For Writers

Five Writing Tips From Five MG Authors

I’m always on the look out for new writing tools and techniques to try, so for this From The Mixed Up Files post, I asked some of my middle-grade author friends how they approach 5 different parts of the process to write a story: world-building, starting a story, pacing, plot and, especially for Halloween, writing spooky scenes. Here’s what they told me:

How do you begin the work of creating a story, from your initial idea to writing your first line?

Lorien Lawrence answered this question. Lorien is the author of THE STITCHERS and its sequel THE COLLECTORS.

“For me, all of my books start with a song. I have to make a soundtrack before I begin. That way, I get immersed in the mood of the story, and I can start to choreograph scenes in my head even when I’m not physically writing. I’ve been creating these kinds of playlists since I was a kid, and they really help me to stay inspired.”

Oooh, great idea!

How do you create the world your story will be set in, and while you’re writing, how do you make that world seem spooky?

Victoria Piontek answered this question. Victoria is the author of THE SPIRIT OF CATTAIL COUNTY and her most recent novel, BETTER WITH BUTTER.

“Creating the world where my story will be set is one of my favorite parts of writing. It’s so fun to invent a world that feels authentic enough to be real yet unique enough to be fictional. To get that just-right mix, I use inspiration from real life. If I see a building or a natural feature in my day-to-day life or travels, I try to remember the essence of the place by jotting down sensory details in my writer’s notebook. Later, when I’m drafting, I look back at those details to help me recall what it’s like to stand in front of a crumbling house or a vast ocean vista. To make my worlds scary, I pick the creepiest of those sensory details and turn up the volume, really leaning into the way an eerie place can feel on the darkest nights.”

Jotting down details is fantastic.

What are you best tools for writing scenes that are super spooky and get your readers turning their lights on at night?

Janet Fox answered this question. Janet is the author of THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS and her most book, CARRY ME HOME.

“I think of all the things that scare or scared me. When I was a kid, I was terrified of the dark. I was sure a monster lived in my closet. I would pile all my stuffed animals around me like armor (literally surrounding myself with my stuffies) – it was the only way I could close my eyes. So anything in the dark, anything that makes an unexpected noise, anything that could sneak up and ‘eat’ me, anything that emerges from the shadows…Really, I try to scare myself as I write. If I do that, usually the reader is scared, too.”

Eeep! Yes, using our own fears in spooky stories is useful.

What tools do you use to figure out the arc for the complete story?

Ash Van Otterloo answered this question. Ash is the author of CATTYWAMPUS and the recent A TOUCH OF RUCKUS. And check out their great plotting table, with drink!

Plotting cards with author Ash Van Otterloo

Ash Van Otterloo’s plotting organization.

“I’ve tried so many different tools for organizing my plot, but what I keep coming back to is very simple and tactile: a basic outline template or beat sheet that best matches my story, a giant dry erase board, an empty table, and 25-50 sticky notes!

A simple story structure template, such as The Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat Beat Sheets, helps me create a to-do list at the start of each new chapter. These lists remind me what needs to happen over the next few scenes, both for the internal emotional arc of the main character and for the external events that nudge that character along their way. (For instance, how does my character need to change in the next few pages? How is their attitude shifting? How will external events help create that shift?)
Sometimes, I know bits of story I’d like to include, like puzzle pieces, but I’m not yet sure what order they should happen or where. I like to keep these on individual sticky notes, so I can rearrange them until they make logical and emotional sense, creating the best tension. Being able to physically move the possible beats around helps me connect with the story’s rhythm best. But don’t be afraid to try many different systems to find what works for your unique creative style!
Most importantly: don’t forget the snacks. The snacks are crucial. I strongly recommend sour gummy worms or raspberries. “

Snacks! Yes, you need snacks to get through puzzling together a good plot. Where is my chocolate?

Pacing is so important in stories. How do you know when to make the action fast and when to give the readers a pause? And what tools do you use to speed up or slow down the story?

Ally Malinenko answered this question. Ally is the author of GHOST GIRL and the upcoming THIS APPEARING HOUSE.

“Pacing, especially in spooky stories is absolutely important. Readers need action of course but too much feels overwhelming. You have to build in a time for everyone to catch their breath. Most of what I learned about pacing comes from reading. I am keenly aware when I’m reading a book when too much is happening and I mark the place where I know I could have used a moment to catch my breath. So when I’m writing, I tend to do a bunch of high action moments back to back and then, when re-reading, determine if I need a pause or a second to catch my breath. For me, it’s something I have learned over time, through trial and error. I think of it like a movie: I want the action to build and build and take it to the top, but then I pull back, regroup my characters and give them a moment to process what just happened. Like in the scary story, when they find a safe room and have a few moments before the hatchet comes through the door. Honestly my best tool for managing pacing is my trust in my beta readers. They always tell me when I’ve fed them too many scares in a row! But it does take some trial and error, as is always the case with writing. So my best advice is read, read, read!”

