A Mishmash of Writing Tips
Thank you, Becky, for inviting me back to Chapter Book Challenge this year.
I had so many writing tips that I wanted to share when I considered writing this guest post that I had a hard time deciding exactly what to share. So, I began by brainstorming the common issues I often see when considering the chapter book and middle grade manuscripts we receive at Blue Whale Press. My intention was to come up with a comprehensive list of, let’s say, ten mistakes that writers make. But, I quickly discovered that I wanted to share more than one little blog post could handle. As such, I went with the flow and wrote whatever popped into my head. The result? A mishmash of writing tips.
The following is the result of my brainstorming session.
Agents and editors are readers.
My number one tip for anyone who is planning to submit their manuscript is to remember that agents and editors are readers. So, think of them as readers before anything else. If you don’t capture them as a reader, what will make them think that your story will capture any reader? If they don’t think your story will hook readers, what will make them say “yes” to your manuscript?
A weak beginning can kill a story before it ever begins.
A slow beginning, or starting the story in the in the wrong place, can cause your reader to lose interest before the story even truly begins. Be careful that you don’t submit your writer’s warm-up as the beginning chapter(s) of your book. What I mean by “writer’s warm-up” is that it often takes a writer time to get to know their story and characters. It takes time to develop voice and mood. And it is common for the first pages or chapters of a book to be the result of that “getting to know you” writing. Once the writer gets into the swing of things, the true story begins. That is why stories often start in the wrong place. Submitting your writer’s warm-up and getting-to-know-you sessions as the beginning of your story will usually result in boredom for the reader and a pass from an editor or agent. Editors and agents have to read hundreds of manuscripts (sometimes thousands by the end of the year). They don’t have a lot of time to make decisions about the manuscripts they read. The only way to cause them to stop and really consider your story is to hook them from the very start. If you don’t grab them (or hook them) on your story right from the opening lines, your chances of success with that submission decrease. If they aren’t hooked by the end of the first chapter, your chances go way down. By the end of a third chapter that has not captured the agent or editor, a rejection will probably follow. This could vary from person to person, but I think it is a good way to explain what will likely happen if your beginning isn’t strong.
Scenes, chapters, or books where nothing is really happening are boring.
Yes, it truly is possible to write a scene, a chapter, or even an entire book where nothing significant is happening. In a book that is filled with pages where nothing is happening, the reader might gain a lot of information, but at some point, that information will not be enough to pull the reader forward, and the book (manuscript) will be abandoned.
As mentioned above, many writers include their warm-up in the first chapter(s). What are some indications of a warm-up or nothing happening?
Telling, or sometimes even showing, in detail the protagonist going through ordinary life via long stretches of narrative and dialogue.
We sometimes need a glimpse of the protagonist’s ordinary life before s/he steps over the inciting-incident threshold that moves her/him into the world of the story. But if the details are really the writer’s attempts to “get to know” their characters or the writer’s warm-up in disguise, that is a problem. Make sure that everything happening in your sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and story have a reason to be there. A GOOD reason to be there. How do they inform the reader in a way that will make the reader want to know more? How do they inform the reader in a way that is connected to the big story problem, the chapter problem, the scene that came before, and the scene that will come after? Closely related to details of an ordinary day is step-by-step description of the character’s every move. Make sure that all action is important action. If readers can figure out for themselves that a character opened the door, turned on the shower, or poured a cup of coffee, trust their ability to figure it out. Don’t bore them with such details.
Too much backstory and info dumping usually does not pull your reader forward, hence the word backstory. Try to eliminate backstory, or at least minimize it in the first chapter. Be careful not to interrupt action with a long history of something that happened way back when. Make sure that all information provided in backstory is absolutely necessary for the reader to know. Then make sure that information is absolutely necessary for your reader to know it at the time you are presenting it. Is it something that can be told later? Is it something that can be slipped into a sentence or two through brief dialogue? Is it something that can be gracefully weaved into the story here and there in short sentences?
Following is a link to a good article exploring the question, “How much is too much backstory?”
Backstory is also a form of info dumping, but there are other forms as well.
For anyone who might not know what an info dump is, it is drawn-out telling (versus showing). It is a large chunk of information that the writer dumps all at once. And that dump goes right to the reader. There is a strong danger of losing your reader’s interest because of backstory and info dumps. Info dumps are usually told through narration and sometimes dialogue.
We want our readers to be informed, but we need to be aware and pick and choose how we inform them. We want to make sure the story is balanced and always moving forward. We want to avoid awkward and out-of-place telling. The goal is to weave information skillfully into your story so smoothly that it goes unnoticed.
Why do we want to avoid info dumps and unnecessary or lengthy backstory?
Because it interrupts the reader. You have likely done some really nice work of putting your reader into the story through action, and all of a sudden BAM! HALT! Let me take you down this rabbit hole for a while. At this point, you have stopped providing information from the story’s characters. Instead, you, the author is interrupting/communicating with the reader by telling instead of showing.
