8 Tips for Writing Picture Books

Writing picture books is hard. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written one or one hundred, just ask Jane Yolen or Mo Willems or John Klassen. But good news is if you keep writing and reading picture books, you will get better!

  1. Don’t think your way into your story–feel your way in. Instead of seeing your characters as separate, become your character. For example, if you’re writing about a budgie who has escaped out an open window, imagine what it’s like to be outside for the first time and feeling the wind rustle your feathers, or hearing the sound of cars zooming by.
  2. Remember it’s a picture book and pictures tell much of the story. Don’t waste words telling us something already described in the illustrations.
  3. Sweet spot s between 300-700 words. We get into trouble by going too wide. The secret is to focus on one main idea/feeling/theme/goal. Focus on your character’s goals. Does our budgie dream of being free and wild? If so, focus on this, and how what happens perhaps changes his goal.
  4. Picture books are audio books with illustrations! They are supposed to be read aloud so be aware how your words sound, the rhythm and cadence of your sentences. Use repetition, alliteration, onomatopoeia to plop us into your  world!
  5. Any good picture book captures a familiar feeling in a new and unfamiliar way. Twist, turn, and loop the world to find the unexpected and surprising. A talking crayon, a farting dog, a pigeon not allowed to drive the bus, or a budgie who wants to fly south with the geese… You get the idea!
  6. Avoid teaching a lesson. No preaching, no morals. Of course, your picture can and should have a theme but it should be an organic part of your characters and their choices.
  7. It’s all about the page turn. What will make your reader eager to turn the page to see what’s going to happen next? Some writers use the rule of threes or fives to build the page turn. Or you can ask a question, use ellipsis, or make us care so much about the character that we just have to find out what your character decides to do. Finally, creating a picture book dummy  is an excellent way to test your page turn-ability.  See Tara Lazar’s post on creating a dummy here.
  8. What to write about?  Character-driven picture books are wonderful, but don’t forget concept books. They are timeless and funny and mindful and beautiful and sometimes very funny. Some have characters but they don’t have a traditional story arc. Here are just a few:

KARIN LEFRANC is from nowhere and everywhere. She lived in Sweden, Lebanon, South Africa and the UK but now lives in the US in a small Connecticut town which boasts the largest tree in the state. She’s an admitted tree hugger, who has on occasion, even been spotted kissing a tree or two.  Her debut picture book I WANT TO EAT YOUR BOOKS was published in 2015 by Sky Pony Press. When she’s not writing picture books, she’s time traveling to the 6th century in her middle-grade novel. You can find her on Twitter.

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MYC: Conquering the Dreaded Blank Page (and other drafting tricks)

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 reviewed our treasure trove of pre-writing posts. Today we’re on to starting — and keeping going on — your first draft.

You’ve finally arrived. You’ve got your coffee (or tea), your snacks, your favorite writing socks. Your writing space is perfectly set up, and you’ve got an hour or two of quiet uninterrupted writing time.

You open your computer, gently rest your hands on the keyboard, and…

Now what?

Many, many writers are daunted by the sight of a blank page. It’s a little unnerving to open a new document and realize that you’re exactly zero words into a 60,000+ word manuscript.

And even when you’ve tackled the blank page, there will come a moment when you sit down to write, and nothing comes out. You’re stuck. Where is this scene going? What happens next? It’s easy to waste a lot of time staring at the blinking cursor, trying to find your way back into your story.

While we can’t eliminate the fear and frustration completely, we can help you overcome.

Here are some of our favorite Winged Pen tips for conquering the blank page and pushing through the sticky spots:

Julie: I have a lot of time to stare at the blank page built into my writing process, since I usually prewrite for about six months and then draft in a month or so. But I also try to stop mid-scene at the end of each writing session so I can pick up the next day knowing roughly what needs to happen.

I also use a placeholder [TK] in the ms when there’s a fact or bit of research I need to look up. So I’ll write something like [TK research what moon jellies eat] and just keep going rather than stopping and going down the worm hole of doing research, which can pull me off track for days. I also use [TK] when I know something needs to happen but can’t figure out what. So I might write [TK Nic bickers with Mom over something to introduce frustration].

Jennifer: You know, the blank page has never been an issue. The beginning is always the easiest part for me. It’s everything past the first few pages that is hard. But getting past being stuck? For me, if I’m stuck, it means I took a wrong turn, and I need to go a few pages back and decide if this is really where I want to be. Sometimes I push through, but usually, I need to figure out what the problem is.

Michelle: I stop and have a heart to heart with my MC to ask (her usually) what the problem is. I also use the tricks that were in my Creativity to the Rescue post.

Halli: I tell myself I’m just going to write notes about the MS. Nothing official, just whatever comes to mind. Usually I find a place to start. I have also been known to write a scene or scenes out of order if that’s what strikes me at the time, but that is not my preferred method.

Gabrielle: Long walks and hot showers. Looking at art.

Gita: I give myself a very small amount of time to write. It could be 1 minute, 5, or 10–whatever seems very easy, no problem at all. I set the timer and usually I find myself needing more time. I repeat until I don’t need it anymore.

