think about action. One of my favorites is the "show don't tell" axiom mostly related to how the character feels. Instead of - "frog felt so sad that no one wanted to play with her" - show it. Frog turned away so no one would see her tears. Why didn't anyone want to be her friend?
The other way to think about action is in terms of plot and pacing. What happens in the story and how does your main character or characters move from the beginning to the end? What happens in each chapter to create drama and suspense? How can you make each page a page-turner, and even more importantly each chapter ending a cliffhanger? I think of it as an equation: build suspense, create a crisis, end the chapter with a cliffhanger. How can you successfully raise the difficulty of each obstacle so your main character or characters has to deal with suspense, crisis, and an unknowing at the end of each chapter? How can you successfully raise the difficulty of each obstacle until your main character or characters have to summon all their wits, their courage, and their strength to solve the problem or obtain their goal?
Normally you want to avoid stories that are dialogue driven because there's not enough happening unless you’re doing a chapter book graphic novel like Scholastic’s chapter book imprint Branches! One of my favorites in this genre is a hybrid graphic novel/regular book, the delectable Kung Pow Chicken, which is primarily action, dialogue, and image-driven with lots of onomatopoeia. It’s a hoot.
A nifty thing to try is to print your manuscript and then in the margins of each page write down what emotion your characters are feeling, what you want your readers to feel, and finally what's happening on each page in terms of action and how does that move the story forward. This will also help you with number 4.
4. Clarity - This last one is super important as it’s where many wonderful concepts founder on the rocky shoals of not being clear enough or not making enough sense to get to the next step of being a quality book. You never want your reader pausing, trying to figure out what’s going on and consequently being removed from the flow and fabulous suspension of disbelief because they are confused or clueless about what something means. Your story and every word in it must make sense. Create contextual meanings for things, or a glossary, or illustrated title pages to clarify the who, what, where, how and why if needed. Don't use multiple names for your characters unless you clarify that this is so and so’s nickname. Keep it simple wherever you can to make it easy for the reader to revel in your lush language, compelling characters, and engrossing storytelling skills. You can create any kind of universe you like, so long as that that world is consistent and believable within itself.
So that’s it. These are things that editors and agents love – Character, Emotion, Action, and Clarity. If you’d like to see a free webinar with Random House/Knopf associate editor Kelly Delaney and me where we delve much deeper into the first three of these, join our newsletter here to be the first to register and also receive a lovely plotting template http://bit.ly/CBA-Tribe-SignUp
Dr Mira Reisberg is an editor and art director at Clear Fork Publishing/Spork. She is also the Director of the Children’s Book Academy where she has helped and continues to help many children’s book writers and illustrators get published. Mira has also worked as a university professor teaching kid lit writing and illustration, as well as a literary agent. She has a PhD in Education and Cultural Studies with a focus on children’s books. One of her favorite courses, which she co-teaches with Hillary Homzie, is the instant-access Chapter Book Alchemist right here http://www.childrensbookacademy.com/the-chapter-book-alchemist.html
Starting April 16th, Mira will be co-teaching the highly interactive Craft and Business of Writing Children’s Picture Books with Kelly Delaney and a rotating group of editors and agents. Click here to find out more - http://bit.ly/cbwpb
Mira has generously offered one free Chapter Book Alchemist course as a prize for today's post. If you are a signed-up member of the challenge, all you need to do to be entered into the drawing for this prize is comment on this post. The winner will be selected by a random number generator at noon on March 31st and announced within 24 hours of the drawing.