MYC: Make Your Story Fit Your Reader

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we talked about Creating Interesting Dialogue and Description. This week, we’ll discuss making sure the content and sentence, paragraph, chapter, and word count work for your reader.

As you are revising, one important step in the process is to make sure that you wrote a book that “fits” your reader. Below, I’ve attempted to attach some numbers as rough estimates based on my own browsing and research about books in these categories, but please, please, please do you own research too. The point of this post is to make sure you’re thinking about content and sentence, paragraph, chapter, and story length as you revise.

Chapter Book

These are for kindergarten through fourth grade. But, of course, that’s quite a spread in reading ability. Some chapter books are for beginning readers and others are transitionary, getting the reader ready for middle grade fiction. Often these books are about family relationships and friendship.

Beginning-level Chapter Books: In terms of vocabulary, they are similar to the level 3/4 books in the popular I Can Read leveled readers. The plot is normally simple and the sentences are short and uncomplicated. These early chapter books are typically published with a large font and are color-illustrated, often with a picture on every page. The art typically supports the texts, meaning it is important to the story because it shows things that don’t have to be described, much like a picture book.

Examples: Princess in Black series, Mercy Watson, Captain Awesome, Ivy and Bean, Heidi Heckelbeck, and Dragon Masters.

Sentence Length: Generally short (<10 words) with a few longer sentences.

Paragraph Length: Less than six sentences. Some are single sentence. Lots of white space. Normally less than 50 words.

Chapter Length: Some have no chapters, but typically less than 12 highly-illustrated pages (note: this is as-published, no how it will be in your document)

Story Length: Ranges typically from 1500-6000 words

Higher-level Chapter Books: As compared to the beginning readers, the vocabulary is broader. There is less repetition. The sentence structure becomes more complicated by adding phrases and more adjectives and adverbs. The plot may be more elaborate, maybe by adding mystery or leaving out details to let the reader figure out on his/her own. The concepts/details may require a higher level of thinking. Perhaps the biggest change of all is that the font is usually smaller and, though the illustrations are still there, they aren’t usually necessary for understanding the story. Illustrations are often done in black.

Examples:  Judy Moody, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants, early Magic Tree House series (the Merlin Missions are for middle grade readers)

Sentence Length: Usually less than 20 words per sentence. There are still many short sentences in between longer sentences, and this structure is ideal even for adult works. More complicated in structure and word choices.

Paragraph Length: Slightly longer than the early chapter books, but still generally less than 75 words. Still more white space than middle grade.

Chapter Length: Some have no chapters, but typically less than 12 illustrated pages

Story Length: Typically from 4000-15,000 words

Middle Grade

Middle-grade stories are typically for ages 8 and up. They deal with more complicated concepts and sometimes cover sad and more mature topics than you will find in most chapter books, like divorce, death, bullying, and risky behaviors. These books often give children a wider window into the world by covering these topics and they also often include characters that have different cultures or ethnicities. Often books help readers explore their feelings about issues with friendships and family through story, and they are great tools in helping children understand empathy and community. Romance, if any, is usually limited to hand holding or a quick, nervous kiss. These books have few illustrations and they are often confined to the chapter heading.

Examples: When You Reach Me, The Journey of Edward Tulane, Fourteenth Goldfish, Karma Khullar’s Mustache, Wish

Sentence Length: Readers are capable of tackle long, complicated sentences, but using a variety of sentence lengths is still important. Vocabulary should reflect the types of words you would expect these readers to know or be able to figure out with context clues. Though helping the reader expand his/her vocabulary is a fine goal, be careful that there isn’t a high density of challenging words in your sentences.

Paragraph Length: Mostly two hundred words or less with a variety of paragraph lengths so that you don’t tire your reader.

Chapter Length: There’s really no rule here. A young reader is often more likely to tackle the next chapter if it is less than 10 pages, especially if he knows mom/dad will let him/her go a few minutes over lights-out time for reading. 🙂

High action scenes may require longer chapters, but if the chapter is clocking toward 20+ pages, you may want to find a way to break it up. Short chapters with choppy sentences are great for when you need to increase the tension in the story.