Richelle: From my years of writing to hard deadlines, I’ve learned that a blank page is far, far worse than bad copy. So I write something down, even if it’s complete garbage. I can always fix it later! I don’t remember where I read this, but one of my favorite pieces of writing advice is that your first draft is you telling yourself your story. Subsequent drafts are you telling it to someone else. I keep that in mind while drafting, and it eases a lot of my anxiety – after all, I’m just telling myself a story, not writing the next best-seller!

As for stuck spots, like Julie, I stop mid-scene – or sometimes mid-sentence – to keep my momentum going and give myself a road map for the next writing session.

And if that’s not enough inspiration, try these tried-and-true drafting tips:

  • Check in with your outline or other pre-writing work. Chances are there is a pivotal scene, key character motivation, or even a phrase of inspiration that will propel you back into your story.
  • Backstory is a great way to remind yourself where your characters have been and where they’re going. For best effect, connect your backstory scene with the current scene…and then watch as the ideas start flowing for what comes next. (For more on backstory, check out this post.)
  • If you’re stuck on a scene, try writing it in a different tense, or from a different perspective. Have the main character’s mom or best friend tell what happens next, or change from first person to third (or vice versa).
  • Often, when our scenes aren’t sparking enough for us to want to write them, it’s because we’ve made it too easy for our characters to get what they want. Toss a new obstacle or two into your scene and see what happens. It can be as simple as making their environment a bit more challenging, like having two characters try to talk over a fight happening nearby. Or if your MC is just trying to get to her bestie’s house, make it difficult for her. A sprained ankle? A lost child who needs her help? Those obstacles could add a spark to your scene and help you find new ways to keep going.

Above all, when you’re in the thicket of drafting, remember that perfect is the enemy of done. You don’t need anyone else to understand what you’re trying to do right now. You just need to get it down, to tell yourself what happens next.

Revisions are the magical place where your own bedtime story gets shaped into a book that we all want to read.

Tune in next week when we will look at ways to overcome the dreaded saggy middle!

MYC: Two Approaches to World Building for Science Fiction

Master Your Craft, writing craft, world buildingWelcome 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 with Two Approaches to Fantasy World Building. Today we continue with world building by looking at two approaches to science fiction world building.

After reading Julie and Gabby’s post last week, we actually considered not writing this post. Really, what’s the difference between world building for fantasy and science fiction? Call the world you’ve created a newly terra-formed planet in the Andromeda galaxy, drop the magic system and add in some photon blasters and your good, right?

We found that while the basic building blocks for your world remain the same, our approaches to world building were different. We started in different places and built our characters differently, so it seemed worthwhile to do the post after all. Here’s a quick look at two approaches to science fiction world building.

Rebecca: I start with a technology concept. It’s not necessarily a huge concept; I don’t write space opera. Rather, I like to explore small changes in the technology available to a world, and the large ramifications they might have. Like the iPhone. I’m dating myself here, but do you remember when it came out? I have a vivid recollection of a friend showing me his phone and tipping the screen sideways and seeing the image reorient itself and thinking “Wow!” But I didn’t think I’d ever spend $600 on a phone. I certainly didn’t think that phones like that would dominate the market. That everyone would use them, not just for calls and texts but to manage their calendars and for Internet searches and navigation and games and entertainment. This is what I find interesting…the unexpected consequences.

After thinking through the tech, how it would work and most importantly what trouble it world building, writing craft, master your craftwould cause, I start thinking about characters. What types of characters would be the most interested in trying a revolutionary and possibly dangerous technology? I love writing geeks and entrepreneurs! Who would be nervous about the tech, perhaps wanted outlawed? Who might steal the tech for themselves and what would they do with it? Suddenly I’ve got the two sides of a conflict and can start thinking about plot points.

Halli: I didn’t start my sci-fi novel with the idea of writing in this genre. I had an idea for the plot – boy has a big, huge problem – and planned to write it as a middle grade contemporary story. It wasn’t until I developed this boy, and he showed me how much he loved science, that I realized the only way he would solve his problem was with some kind of crazy tech. So I let my imagination run wild.

I researched everything from emotions to matter, the brain to blasters. Then I took it to the next level, the fiction part of science fiction, to achieve the results my character wanted. Of course nothing works right the first time, which led to bigger and badder tech and inventions. The novel is contemporary, but the ideas, tech, and inventions still had an impact on the belief and political systems, and ideas and cultures of the world my characters lived in.

Rebecca, Julie, Gabby and I all have different processes for world building. There are as many different ways to create a fictitious world as there are Star Wars fans. And whichever one you choose, however detailed your world ends up, enjoy the opportunity to create an original part of the universe!

Tune in next week when we will recap all thirteen posts on prewriting. The week after, we’ll dive into drafting your manuscript!

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.

 

Photo by Pam Vaughan

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’s on Twitter and her website is here.

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MYC: Welcome to World Building

  Master Your Craft 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 continued our series with Setting as a Character. For the next few weeks, we will be talking about the humongous and intimidating topic of world building. Today we start by looking at the topic as a whole and how it can be applied to contemporary stories.

At it’s most basic, world building is fun, the height of creativity. Close your eyes and imagine a society as strange and decadent as Panem, the capital in The Hunger Games, or place as real and (to some) familiar as a middle school basketball court. Let your imagination run wild, or keep things simple and true. What will serve as the best backdrop for your characters and action?

