A book about writing can be, for a writer, a lot like an early romance. There’s a lot of excitement and promise in the beginning (“This book will help me fix my plot problems!” “Finally, I’m going to get this character right!”), but then there might be some disappointment (“I didn’t understand the section on voice”). Some books will stand the test of time, while others might become a faint memory.
I was fortunate enough to have one excellent book recommendation early in writing, which served as my go-to reference as I struggled through my first novel. The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children by Nancy Lamb was my rock and reference, reminding me that action had to spring from the character and to increase the stakes gradually. This book is well-organized, so that writers can easily dip in and dip out, to get the information and reassurance they need and get back to writing quickly.
Now working on my third book, I was lucky enough to discover a new (to me) wonderful reference at the library. Writing Fiction for Children: Stories Only You Can Tell by Judy K. Morris (University of Illinois Press) can be enjoyed by writers at any stage, but I think is of particular benefit to writers who are comfortable with structure but are looking for ways to deepen their stories. Also, unlike many books for children’s writers which usually cover all genres, this book was written particularly for middle-grade authors in mind. Morris’ book is divided into six aspects of story: Plot, People and their Places, Making Your Story Whole, Reader as Storyteller, Nitty-Gritty Matters and Finally (Ending). Each section has 2-4 subjects within that topic, told in a warm, thoughtful manner, with many examples from Morris’ own experience and other books, particularly The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Stone Fox and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
Morris writes intelligently about subjects that I have not seen in other books about writing for children but as writers, we intuit should be there. There is a section, for example, on Setting as a Context for Meaning, where Morris reminds us that every time and place has a cultural, social, political and moral context, and the way the character behaves and thinks will be guided by these rules and expectations, whether it’s the first day of school or a holiday at a grandparent’s house. Great books do this with great subtlety, and Morris breaks down this idea to allow writers to analyze these factors explicitly and allow the plot and character to strengthen as a result.
I must admit, guiltily, that I am not usually one to do the exercises in writing books because I am doubtful of their actual benefit. However Writing Fiction for Children’s exercises set the book apart as they are particularly creative and well-thought out. For example, as the first exercise based on your manuscript, Morris urges writers to describe their story for three audiences – the writer, a potential editor or agent, and a child as way to remind yourself that all three people are critical to the story. Morris then notes, with thoughtfulness and encouragement typical of the book, when each description may be useful to you:
At moments when your writing is going badly or your energy flags, the first description can help you get back to your story’s core…The second description is likely to include something about character and setting. Editors like an interesting, appealing central character in a new and intriguing situation. The third description of your story will probably be centered on plot.
As you might have guessed, it didn’t take long after borrowing the book that I decided that I needed to make Writing Fiction for Children a permanent part of my writing library! It’s true love! What books have helped you the most?