Particularly important for this age, leave small cliff hangers at your chapter endings when possible.

Story Length: Stories that don’t require a lot of world building are typically 20,000-50,000 words. Sci-fi and fantasy can be longer, but generally those should be less than 70,000 words.

Young Adult

Young adult stories are mostly for ages 13+. Profanity, sex (not erotic), drug and alcohol use are okay, but it’s not as acceptable for books with a younger protagonist (<15 years old). In young adult books, the parents tend to have a less important role in the protagonist’s life because they are more focused on friendships and non-familial relationships.

Great resource by agent and author Marie Lamba about what’s appropriate in MG vs. YA.

http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/the-key-differences-between-middle-grade-vs-young-adult

Examples:  Across the Universe, The Sun is Also a Star, I’ll Give You the Sun, The Hate You Give, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Sentence Length: These readers often have adult-like reading skills and can handle complex sentences and vocabulary.

Paragraph Length: Less than 200 words for most paragraphs. A variety of paragraph lengths is best.

Chapter Length: Less than 25 pages generally with mini-cliff hangers to keep the reader turning pages.

Story Length: Less than 90,000 words unless complex world building is necessary for the story. For sci-fi and fantasy, this can be longer. See Maria Lamba and the post in resources for more details.

Resources:

Word count: http://literaticat.blogspot.com/2011/05/wordcount-dracula.html

Page count (funny): http://100scopenotes.com/2014/07/15/all-middle-grade-should-be-192-pages-no-exceptions/

Chapter length:

https://kidlit.com/2017/06/05/childrens-book-manuscript-chapter-length/

http://writersroadtrip.blogspot.com/2009/12/wrt-rules-of-road-chapter-length-and.html

https://writers.stackexchange.com/questions/41/what-is-a-normal-length-for-a-chapter

http://allwritefictionadvice.blogspot.com/2012/05/chapter-novel-lengths.html

An excellent resource for finding out the word count for your favorite books: http://www.arbookfind.com

Thanks for reading this week’s Master Your Craft post. Come back next week when we’ll discuss Tightening your manuscript!

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, an Indie children/teens bookseller, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, is in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME. Proceeds from the anthology go towards scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.

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MYC: Playing with Language

Master Your CraftWelcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series on revision with a look at first and last pages. This week, we’re diving into making your language shine.

After the long slog of drafting and re-drafting and revising and editing, it can be hard to remember what you even liked about your book in the first place. When I get to this stage, I like to take a pass at my manuscript that’s all about play.

This is one of my favorite rounds of editing, and it was born way back in the days before streaming television, when my husband bought me the DVDs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Three as a gift. I watched all the episodes, of course, but the DVDs were also great because of all the extras. (Did we have more time back then? Did I call in sick to work?)

Anyway, one of the DVD extras was an interview with one of the Buffy writers, Jane Espenson, who talked about writing and editing and workshopping and polishing a script until it gleamed. She’d hand it to the show’s creator, Joss Whedon, who would go through the script and take all the best lines and find a more unique way to say them.

She said she learned quickly to try to turn her dialogue on its head wherever she could.

That story has always stuck with me. Whether it’s because I too suffered under an uber-controlling, perfectionist boss who always knew better than me what word to use where, or because I just enjoy playing with language, but I’ve grown to love this editing pass on my novel, where I search out my time-worn and clichéd phrases and trade them out for something delightful and fresh.

Of course, you can be too delightfully fresh with your language. No one wants to read a book that is written so creatively you have to pause every sentence to figure out what the author means. So here are a few dos and don’ts for hacking away at your stale phrasing:

DO…look for the expected and see how you can change it up. Do you describe a sunrise as a symphony of pink and orange? See if you can tweak it a bit by trying something more like this:

Pinks and oranges played dueling themes across the lightening sky.

DO…take your character and their interests into account. Is your character into computer programming? Maybe she would describe a sunrise in those terms:

Bits and bytes of pink and orange arranged themselves into perfectly programmed layers.