  • When is the story happening? Past, present, or future?
  • Where? Small-town, America or a galaxy far, far away?
  • What resources do your characters have at their disposal? Money? Magic? Advanced weapons? Or nothing but their own muscle and ingenuity?
  • What do your characters believe and how does that square or contrast with the beliefs of the society around them?

So why is world-building intimidating? Because if you allow yourself to dream up something spectacular and then take the ten or twenty pages to outline your masterpiece of a world, every critique partner will tell you to delete it and get your plot moving. The hard thing about creating a world isn’t dreaming it up, it’s dropping bits and pieces everywhere in your story, not serving it up in one big chunk.

Let’s look at building the world for a story. There are so many potential areas to consider,  it’s helpful to have a checklist:

  • Geography– environment, terrain, weather, rural/urban setting, natural resources
  • Politics– types/roles of governments, stability, power, laws
  • Society– population, city/town size, diversity, gender/family roles, education, language, architecture, naming conventions
  • Economics– finances, socioeconomic status, cost of living, unemployment, import/export
  • Belief Systems– religion, spirituality, practices, freedom, tolerance
  • Ideas/Cultures– values, dress, arts, heroes, communication, leisure time
  • Technology– types, availability, usage

So how can you avoid the ten-page info-dump? Here are a few hints about slipping your world into the story.

  • Character’s actions
  • Social context
  • Physical descriptions
  • Language/Emotions
  • Names
  • Sensory descriptions – smells, sounds, texture
  • Dialogue

Let’s look, again, at The Hunger Games.

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
From The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

In the first paragraph of the book, we learn that Katniss’s family is poor (bare mattress), and we’ll know by the end of the second page that her whole district is. We learn that Prim is important to Katniss. We don’t know what the reaping is, but we know it’s bad and will keep reading to find out more. The trick that Suzanne Collins pulls off so well, is to keep the action moving while you pull the reader about your world. To show the world it in everything the characters see, feel and think.

It is easy to pick out the world building bits in fantasy, science fiction and historical fiction, but what about contemporary stories? On one hand, writers of contemporaries get it easy. The world of their story is the world of the reader, so it’s all out there. That allows some short cuts. On the other hand, ours is a big world. Where does this story take place within it?

Let’s look at the first page of The Crossover by Kwame Alexander.

Dribbling

At the top of the key, I’m
MOVING & GROOVING,
POPping and ROCKING
Why you BUMPING?
Why you LOCKING?
Man, take this THUMPING.
Be careful though,
‘cause now I’m CRUNKing
CrissCROSSING,
FLOSSING
flipping
and my dipping will leave you
S
L
I
P
P
I
N
on the floor, while I
SWOOP
 in
to the finish with a fierce finger roll…
Straight in the hole:
Swoooooooooooosh.
from The Crossover by Kwame Alexander*

The constant movement, slang and trash talk sets the world quickly. A sports game. Did you guess we were on a basketball court before the swoosh? In this world, the young player knows he’s good and wants his opponent to know it too. You may not know much about the character yet, but I bet you’re not imagining this gym is in some fancy prep school. This world building is all done while he’s taking the ball to the net.

Tune in next week when we will explore world building in fantasy. You can also find more information on world building here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q4nVDoojTrs
http://nkjemisin.com/2015/08/worldbuilding-101
http://io9.gizmodo.com/7-deadly-sins-of-worldbuilding-998817537

*Apologies to Mr. Alexander. I could not get the formatting of his words nearly as cool as it is in print. See the published novel for the full effect!

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.

 

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult science fiction with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.

 

 

MYC: Setting as a Character

Master Your Craft

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 continued our series on research with Notes from a Time Traveler  This week we are talking about setting, but not just as a background for your character. We’re going to look at setting as a character in itself.Master Your CraftWe move through our day going from place to place. The house, the car, the office, we drive down the street, and stop at the grocery store. But as we move through each location, we usually don’t take note of things specific to each, such as the chip bag peeking out from the pile of dirty clothes on the floor of your son’s room, the number of cars versus SUVs on the roads, or the coffee ring stains on your desk. We see places and the objects in them, but, in most cases, they quickly fade from our minds.

As writers, is that what we want for our stories? Places readers hardly notice because every school is the same two-story brick building, and every classroom has four dirty off-white walls and twenty-five desks? Of course that is fine for some settings, especially ones your characters visit once or twice. And because we are still in the early stages of writing our novel, settings may be just that: a house, school, or deserted island called Lain Yu where our characters go, do something then leave. But for more frequented locations, I’m going to give you a different option. And even in the early stages of drafting, it’s not too soon to think about it.

What if settings were like characters with their own smells, tastes, sounds, sights, and textures, all capable of invoking feelings and memories in others? And if you look at settings that way…

How does a setting impact your characters, the decisions they make, and how they interact with other people and places they come in contact with?

Let’s look at some examples from my works-in-progress:

Mel walks into her science classroom. The smell of alcohol from yesterday’s dissecting project lingers in the air. A few kids fan papers in front of their noses, but Mel barely notices because her best friends are two sweaty teenage boys. She glances at the whiteboard, sees the topic “Genes,” her chest tightens and she collapses into her chair. Why? Because Mel is deaf and relies partly on hearing aides, but mostly on lip-reading to get her through class. The topic “Genes” will do doubt include long complicated words like ribonucleic acid and deoxyribonucleic acid. Those words are almost impossible to pronounce and definitely impossible to lip-read.