Following are some links that will tell you all about info dumping.
How to Avoid Info Dumping by Ellen Brock
Tracy Culleton talks about info dumping at http://www.fiction-writers-mentor.com/info-dumping/
How to Avoid Info Dumping
Although I suggest providing backstory in brief dialogue, it is important not to use dialogue to dump info. Here are some tips how to avoid info dumping in dialogue.
All about weaving information into your story.
Your beginning may be writer’s warm-up in disguise if the dialogue is nothing more than banal chitchat. Every word of dialogue must have a purpose. It is tempting to offer idle chitchat because that is often part of our normal communication in real life, but in books, it is important to think of the reader. Always remember, why will the reader care?
The ever-familiar show-don’t-tell is another clue that first pages have been born out of writer’s warm-up. Of course, we need description so the reader understands setting, time, place, and so on. But too much of a good thing becomes a problem. I can almost promise you that if the story has long stretches of description, there is nothing really happening in the story. And when there is nothing happening in a story, it will not pull the reader forward.
A character that makes long speeches, or thinks to herself or speaks her thoughts aloud to herself (because there is no one else around) will get old and lose your reader’s interest as well.
Not enough action. Too much description—especially too much flowery description—and talking heads are boring. They will not pull readers forward. Minimize adverbs and adjectives. Show your characters in action. Don’t tell what is happening or how they feel.
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White says,
“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. This is not to disparage adjective and adverbs; they are indispensable parts of speech. Occasionally they surprise us with their power, as in
Up the airy mountain,Down the rushy glen,We daren’t go a-huntingFor fear of little men . . .
The nouns mountain and glen are accurate enough, but had the mountains not become airy, the glen rushy, William Allingham might never have got off the ground with his poem. In general however, it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give good writing its toughness and color.”
If you don’t own The Elements of Style, it is one tiny reference book that every writer should read.
Following is a link that offers some strong verbs to spice up your writing.
Below is a link to an article on action verbs versus linking verbs. In my opinion, linking verbs generally lead to passive sentences, which indicate telling. Action verbs generally lead to action, which indicates showing. So another way to look at the discussion in the article is showing verbs versus telling verbs.
Here is a link to an article that says the same thing as the above-mentioned article but from a little different perspective—one that I like. Ten Verbs that MAKE You Tell.
All of the above tips are mistakes to be aware of throughout your story. However, if any of them happen in the beginning of your story, it could send your great idea and hard work into the agent’s or editor’s “no” pile.
I can’t stop without offering one final tip. . . .
Weak or nonexistent emotional core will not earn a “yes” from an agent or editor.
You must give the reader a reason to care about the protagonist and the story problem or goal. The protagonist’s motivation must be clear and the consequences for failing to reach the story goal or solve the problem must be clear. If the reader can’t answer the question, “Why should I care?” they won’t be able to answer the question, “Why should I invest my time reading this story (manuscript)?” It is important to give the reader something or someone to root for. What will make the reader relate to this character? What will make the reader cheer the protagonist on and worry about the protagonist? These are the things that create tension and pull the story forward, and in pulling the story forward, you pull the reader forward through the book. We want our readers to feel emotions, become curious, want to know more, turn pages - turn pages - turn pages. And that’s what we want agents and editors to do, too.
Following is an excellent article about finding the emotional core in your story.
Janice Hardy discusses character emotional core here http://blog.janicehardy.com/2018/03/whats-emotional-core-of-your-character.html
Hannah Heath offers seven tips for writing emotion into your story.
As hard as it is for me to stop here, this post is already running way too long. I do hope that it has provided you some food for thought and maybe even given you a few ways to improve your writing. Just as a little bonus, I will paste some links to other posts I have written about chapter book writing.
|Sienna the Cowgirl Fairy|
Alayne Kay Christian is the content and developmental editor for Blue Whale Press and an award-winning children’s book author. She is the creator and teacher of a picture book writing course, Art of Arc. She shares more or her knowledge and tips for writers through her Writing for Children Webinars. She has been a professional picture book and chapter book critique writer since 2014, and she worked as a 12 X 12 critique ninja for three years. Alayne is an SCBWI member and a graduate of the Institute for Children’s Literature. In addition, she has spent the last eleven years studying under some of the top names in children’s literature.
Blue Whale Press - https://www.bluewhalepress.com/
Alayne’s Website - https://alaynekaychristianauthor.com/
Alayne’s Blog - https://alaynekaychristian.wordpress.com/
Alayne has offered an incredible prize for today's post. She's offering a golden ticket to Blue Whale Press submissions to one person, which gives the winner a pass to submit outside of the submission window, priority consideration (top of pile), and guaranteed response. All you have to do to be entered for this prize is be a signed-up member of the challenge and comment on this post. Winner will be chosen at noon on March 31st, 2019.