Pro Tip: Writer Emery Lord keeps a vocabulary list for each of her major characters based on their interests, backgrounds and dialects. A reference like that would come in super handy for this pass.

DO…check in on your dialogue. Can you tell what character is speaking without dialogue tags?

See if you can give your characters their own distinct voices. If you open up any of the Harry Potter books and see that a character is saying, “Bloody hell!” you’d have a pretty good idea that Ron was speaking. Or, to borrow again from TV, Chandler Bing from Friends wouldn’t be the same without his trademark, “Could this sunrise be any more pink?”

DO…consider where your story takes place and where your characters are from. I have yet to hear my Oklahoma in-laws utter the word “car” – it’s always “vehicle” with every syllable distinctly pronounced.

Even sprinkling in a few region-specific words will give your readers a feel for the where of your story or character, which deepens the reading experience. Consider how a few of the people I know say “hello”:

From England: Howya?

From South Africa: Good Day!

 From Brooklyn: Hi, hi.

From Oklahoma: Howdy.

From Oregon: Heeeyyyyy…

DON’T…go overboard. This is an easy step to get carried away on, and that leads to passages that are overwritten and dialogue that sounds stilted or over-the-top. Your reader shouldn’t need a decoder ring to get the gist of your story. So if you find yourself editing your sunrise into purple prose like this:

The sky blushed as his lover the sun eased her way into the sky, draped in a negligée of glorious rose and peach…

…then you’ve gone too far! Step away from the keyboard and save your creativity for another story!

When I’m drafting, I’m so focused on telling the story that I need to just get words on the page. Too often, this leads to a few turns of phrase that are drier than stale toast. By adding in an editing pass specifically for playing with my language, it not only helps me polish my work, it also helps me recapture the fun and joy of creating a new world with words.

We hope you’ll come back next for next Wednesday’s MYC post to learn about Chapter and Sentence Length.

RICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.

MYC: Writing “Other” with Sensitivity

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we talked about the Power of Metaphor. This week, we’ll discuss writing “other” characters.

What is writing “Other”?

It simply means writing characters that are not like yourself.

Some writers are terrified to try this. If you’ve ever witnessed arguments about writing diversely or seen Twitter posts “dragging” authors who make mistakes when they tried to do so, you probably understand why!

But, it’s important that the stories we craft represent the world we inhabit. This post at Lit Reactor by K. Tempest Bradford sums up the importance of diversity in our writing and our reading pretty well, especially this paragraph:

 

Seeing oneself reflected in fiction, even if partially, is important for people from marginalized communities and identities. It’s also important for people who align with the dominant paradigm as well. It allows them to see and understand that people who aren’t like them exist outside of narrow stereotypes and also outside of the confines of their own narrow understanding.

 

So hopefully, you’ve included an interesting variety of people from different cultures, beliefs, or abilities in your masterpiece. And if not, this is a great time to tweak a few characters to give your story depth and sparkle.

 

But…

And this is a REALLY BIG BUT

Don’t do it unless you’re invested in doing it well.  

There are a few steps to that process.

Ask Yourself Why????

Why are you writing this “other” character?

Maybe you have a unique perspective. For example, you may have adopted a child of a different ethnicity or maybe your child has a disability and you want the world to see life through her eyes. Maybe your nephew has recently “come out” and you want (with his permission) to use his experiences to help others. Having a personal connection to writing “other” automatically puts pressure on you to get it right.

But maybe your reason is just because you feel it’s important to show that a gay, black, hearing-impaired boy can have exciting adventures. That’s okay too. BUT, you’re going to have to work extra hard to make sure your character is authentic and realistic for your reader. Put yourself in the shoes of the gay, black, hearing-impaired boy who might be read your story. Will he like it? Will he relate to the character? Will he recommend it to his friends?

After you’ve answered why, the real work begins.

Research!

A lot of it. Thoroughly. Yes, it’s a lot of work. But if you care about your readers and you want to make fans, you’ll do it. If you don’t approach your characters thoughtfully, you may do more harm than good and lose readers in the process. One of the worse things you can do is to write stereotypical characters.