Here’s another example:

Most kids don’t mind taking the school bus home. It’s like a magic carpet transporting them from boring classrooms to home where video game systems are waiting. But for Troy who has Tourette syndrome and OCD, and a compulsion to count his steps then touch the floor after every ten, there’s no where to hide from laughing and finger-pointing classmates and the slick slime-covered floor that will end up on his own fingers.

Looking at these examples, how are the settings going to effect the character’s thoughts, behaviors, interactions with others, and even dialogue? Would Mel feel differently if she wasn’t deaf or if she walked into a math class instead of science? Another way to look at this is to imagine setting as a friend or foe.

Another reason to look at setting as a character is that it allows you to see it as much more than it’s everyday common function. A graveyard can become home, a tight space under the stairs can be a sanctuary, and a school can be a bully. And as your characters change and grow throughout the story, the setting can too.

Remember, not all places in your story need to be as detailed. Sometimes a house is just a house.

But if you decide settings in your story need a little more detail, the best resources I found are the Rural and Urban Setting Thesauruses from One Stop for Writers. These books describe over two hundred places ranging from a child’s bedroom to a police station to a rodeo. They have notes on all five senses along with tips, resources, and examples.

So how can we incorporate this into our novels? Look at your work-in-progress and use the chart below to capture details about the setting.

The Setting Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

You can also check out the Winged Pen’s posts: Urban Thesaurus and Rural Thesaurus.

Now that you have an idea on how and why to make setting a character, I’m going to leave you with an exercise. It’s not homework, I won’t be grading it, but consider giving it a try during free writing time.

Think about your childhood bedroom. Write about it for fifteen minutes and include all five senses. How did it look, sound, smell, taste, and feel(texture)? Now write how it made you feel (emotions).

I would love if you shared your writing in the comments!

Subscribe to The Winged Pen and never miss a post, including our monthly #FourOn400 writing contest for middle grade and young adult. Click to SUBSCRIBE!

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.

 

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LORD of MONSTERS by John Bemis

Do you like books with monsters and magic? Heroes and epic journeys? On June 6th, 2017 at a bookstore near you, one of the most imaginative books I’ve read in a long while will be released into the world. LORD of MONSTERS is the 2nd book in the OUT of ABATON series, and this Pinocchio retelling is sure to please.

Goodreads   |     Amazon     |     Barnes and Noble  |    Indiebound

Those of you who read THE WOODEN PRINCE will remember that it ends with Pinocchio transforming into a real boy. In the LORD of MONSTERS, Pinocchio must learn to adapt to being human at the same time as he’s figuring out his new responsibilities as a ruler (prester) of Abaton, along with his friend Lazuli, daughter of the former leader of Abaton, Prester John.

“But before they can get comfortable in their thrones, a fancy dinner at the palace is interrupted by an unwelcome guest-a monster! And this isn’t just any monster; it’s a manticore, a beast that was imprisoned centuries earlier. Desperate to locate the prison and make sure none of its other monsters were able to escape, Lazuli, Pinocchio, and their Celestial Brigade set out to save Abaton from these ancient beings.

Their journey requires intelligence, strength, and a dash of the magic only presters control. But when Pinocchio tries to use his powers, they have an unintended effect: he is turning back into a wooden automa. And if he’s not careful, he may lose his human form forever.

The second book in the Out of Abaton series continues John Claude Bemis’s reimagining of Pinocchio in an action-packed adventure that celebrates friendship, tolerance, and the power of being yourself.” –Goodreads

Sounds amazing, right? It is!

Two things set this story apart. The incredibly imaginative cast of characters and plot devices are unparalleled.  Also, themes of inclusion and tolerance are crucial to the climax. For me, this is an easy two thumbs up!

And now, it’s my pleasure to welcome John Claude Bemis to the blog!

LORD of MONSTERS has many unique characters (glowing aleya bubbles, a superfluous worm, mushroom men, …) and plot devices (thunderseeds, sleeping sand, an underground forest, …). Could you pick a few of these and tell us what inspired the idea?

John: Thank you! I had so much fun exploring the strange world of Abaton and all its fantastical inhabitants. I like contrast in characters, especially secondary characters. I knew I needed a misfit team of knights for Pinocchio and Lazuli and liked the idea of a pair of them being opposites. One small, one big. One gregarious and the other half comatose. Goliath, who is of a race of diminutive mushroom people, is feisty and fast-talking. While Kataton is a physically intimidating reptilian chimera who’s slow and lethargic. Something about this combo just seemed funny and ripe with possibilities and surprises.

The superfluous worm came about as a plot device honestly. I needed a way for the characters to communicate across long distances in Abaton, but I wanted to do something I hadn’t seen in other fantasy stories. So I invented Riggle, this worm who can be chopped in half and becomes essentially two Riggles. Whatever one Riggle hears, so does the other. So Pinocchio has one Riggle and his father Geppetto has the other and they can pass messages along through Riggle (er…Riggles). It also cracked me up to have a character so amiable about being severed in two. My sense of humor skews weird at times.