Beta readers, or critique partners, are so useful for this!

Such great advice from these wonderful authors. It makes me want to get back to my own stories.

Got any tips of your own about these? Share in the comments.

WNDMG: South Asian Picture Book Biography: Meera Sriram talks about BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: THE ART & LIFE OF AMRITA SHER-GIL

Hello Mixed-Up Filers! I’m pleased to welcome Meera Sriram, author of BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: THE ART & LIFE OF AMRITA SHER-GIL (Penny Candy Books, 2021), illustrated by Ruchi Bakshi Sharma,  and other titles for an interview at Mixed-Up Files today.

Hi Meera, thanks for joining us today at Mixed-Up Files.

About BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: THE ART & LIFE OF AMRITA SHER-GIL

BETWEEN TWO WORLDS is a non-fiction picture book for children (6-11 years). It is  illustrated beautifully by Mumbai-based artist Ruchi Bakshi Sharma. This book is a biography of Amrita Sher-Gil, a remarkable painter and a pioneer of early 20th century modern art. Amrita lived and created art on her own terms. Her father was a Sikh scholar from India and her mother was a Hungarian Jewish opera singer. Throughout her life, Amrita traveled between Europe and India. She was also a woman ahead of her times in a male dominated art world. This story layers Amrita’s journey navigating cultures over her artistic journey trying to discover where her art belonged.

On Amrita being a rebellious artist

Even as a little girl, Amrita hated being taught art. She always believed art came from the heart. Growing up, her art reflected her bicultural identity. While in Paris, she learned a great deal about European art. She painted many portraits of herself, her family members, friends, and lovers of both sexes. And she did this unabashedly. During this time, she also longed to paint what she’d experienced in India. Eventually, she found her “voice” by fusing western techniques and Indian subjects – something that was ground-breaking in the artistic world during that period. Amrita also pushed boundaries in how she centered women in her paintings. As a feminist, her art was unapologetic about brown female nudity, and her work celebrated ordinary, less privileged women at a time when women were mostly objectified in art.

On reading and writing picture books and how they are an integral part of your writing career

I did not read picture books as a child growing up in India. I fell in love with them when I started reading them to my daughter many years ago. I was blown away by the themes, aesthetics, and more importantly, the impact they can have on children. I believe they are an intensely powerful medium as they have the ability to influence young minds. When I noticed the invisibility of children of color as well as the entire gamut of immigrant experiences, I decided to tell our stories. I hope to continue to write about people, places, and experiences less commonly seen in stories for children.

On a moment in your life that inspired this story

I was sitting on my bed in my parents’ home on a summer night in India. Someone sent me a New York Times article on Amrita Sher-Gil pointing out what an incredible story it would make. I’d known about Amrita Sher-Gil. In fact we’d picked up a picture book for my daughter a few years before that. However, the article prompted me to dig deeper. I sat there obsessed for several hours reading up on the internet. During this time I made a small but striking personal connection with some of her experiences, especially around identity, life across continents, and blending cultures while creating. In those wee hours, I found the inspiration to tell her story.

On the process of immersing yourself in Amrita’s story and writing it for children

Initially, I was reading up every news bit, essay, and article I could find on the internet. Later, I managed to lay my hands on an important primary source, two volumes of AMRITA SHER-GIL: A SELF-PORTRAIT IN LETTERS AND WRITINGS (Tulika Books, 2010) by Amrita’s nephew Vivan Sundaram. This is a compilation of Amrita’s letters and writings along with notes by the author offering chronology and context. It also includes over a hundred reproductions of Amrita’s paintings and many amazing photographs. I researched and made notes for months. The narrative flowed out lyrically in my first draft and stayed that way. However, it took me many revisions and ample aid from critique partners to weed out details and extract the essence for her emotional trajectory as she tried to find out where she and her art belonged.

As an Indian American, Meera has lived equal parts of her life in both countries. Previously an electrical engineer, she now writes for children and advocates for diversifying bookshelves. Meera is the author of several picture books including THE YELLOW SUITCASE (Penny Candy Books, 2019), illustrated by Meera Sethi, BETWEEN TWO WORLDS (Penny Candy Books, 2021), illustrated by Ruchi Bakshi Sharma and DUMPLING DAY (Barefoot Books, 2021), illustrated by Inés de Antuñano. Her book, A GIFT FOR AMMA (Barefoot Books, 2020), illustrated by Mariona Cabassa, is the winner of the 2021 South Asia Book Award and the Foreword Reviews Indies Silver Award. She has also co-authored several kids’ books published in India. Meera believes in the transformative power of stories and likes to write about people, places, and experiences less visible in children’s literature. For more information, please visit: http://www.meerasriram.com.