Examples: the blind person who can “see” visions, the crippled evil villain, the savage Native American, the gay male who loves theatre, the sassy black girl…

Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.

As we mentioned in our post about Writing Cross-Culturally, not only are those stereotypes unrealistic, but––especially in kid lit––they do harm. Just like there are millions of different behaviors of a “typical” white girl, the same is true of every character regardless of religious beliefs, skin color, sexual orientation, bodily abilities…

Make all your characters real people. (For more details about how to do this see this post on character development and this one on supporting characters.) Understand what makes them tick, their beliefs, their concerns, their limitations, and their special abilities. This is important even if your “other” character isn’t the main character.

One great way to research is by reading books written by #ownvoices authors. Check out this Kirkus post by Cynthia Leitich Smith for more info.

See below for a list of resources about writing a variety of “other” characters.

Sensitivity Readers!

Yes, you’ll need them. Several in fact. If you don’t know what that is, read this or this. You may have a person in your life who can serve as a sensitivity reader for the “other” that is in your story, but I’d also suggest finding a reader that you don’t know. A reader who doesn’t know you personally will be more comfortable with being completely honest with you and will be able to provide a deeper insight to make your story more authentic. Heads up: If you haven’t employed a sensitivity reader before you submit to an agent, sometimes they will ask you to find one. Sometimes your editor will do that, but you should be prepared to pay a sensitivity reader for their time and experience. And here’s the most important part: LISTEN TO YOUR SENSITIVITY READERS!

One recent example of a book about “other” is Dusti Bowling’s Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus. The story is about a girl who was born without arms. But Dusti has arms. How could she possibly write this book? She did her homework and followed up by reaching out to someone who knew first-hand what it was like to live without arms. Check out this Publisher’s weekly post to find out what inspired Dusti to write this book and this interview for more info about her research and sensitivity reader.

Here’s a database for finding sensitivity readers: Writing In The Margins

Own Up to Your Mistakes!

This may be the most important step. Hopefully you’ve taken the first three steps very seriously and done all your homework. But no matter how hard you try, you will make mistakes because you are human. The best thing to do is to very clearly apologize to all those who you’ve offended. (Please note: True apologies do not contain the word “but”.) Accept your mistake(s) and learn from it. Do not blame anyone, not your friend readers, your betas, or your sensitivity readers. It’s yours. Own it. Move forward graciously.

General Resources:

Twitter Handles You Should Follow:

@writingtheother

@diversebooks

@disabilityInLit

Race and Ethnicity:

Gender:

Sexual Orientation:

Disability:

Be brave in your writing, but sensitive to your readers.

Let us know about other resources in the comments! Thanks for reading this week and come back next week to read our discussion about Writing Openings That Hook Readers and Endings That Turn Them Into Fans.

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a children/teens bookseller, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, is in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME. Proceeds from the anthology go towards scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.

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A New Writing Podcast! MOM WRITES: THE DIRTY LAUNDRY ABOUT WRITING WITH KIDS

Mom Writes Podcast, Jennie Nash I subscribe to Jennie Nash’s newsletter and read her blog posts. She’s an instructor at the UCLA Extension Writing Program; the founder of Author Accelerator, a book coaching company; and generally a smart lady. So when I read that she was involved in a new writing podcast I wanted it to know what it was about.

Mom Writes: The Dirty Laundry about Writing with Kids is the brainchild of Abby Mathews, an unpublished writer mom. Abby was struggling through the process of writing a book with young kids underfoot. She guessed that she was not the only one who’d started stories and run into difficulties along the way and had the idea for a series of podcasts showing Author Accelerator’s step-by-step process for helping writers. In the podcasts, Jennie discusses the challenges of just getting a book written at a quality level that would pique the interest of traditional publishers, let alone accomplishing this with several kids and their friends dashing through the house or dribbling a basketball in the room overhead. Jennie will lead Abby and her friend, Melanie Parish, through the Author Accelerator’s Blueprint for a Book program, critiquing their manuscripts and helping them to do everything from identify their ideal reader to strengthen their story concepts to improve their writing skills. The podcast will also include tips from other Author Accelerator writing coaches and tips and encouragement from writers who’ve used the program.