One thing that stands out in LORD of MONSTERS is the rich world-building. Will you share a few tips or tricks for creating these well-developed worlds that capture readers and pull them inside?

The trick to fantasy world-building is grounding it in reality. It needs to follow particular rules, even if the reader is unaware of the rules. I think Frank Lloyd Wright said, “Limits are an artist’s best friend.” I established in THE WOODEN PRINCE that the magic of Abaton revolves around the four elements. So in LORD OF MONSTERS, the various cultures needed to reflect how the magic of air, water, fire, and earth would affect cities, transportation, rituals, and everyday life. Also since Abaton is located in the Indian Ocean, I tried to give the world a feel that was connected to south Asia and east Africa with the food, geography, architecture, etc. It’s funny how much research you can do as a fantasy writer. You’d think we could just make it all up from our imaginations, but I find pulling from reality makes the most magical worlds.

In THE WOODEN PRINCE, Pinocchio transforms from an automa into a real boy. In LORD of MONSTERS, Pinocchio explores what it means to be human. What do you hope readers will take away from Pinocchio’s discoveries?

I feel very connected with Pinocchio’s journey. He just wants to understand what it means to be alive in the world—what it means to have friends and family, to handle adversity in an admirable way and to experience all the joys the world has to offer. His discoveries are, in a way, all our discoveries; they’re just amplified a bit because the world is so new to him. In the new book, Pinocchio wrestles with what it means to be given this gift of life and to have it potentially taken away. Once you’ve seen the other side, who wants to go back to being a dull automa? That’s heartbreaking. And breaking hearts makes for good storytelling in my opinion.

In addition to being an author, you also teach writing at various workshops and retreats. Where can we sign up?

I love getting to work with writers of all ages to help them deepen their craft and create stories that are singular to their artistic vision. My favorite writing workshop that I lead is at Table Rock Writers Workshop every August. The attendees are so talented, and we have plenty of time to dig in deep to what makes powerful stories for young readers. Also students get lots of individual feedback on their writing, so that makes it fun to see writers walk away at the end of the week with a whole host of new ideas for what to do with their characters and stories.

What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?

I’ve been developing a couple of new stories, which I’m sorry to say I’m real hush-hush about. But one is a middle-grade novel being shopped to publishers. The other is a YA sci-fi that I’m in the thick of revising. They’ve both been so much fun and are different from what I’ve done in the past. I promise I’ll be getting back to Abaton soon.

Lightning round (*hands John a brownie for strength):

If you had a superpower, what would it be? Teleportation, for sure. I’d pop over to Venice after dinner every night for a cup of gelato on the Strada Nova.

Wooden pencil or mechanical? Mechanical. I’m practical that way. But honestly, I’m most partial to the Pilot G-2 pen. I buy them by the dozens.

Coffee or tea? Tea first. Then midmorning, coffee.

Sweet or salty? I’m salty for sure.

Dog, cat, or other? Cats

Plotter or pantser? Unapologetically, a plotter

Any advice for all those aspiring authors out there? Don’t just think of writing as sitting in front of your laptop. Just as important is the time you spend thinking. So discover where you do your best creative thinking. For me, it’s taking long walks in the woods with a backpocket notebook. I call it my thinking walks. (It took my wife forever to believe that this was real work.) Having time on the trails to be deep in my imagination is where I hatch all my best character, plot, and setting ideas. Make time for it—wherever you can—ever single day. You’ll be rewarded with surprising story insights.

An inspiring speaker and entertaining performer, John Claude Bemis is the author of Out of Abaton: The Wooden Prince and Lord of Monsters, the Clockwork Dark trilogy, The Prince Who Fell from the Sky, and Flora and the Runaway Rooster. He received the Excellence in Teaching Award from UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Education for his work in the schools as an author-educator and served as North Carolina’s Piedmont Laureate in 2013. John lives with his wife and daughter in Hillsborough, NC. You can find him at his author website, on Instagram, and on Facebook.

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.

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Writing Historical Fiction, or, Notes from a Time Traveler

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 continued our series with an introductory post on research. This week, we’ll share our thoughts on digging into historical research.

For years I was haunted by a dream of a young woman walking through long grass. I couldn’t see her face, but I could hear her breathing hard, because she wore a corset and the hem of her brocade dress was damp and heavy. She carried a letter in her hand as she made her way toward a small building, a kind of folly, to read in private. The Belvedere, VersaillesThis person didn’t fit into the book I was working on at the time. At all! But then last fall, I happened to read about the invention of hot-air balloons and a real-life event in which a Parisian girl saved a balloon pilot from injury. This happened right before the French Revolution, which made me think about Versailles and its gardens and court dresses and then I knew: my protagonist would be the tough city girl who stopped the balloon from crashing—and fell in love with its pilot—and  she would be the girl with the letter, ruining her expensive dress as she strode through the gardens of Versailles.

My current project, Enchantée, is a YA historical fantasy, which means (at least to me) that it’s rooted in historical fact and touched by magic. The magic I get to invent, but the details of life in the 1780s—the settings, historical events, clothes, food, economy, transportation and more—I need to research. And all of that research is in pursuit of one thing: to make my readers feel that they are THERE, that they’ve traveled back in time and space.

But HOW?

