I’ve loved writing ever since I can remember—I wrote poems and stories at home, and it was my favorite part of school (and not just because I usually received A+ on my writing assignments). When I started writing middle grade novels, I was surprised that my talents weren’t enough. I think I do a great job of coming up with ideas, and creating fun, vivid characters, but I didn’t realize that most writers have at least one area they have to work on way harder than the rest. For me, that was plot. I kind of masked my problem, because I was able to add tension to my manuscripts by always considering the worst thing that could happen to my characters…but that wasn’t enough to create a full, exciting arc that could propel readers through an entire novel. I’m always working on finding ways to improve my writing, and am thrilled to see how much stronger my plotting is now.
I’ve never been a fan of outlines, but I realized that just knowing the beginning, ending and some possibilities for the middle, plus character sketches, wasn’t enough. After studying plotting, I found a method that works great for me. It’s a Plot Clock, created by writing coach and mentor, Joyce Sweeney, and breaks the novel up into four acts, starting in the normal world, which prevents me from jumping into the middle of a situation before readers care about my characters.
When I first started writing children’s books, I had no idea how deeply I’d have to dive into revisions. I love seeing characters come alive and watching all the wonderful layers evolve through revision after revision. I don’t remember having to revise my stories when I was in school. We’d get an assignment, hand it in, get a grade…end of story. I’ve really been impressed with the way I see writing taught now—with children as young as elementary school receiving feedback and being asked to revise their writing. I can’t even imagine writing children’s books without receiving critiques—feedback from peers and professionals really can help your writing grow!
Here are some things I’ve learned that I hope will help you, too:
- Take a good look at your strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to know what they are, so you can really focus on them! If you’ve had writing critiqued, what types of comments are there? I used to hear that some of my earlier manuscripts seemed episodic…it took me a while to realize it was because my plotting wasn’t strong enough to propel readers through the entire story.
- Try to swap critiques with people whose strengths are your weaknesses.
- Critique often—it helps the person who wrote the manuscript or story, but it also helps you a lot, too. It’s easier to spot areas that can be strengthened when you critique the work of others…and in time, you become better at finding those areas in your own manuscripts.
- Read as many books as you can, and stretch past your favorite genre to explore other types of books, too. Once you know your weaknesses, you can search for books that master those aspects.
- Read your story out loud. It’s easier to find places that need streamlining, dialogue that doesn’t feel natural, and where you can improve the pacing. Reading out loud often feels different with an audience, so even if you’re alone, you can record yourself, or read to your pets.
Teachers and parents—I’d love to know what you’ve noticed about the strengths and weaknesses of your students or children, and what you do to help them become stronger writers. And to all the writers out there—what are your strengths and weaknesses, and how have you overcome your weaknesses?
Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle-grade novels and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her twelve and fifteen year-old daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer pup who was rescued from the Everglades. Visit Mindy’s blog or Twitter to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.