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
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
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
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
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 back
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
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.
to Avoid Info Dumping
by Ellen Brock
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
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
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
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
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.
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
the rushy glen,We
daren’t go a-huntingFor
fear of little men . . .
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”
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
Following is an excellent article about finding the emotional core in your story
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
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.
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.
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.