When I started, I knew a bit about the eighteenth century from my grad school days, but not much. I’d listened to Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette. I’d visited Paris, a long time ago. I’d seen period films set in the 1780s. For me, this was enough to begin, to rough out a story arc. Then I starting researching. Then I wrote. Then I researched again, this time with more focus because I had a better idea of what I needed to know. And then I wrote more. And so on and so on.

Research, I’ve discovered, is a spiral process: you can’t possibly know what you need to know at the beginning, so inevitably you’ll go back to the source many times. Knowing this has helped me deal with the inevitable overwhelm that comes with trying to get a grasp on a historical moment.

I’ve read more about the period than will fit in my book; in fact, what shows up in the novel is only the tip of the iceberg. Will readers care about the difficulty of producing hydrogen gas for balloons? I highly doubt it! But understanding it added another layer of authenticity to the story and helped me see the challenges my balloonist would face, which in turn sparked changes in the plot. This wasn’t something I’d expected to happen, but I was thrilled when it did.

Yet as K.M. Weiland stresses in her great post on writing historical fiction, even more than getting the facts right (which you need to do), what counts is creating a feeling of authenticity.

But how do you do that? Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Tiny details can be time machines. Learning that the pomade used in hairstyles in the 1780s reeked after a week gave me a powerful sensory detail. Learning that Versailles crawled with rats and that anyone could wander its halls helped me see the glittering palace with fresh eyes—and devise a way in for my heroine.

Read what interests you. Try biographies, social and political histories. You don’t have to start with the most complex one, either, unless it speaks to you. Know that you’ll probably come back to whatever you read, so be sure to take notes and save links to websites. (I do this by importing links into Scrivener.)

Use historians’ bibliographies to track down Books to Read, September 2015documents from the period, many of which are available online or included in books. These primary sources are what historians use to write their accounts; they include letters and diaries, or things like a first-hand account of a balloon flight in 1783, and they are gold. Not only because they contain the priceless details you want, but they will be written in the language of a person from your period.

Which brings me to voice. Reading eighteenth-century letters as well as novels, histories, and poems helped me shape my protagonist’s voice. I wanted her voice and thoughts to feel contemporary enough for YA readers of today, but also to feel authentic to the time. I’ll admit that for me, balancing these two issues is an ongoing struggle.

If your chosen period isn’t too far in the past, you may find maps, old guidebooks, or travel writing useful. Even present-day guidebooks can contain helpful information, especially if aspects of your setting still exist—as they did for me in Paris and at Versailles.

Indulge in period films, your pen at the ready (next to the popcorn, of course). Surround yourself with photos of the places you’re writing about. Follow pinners on Pinterest who are fascinated by your setting and your time period and pin like crazy. Track down museums that feature objects important to your book—in my case, the Bata shoe museum and the Murtog D. Guiness Collection of Automata.

Seek out passionate experts of your period. They’re not all academics. I follow people on Pinterest who pin eighteenth-century clothes; their pins function as a virtual wardrobe when I’m dressing my characters. If, for example, you want to set your novel during the American Civil War, you might find a re-enactor’s blog useful. I was captivated by the work of a Finnish blogger who sews 18th century dresses. I also stumbled across an online agency that rents weapons to acting companies; one of its owners provided the best description I’d found of how to fight with a French small sword. Many of these experts will welcome questions—they love to share their passion.

The most important thing I’ve learned is both humbling and inspiring. As Newberry winner Karen Hesse, author of Out of the Dust wrote, “Even after researching for a full year, after reading thousands of pages of material, both primary and secondary sources, I could never recreate an historical period with absolute confidence. I needed to make so many leaps of faith and asked the reader to leap with me.”

So yes, you need to research, but time travel happens through imagination—something you already have. Happy writing!

Looking to read some MG and YA historical fiction? Here are a few of my favorites:

Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity
Lois Lowry, Number the Stars
Laurie Halse Anderson, Chains
MT Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing
Elizabeth George Speare, The Witch of Blackbird Pond

You can read interviews with MT Anderson here and Laurie Halse Anderson here; Emma Darwin takes you through the process in her book.

Do you have any tips on writing historical fiction? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Next week, Halli will be here to talk about setting as a character.

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. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.

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MYC: Research – Make Your Story Believable

Photo by Pexels

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 continued our series with a post on voice. This week, we’ll share our thoughts on research.

Research can mean different things depending on the type of book you’re writing. Rebecca writes science fiction based in contemporary settings. Gita writes historical fantasy. You can probably guess which of us spends more time doing research. Since we are critique partners with extremely different approaches to research, we thought a conversation might be fun. Here we go!

Rebecca: I love sci fi and action-adventure stories both in books and movies, and this drives what I write, but I can’t help thinking that my lack of excitement about research also drives my choice of genre. Don’t get me wrong, I know I’ll never write a manuscript without doing research. I’m all about filling in the gaps in my knowledge that will allow my stories to come to life, but I start with a story and let that drive the research agenda. I can’t imagine studying a time or place for the fun of it and then following the story that bubbles up.

I might dive into questions like:

  • How could I plausibly explain technology that teleports my character across the planet?
  • How could my protagonist disarm a gunman with nothing more than her bare hands?
  • Or, what relevance might Frankenstein have to my theme of a revolutionary technology that is turned against its designer?