Does it sound like an infomercial? I was a bit nervous about that. But as Jennie talks about why writers have trouble finishing their stories and face rejection when they query literary agents, you can hear how much she cares about helping writers improve. And what better way is there to work through common writing problems than by listening in as Jennie helps Abby and Melanie fix their stories?

I invited Jennie, Abby and Melanie here to talk a little more about their podcast.

Rebecca: Jennie, thanks for this podcast! As someone who has been writing for seven years and still does not have an agent, I would have loved to have had this podcast earlier in my journey! You talk in the first episodes about why writing a book seems a lot easier than it is. Can you give Winged Pen readers a sense of this?

Jennie: Yes! So the tricky thing with book writing is that book reading is a thing most of us do Jennie Nash, Author Accelerator, Mom Writes Podcastalmost every day, and have been doing almost every day for many years. In that way, it’s more akin to eating breakfast then it is to, say, flying an airplane. Most of us have never flown an airplane and never will. We also don’t presume that we have the slightest idea how to do it. Anyone who gets into the cockpit of a plane with the intention of flying it has embarked on a rigorous training program, passed tests and shown competence. But because reading is so familiar to us — an activity that we love and cherish, and probably consider ourselves quite good at  — we often presume that we know how to write a book that will captivate a reader. We imagine that we could just sit down at the keyboard and craft a compelling narrative.

But very often, we can’t.  At least not our first time out, or even our second or third or fourth.

Writing a book may not be as complex an undertaking as flying a 747, but it is still a very complex undertaking. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, you are making a myriad interrelated choices and designing a logical framework and organizing a ton of material and determining a structure and deciding on a point or argument and considering your audience, and deploying various skills (skills related to scene structure, dialogue, body language, language use, narrative drive, pacing, flow and, resolution) and underneath it all is a great deal of emotion — your emotion, your reader’s emotion, and in fiction, your character’s emotion.

It’s a lot! And many writers simply underestimate how hard it is — or how hard it is to do well.

Rebecca: Abby, you are sharing your manuscript, mistakes and all, with the Internet! That’s very brave! Why did you decide to take time out from your writing to create the Mom Writes podcast?

Abby Mathews, Mom Writes PodcastAbby: You know, deep down it’s probably just the teacher in me! In my former life (BC, before children) I was a high school art teacher. I can’t tell you all the crazy things I learned how to do in the name of teaching. Once the kids had the idea to make a really, really big block print but we didn’t have a large enough printing press. To solve the problem I learned how to turn a car into a printing press! So, see, this isn’t the craziest thing I’ve ever done. But it does feel pretty close.

At one point in an early episode, Jennie told me that an agent wouldn’t have made it past page one of my manuscript. Page one! That’s when I paused and thought, “Oh my god. It’s really bad! I am insane for doing this in front of a live studio audience…” (Well, not live, but you get what I mean!) After the initial sting wore off, it occurred to me this is exactly why I have to do it. I’m putting all my dirty laundry out there because I know I’m not alone. I know there are others out there just like me- like us- toiling away at their kitchen tables trying to teach themselves how to do this massive thing. And we need help. Because this problem is not going to go away. Writing is a curse, and one bad manuscript isn’t going to lift it. I’m on my third bad manuscript and I keep coming back for more!

My solution was to find professional help. (And book coaches seem to double as therapists, so trust me, it’s a lot of bang for your buck!) I feel confident that coaching is going to help me write the book that’s in my head- the one where readers don’t just make it off the first page, but to the end of the novel and want to come back for more. I’m so confident, in fact, that I am willing to lay it all out there to teach others how to do it as well. Even if it is super embarrassing!

Plus, I won’t lie, having to publicly answer for my work keeps me on track!

Rebecca: Jennie, what are some of the common writing problems that you’ll be talking about in the podcast?