Writing For Children: 11 Ways to Rediscover Your Childlike Wonder

When I was a kid I used to sneak into people’s coat closets when visiting with my parents, hoping to find a Narnia world on the other side. I would huddle in the dark, beneath winter coats, imagining an older world long gone as I hid among musty wool. If I sat long enough I just knew I’d be transported there!

Now, as a children’s book author and writer of fantasy, I get to step through doors into other worlds. The easy part is stepping into that new world. The hard part is creating a world, characters, and story from a child’s point of view. How to get into that view? By finding my childlike wonder again.

Do you remember what filled you with wonder as a kid?

I do. Or at least I try. I walked along rock walls under the stars when the world was asleep. I climbed trees and sang songs to the woods. I swam all day becoming as brown and leathery as an armadillo. I reveled in first snows and made snow angels. I hid away in rose bush caves to write – all the while believing that magic existed, and every day held little miracles.

But what evokes childlike wonder now as a grownup? And as adults writing for children, how can we recapture that? 

Regaining a childlike sense of wonder isn’t about returning to a childlike state, it’s about letting yourself be awed by the little things in your grownup life. Our mundane responsibilities can often dull our wonder, but just because every day is filled with little things it doesn’t mean they aren’t miraculous.

However, keeping our childlike wonder can be difficult when grownup duties mount. In order to do my job well as a children’s author, I often need to rekindle and sustain my kid wonder. But how?

Here are 11 ways to evoke childlike wonder:

  1. Re-visit pictures of ourselves as kids. Search through specific memories. Journal in our voice from that moment. What were we excited about? What did we most desire? What made us sad?
  2. Did you write diaries as a child or teen? Re-read them to inspire that voice of youth in your own writing.
  3. Look at the world from an unfamiliar perspective. Make a snow angel. Hide in a closet. Climb a tree. Be pulled along in a little red wagon (if you can fit!). There are Big Wheels for grownups now. Try it!
  4. Create a new bucket list with your kids or grandkids. What do they dream of doing that you could do together?
  5. Do your kids write stories? Read them to grasp a worldview through their own words. What do they notice? How do they feel?
  6. Revisit the age of your characters. Go back to that time in your life and draw a map of your neighborhood. Walk through it in your mind and journal about it. What do you see? How do you feel? How did you react to events there?
  7. Do a stand-up dramatic read-aloud of a scene in your story.
  8. Face a childhood fear (mine was going down in our creepy 200-year-old cellar where I was sure bodies were buried).
  9. Engage in child’s play with your kids. Hide-n-Seek, Tag. A favorite of my son and mine was battling sock wars to Irish music.
  10. Eavesdrop on kids at the mall or park. Take notes of their conversation.
  11. Visit those places you spent time at as a child. Walk in your childhood shoes again.

I did #11 not so long ago. I resurrected an old manuscript rich with one of my childhood settings. It prompted me to go back in time to the campground my parents owned and operated in New Hampshire. When I drove up, I was zapped back to the 1970s.

Suddenly, I was nine-years-old again. I swam in the pool, fished with my dad, romped through the woods, collected dead butterflies and shotgun shells, whizzed about on strap-on roller skates, played pinball machines, and spun 45 records on the jukebox.

Returning was an emotional gut punch. I could be a child again in that place of innocence but just as it resurrected joyous moments from childhood, it also brought back painful ones.

I also rediscovered how every day as a kid was about being lost in the magical moments. Like finding tiny miracles over and over–in the little things.

What did I take away from this trip for my writing?

  • Vivid feelings of childhood – the good and the bad – to enrich my writing.
  • Revisited my creative foundations and reinforced my yearning to write for kids.
  • Fortified the connection from childhood to adulthood.
  • That I can mend my past while forging my future from it.
  • A renewed sense of childlike wonder, boxed up with a crooked bow and broken seams.

Most importantly, I remembered how awesome it was to be a kid again, to be lost in the moment. And that every day as a kid held magic. By renewing my own sense of childlike wonder, I could once again be lost in it while writing – and tap into the magic of the little things.

I also realized that in order to do my job well as a children’s author, and to find joy in it, I needed to rekindle my kid wonder not just once—but again and again. Just as I pondered this, a video of babies going through tunnels popped up in my Facebook feed. I couldn’t help but laugh at their wonder—and knew I would keep finding mine and seek it out in unexpected places that surround us every day.

How do you tap into your inner childlike wonder and write from a child’s point of view? Share your tips!