Gita: I’ve always been that person who, while visiting an old French palace or a Viking grave site, turns to you and whispers: don’t you think this place is haunted? To me, the past is strange and mysterious, full of fascinating stories that might want telling. That said, while I’m a pretty omnivorous reader, I don’t consume many history books for fun; I’ll get the spark of an idea—what about something to do with the French Revolution?—and then start digging.

My research questions go something like this:

  • What did Paris look like—all the way down to the streets and bridges—in 1789?
  • Which factors contributed to the French Revolution? (HUGE topic.)
  • Why did people powder their hair—and how did women get theirs to be three feet tall?

Rebecca: Gita is much more serious about her research than I am, but that doesn’t mean I’m not organized. If I’ve used a source, I want to remember what it was so I can refer to it in revision. Much of my research is from the Internet and is organized there too. I use Pinterest to save pictures of people that have inspired my characters, locations I’ve used in settings, and objects that find their way into my stories. I use YouTube to save “How to” videos. I also save websites links and articles right into my project on Scrivener.

Gita: When I begin researching, I start with secondary sources, such as histories of the French Revolution or a cultural history of fashion at the end of the 18th century. In order to write these second-hand accounts, their authors rely in part on primary documents: letters, clothing, books, paintings, magazines, maps, newspapers, diaries, and more. This stuff is gold, because it was created by people who lived during the period—people just like my characters. With some detective work (try starting with the bibliography at the back of a secondary source) and the help of a librarian, I can gain access to many of these primary documents. But how much should one research? I want to be responsible, but at the same time I don’t want to squeeze the life out of my story for the sake of historical accuracy. I recognize that the Paris of 1789 I depict in my novel will be my Paris of 1789, not anyone else’s. Well researched historical novels, films, or series (I’m currently obsessed with “Harlots”) can also help provide texture and inspiration. I’m a hyper-visual person and maintain several Pinterest boards where I collect images of places, clothes, and objects that play a role in my current project. I’ll use my boards to double-check a detail on a dress or for inspiration.

Rebecca: Research, for me, is the stuff that makes story credible, taking it from creative to plausible. It’s the work that allows you to drop bits into description, action, dialogue and characters’ thoughts that breathes believability into an imaginary world. For the reader to trust a writer and feel a story, even a story set in a world very close to the one they live in, research is a must.

Gita: As a reader, I’m always looking for that incredible feeling of stepping through a door into another world. As a writer of historical fiction, I can’t bring a reader into that world unless I figure out for myself what it might have been like to live at that time—and in order to do that, I research. Then I try to dream myself back there. The truth is, I never really know what I’m going to find. That’s part of the fun.

Next week, Gita will be back to talk in more detail about her approach to research for historical fiction.

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. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult science fiction with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.

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MYC: Finding Your Voice

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 continued our series on character development with a warning to not let our friends write bad books!!

This week we’ll tackle the ever-elusive craft of VOICE!

Some of you may ask: Why is voice part of character development?

Well, friend, I’m soooo glad you asked. I once put the question to my Winged Pen peeps: What comes first, voice or plot? I truly thought it was one or the other that came first to any and everyone. I was so surprised when only two of us chose voice as our starting point.

Regardless of how you tackle writing a story, I stand by developing your character’s voice early on in the process. A strong voice will draw your readers in and make your story memorable. Voice sets the tone and creates opportunities for your character to take on the plot headfirst.

Articles and books often portray voice in a vague you’ve-got-it-or-ya-don’t kind of element. Everyone has a voice, it’s a matter of uncovering yours. Here are a few pointers how:

 

Do: Don’t:
1. Know your character well. (age, worldview, family dynamics, academic abilities, etc.) Interviewing is very helpful!! 1. Stereotype
2. Monologue (either out loud or on paper) 2. Confuse accents or colloquialism with voice
3. Read & re-read books with voice you love—Hound Dog True by Linda Urban and The Tiger Rising by Kate Dicamillo are a few I turn to. Conversely, pinpoint books/paragraphs you find aren’t authentic in voice and discuss why. 3. Don’t use your character’s culture as a way to add flourishes to their voice (eg. confusing and outlandish metaphors)

Number 3 under Don’ts leads me to what voice is versus what it isn’t:

Voice Is: Voice Isn’t:
1. Compelling 1. Confusing
2. Specific 2. Generic
3. Unique 3. Bland
4. Purposeful 4. Passive
5. Revealing 5. Disjointed

Knowing your character is like having a black and white coloring sheet and voice is the color you add to the picture. Mood, attitudes, personality, worldview all play a part in the colors you choose.

As an author you also have a unique voice. Do you write short, simple sentences? Are you prone to purple prose? Either way, you need to refine your writing and ensure it meets the Do’s and Is’s above. Both forms of writing are effective. Pick up any of Kate Dicamillo books and be wowed by her strong, poignant writing. Then pick up Laini Taylor and fall in love with magically spooky, but oh-so beautiful descriptions.

Your plot may control your character and her voice, but do not underestimate voice. It has the power to drive your plot. When done well, both your plot and your voice will compete in creating a well-developed story.

 

USEFUL TIDBITS FROM THE PROS:

[Voice] can reflect region, ethnicity or historical era as well as character. However, with these variants, a little goes a long way.

Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress

Voice= Person + Tense + Prosody

+ (Diction + Syntax + Tone + Imagination + Details)

Second Sight by Cheryl B. Klein

Once you discover the authenticity within yourself, you can move into all the other voices that inhabit your imagination with an assurance you never before experienced.

The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children by Nancy Lamb

When you are at ease with family and friends, listen for the way you have of expressing ideas, your authentic voice.

The Writer’s Compass by Nancy Ellen Dodd

2 Voice Challenges:

  1. Your characters must have such distinct voices and speech patterns that if I were to take the dialogue tags out of your scenes, I could tell exactly who is speaking.
  2. When I pick up a book with the cover ripped off and no name on the pages, I should be able to read a paragraph and identify you as the author.

Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole

You’re after a particular, distinctive verbalization construct that perfectly conveys how he views the world and how his mind works.

Plot Versus Character by Jeff Gerke

Kristi is the author of KARMA KHULLAR’S MUSTACHE out with S&S BFYR August 2017. She is repped by Patricia Nelson at Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.

MYC: Friends Don’t Let Friends Write Bad Books

Mug that reads "Friends don't let friends write bad books."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 continued our series on character development with a Pantser’s Guide to Character Development. This week, we’ll share a method of using a long-form, messy synopsis to get early feedback from your critique partners. Because friends don’t let friends write bad books, right?

First, let’s clarify something. This post is not about writing the type of synopsis, usually 500-750 words, that is sent out with a query, or, for agented authors, with a pitch package to editors. We’ll cover that type of synopsis later on in Master Your Craft. This is about a long-form, messy synopsis written as part of the prewriting process to capture the general story and character arcs.

Imitation is the Highest Form of Flattery

Back in November 2015, in the super-secret Winged Pen Bat Cave (i.e. Facebook group), fellow Penny Kate Manning posted the transcript of a #mglitchat in which the amazing Jen Malone suggested sending out a rough-form synopsis like this to critique partners during planning stages so that they could ask 10-12 “what if” brainstorming questions. (Note: Someone storified it, but the Tweets about the synopsis happen earlier in the thread.) We all thought it was a fabulous idea, from a fabulous author, so a few of us tried it! The results were amazing–this tool is now a permanent part of my toolbox.

But Don’t Just Take My Word For It!

“I find the synopsis to be not only a great pre-writing tool, but also (especially when accompanied by a short writing sample) a great way to flesh out the story with critique partners and my agent.” — Jessica Vitalis

“I’ve found it really helpful to separate planning from writing. I use more of a chapter-by-chapter summary than a “synopsis” form. But I find in the midst of a drafting, I’m not as creative as when I’m just thinking big-picture. Drafting my WIP, there were several times I thought forward to the next chapter and was pretty ho-hum about what I thought would come next. Then I looked back at my outline and my reaction was “oh-yeah!” because what I’d planned was so much bigger/more fun than what was running through my mind at the moment. It’s like focusing on just the BIG things in each chapter helps me narrow in on the exciting and keep the story’s momentum moving fast.”– Rebecca J. Allen

“I used the messy synopsis trick with my latest WIP. I sent a six-page synopsis out to three of my writing buddies and asked them to have at it. They replied with questions and suggestions that helped me broaden the plot, flesh out my characters more deeply, and fix plot holes before I’d even dug them. AND thanks to doing the messy synopsis first, I didn’t need to write as many drafts to get my current WIP ready to query. I can’t imagine drafting without going through this step just prior to outlining chapters.” — Michelle Leonard

Master Your Craft

 

Details, Details, Details…

Unlike the tight, soul-less (oops, did I say that out loud?) synopsis that goes with pitch packages, this one is meant to be messy. It’s a dumping ground for all the things you’d like to work into your new story based on the prewriting you’ve already done on your concept and characters. It covers all the major characters, the main plot arc, but also the subplots, the twists, the unexpected turns. Put whatever you know about the story down on paper.

Whenever a group of writers get together to hash out a process, like we’ve done for Master Your Craft, there is bound to be some disagreement about the order of things. Some of the Pennies using this technique write the synopsis first before they do the character work outlined in the previous three Master Your Craft posts. Some do it after. I am somewhere in the middle–although I don’t send the synopsis to anyone until I’ve done the character work, I do work on them simultaneously. Do what works for you! But do this before you start to write.

So once you have around 5-7 pages that includes everything you think is going to happen during the story, send it off. Ask your most trusted critique partners, ones who already know your style and have critiqued for you before, and ask them to destroy it offer their feedback in the form of “what ifs” questions (What if that cat was really a magical jellyfish? What if that boy character was really a girl? What if the antagonist was also the love interest?),  comp titles that you should check out (oh, this reminds me of Goonies!), and any other thoughts they might have. The results are bound to jump-start your creativity and take your story to places it might not have gone without this technique.

 

Additional Resources:

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A photo of author Julie Artz
Photo credit: Gail Werner

JULIE ARTZ writes stories for children that feature the natural world, folklore, mythology, history, and all that is magical about those things. In addition to contributing to The Winged Pen, she works as a developmental editor for Author Accelerator, is a Pitch Wars mentor, and contributes regularly to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. She is represented by Jennie Dunham of Dunham Lit. You can also follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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