Jennie:  Abby and Mel are perfect “subjects” to show how the chaos of creativity can be tamed because they exhibited all the most common problems! Neither of them had really thought before they started to write. Like so many writers, they just liked to write and felt called to write and started to write. (This pull is often very strong for moms of little kids because it’s one time in your day when you can just rest in the musings of your own mind. You don’t have to make sure no one is going to stick a fork in the electrical outlet or figure out how to make a dinner for one kid who won’t eat anything but white food and another who won’t eat anything but green. )Then Abby and Mel did what writers tend to do next — they went to conferences and workshops and writing groups, and kept writing, and really just kept digging their holes deeper — the holes caused by lack of thinking first.

So by thinking first I don’t mean plotting. I don’t mean giant grids of scenes. I mean understanding your story’s deep-level WHY and bringing that to the visible surface, and working to let the reader IN. That’s the work most writers skip — and skipping it leads to all the writerly problems, from openings that wander to middles that sag to ends that fall flat — and Abby and Mel were no different.

What’s fun is that Abby is writing a middle grade fantasy starting from scratch and Mel is revising an adult sci fi dystopian thriller so, in addition to the common problems I mentioned above, we get to dig into a lot of different problems from a topical standpoint — so everything from the logic of an imaginary world, to the motivation of a villain, to a character’s true desire.

Rebecca: Melanie, you guys got a lot of feedback on your opening pages from Jennie. What was it like to go back to those pages and revise after the feedback.

Melanie:  I’m not gonna lie, it felt a bit brutal at first.  Neither Abby or I had a lot of Mel, Mom Writes Podcastexperience being edited.  It was eye-opening, though, and I personally felt so much clarity on my story afterwards.  I had been unable to articulate what was wrong with my draft and Jennie was able to pinpoint exactly where I had gone wrong and how to fix it.  She doesn’t do the work for us, and I don’t feel that as a book coach she is taking me in any one direction vs another.  It’s more like she’s asking the right questions in order to help me find my own answers – questions that I initially didn’t ask myself when I first started writing my novel!  We are learning so much about the process that one can (and maybe should!) do before you write a single word of your story.

I’d like to thank Jennie, Abby and Melanie for joining us on the Winged Pen today! Mom Writes launched September 15th and is available here. Check it out! And tune in for our Twitter chat on October 2nd, 8 pm EDT, 5 pm PT to Tweet live with Jennie, Abby and Melanie, find out more about Mom Writes, and get tips on writing with kids constantly pulling on your elbow! To tune in, put #momwrites in the Twitter search box and press enter.

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes young adult science fiction with heroines much braver than she is and middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure. She on Twitter at @RebeccaJ_Allen and her website is writerebeccawrite.wordpress.com.

MYC: Using Metaphor

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss pre-writing and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we talked about revising your world building. This week, Gita Trelease and Gabrielle Byrne talk about how to create powerful metaphors.

Metaphor and simile are among the richest, most useful tools in any writer’s kit. The word “metaphor” comes from the Greek metapherein: meta, meaning “across, over” and pherein, meaning “carry, or bear.”  The word describes what a metaphor does: it carries meaning from one place to another.

A writer uses metaphor and simile to do the same thing, that is, by “carrying meaning” from one thing to another, a metaphor brings together two seemingly dissimilar things as a way of deepening the reader’s understanding. Ideally, the comparisons are surprising and help the reader see something they hadn’t seen before.

Simile uses “like” or “as” to highlight one aspect of similarity: “Pip’s uncle was like a burning-down house, angry and about to collapse.” Or, “Pip’s uncle was as angry as a burning-down house.” Here, I’m saying that Pip’s uncle was angry in the same way a raging house fire is angry, but that’s all I’m saying. A simile is specific and limited, because sometimes you just want to talk about one aspect of the two things you’re comparing.

Metaphor, though, sets up an identity for the reader (and often the writer) to explore. Using metaphor, I would say, “Pip’s uncle was a burning-down house.” Pip’s uncle = burning-down house. He is the whole flaming thing, not just a part of it. And once I’ve set that identity up, I can go further if I want, extending the metaphor: “Pip’s uncle was a burning-down house. And if you’d forgotten something inside, you weren’t never going back in to get it.”  I could even keep going, describing the burning house, how the fire started, what was destroyed—all the while still describing Pip’s uncle.

At the root, metaphor and simile are both powerful tools in the author’s arsenal, but both are just comparisons. So what makes them so powerful then, you might ask. My explanation is that writing a book is a little like a bachelor party.

Um, sorry Gabby, you lost me.

So, you know that bit when all the guys pile in the window and pretend-kidnap the groom and tie him to a chair and take him out and lead him from one place to another and the whole thing is a blast for everyone? Yeah, that. That’s what authors do. We go in and stealthily bind the reader to our story like a bachelor to his party chair. One loop for the characters they love, another for exciting plot lines, one for beautiful prose, and metaphors? Metaphors make great knots. They connect the physical and the emotional, or the emotional and the spiritual, using details that plumb the story’s heart. They tie the reader to the character in deep ways that can’t be easily undone.

Her hair rose in the wind, black ribbons that whipped the air, her anger holding back the storm.

  • Physical (black hair)
  • Emotional (she’s mad about something)
  • Spiritual (okay it’s a stretch, but the storm)

The best metaphors (IMHO) always draw from at least two of these areas. Added to this is that there are certain categories of things, that are intrinsically bound to our human hearts. Their very nature is emotional. Using one of these categories in your metaphor makes the knot that much stronger. I talked a little about these in the MYC post on fantasy world building (weather, food, housing, and religion/spirituality). On top of these universal categories, you may also have some “Bonus character quality” categories that are deeply powerful, because they act as reminders to the reader of the essence of the character/s in that scene. For example, a cook is going to use lots of food metaphors, but a soldier might use lots of battle/blood/loss metaphors. A seamstress might describe things using lots of sewing metaphors:

The sparks in his dark eyes gleamed, silver threads tugging her forward and meant just for her.

  • Physical (dark eyes)
  • Emotional (passion)
  • Bonus Quality (she’s a seamstress)

These character-specific metaphors can also work by comparing something that’s happening to one character, to a quality in another:

The needle of her intent sharpened against Billy’s guileless smile.

The comparisons can work alone (the sea was a cold embrace), or you can deepen them further with added details (the sea was a cold embrace, heartless and unforgiving). It can be fun to play with reader expectation at this level too, as in this simile:

Her teeth were like Desperado pearls, and I figured they were just as stolen.

Last but not least, the way an author uses metaphor can set up a tone for the whole book. A dark, psychological thriller might use dark and eerie metaphors:

She waited, holding her breath until she was certain the men had gone. Her feet pressed against the cold tile as a single beam of moonlight arched across the kitchen floor, a slow, silent bird diving toward dawn.   

While a quirky, funnier story might go with quirky, funny metaphors:

The new girl had a pancake face, wide and doughy, but sure to make a person happy by the time breakfast was over.

Playing with metaphor is a great way to get more energy and depth into your story. If you use them to explore your characters and your world, you’ll be sure to lift the whole manuscript to another level.

We hope you’ll come back next for next Wednesday’s MYC post to learn about Writing With Sensitivity.

Gabrielle Byrne’s debut MG fantasy, RISE OF THE DRAGON MOON, is due out in Winter, 2019 with Imprint/Macmillan. She’s represented by Catherine Drayton. Learn more about her at www.gkbyrnebooks.com

Gita Trelease writes YA fantasy. She was born in Sweden and has lived in France, Italy, and the United States. In her former life as a college professor, she taught classes on fairy tales, monsters, and Victorian criminals. Along with her artist husband, teenage son, and Maine Coon, Gita divides her time between a boarding school in Massachusetts and the wild Maine coast. Her current project takes place during the French Revolution: hot-air balloons and gambling, decadence and dark magic. Also, wigs. She is represented by Molly Ker Hawn at The Bent Agency. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.

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