Writing

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.

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!

50 Writing Prompts

If you struggle to come up with ideas or you find yourself hitting roadblocks in your writing, prompts can be a good way to get unstuck. Read each prompt and free write, letting your imagination take you to strange and unusual places. Don’t censor your thoughts. Just keep the pen to paper and let it flow.

Many of these prompts have you writing about yourself and your reactions. The reason for that is to help you explore your own emotions and experiences. One of the most important skills as a writer is being able to get in touch with your character’s emotions. Writing from your own life helps you explore many different feelings and motivations. Once you’ve done that, you can transfer those deep feelings to your characters.

Next take these prompts and write them using a character of your choice. Choose characters who will respond differently than you would. That will help you explore a range of emotions and reactions.

Keep your writing prompts in a notebook. After you finish each one, circle or highlight lovely turns of phrase, good descriptions, or raw emotions. (You can also do that on the computer.) Next time you get stuck in your writing, flip through the notebook/computer files and glance at the highlighted parts. Often those small bits can spark a story idea. And whenever a prompt inspires a story, go with it.

To create your own writing prompts, use index cards or small pieces of paper. On 9 index cards, write types of people that interest you (student, artist, explorer, princess, etc.). On 9 more, write strong and unusual verbs. On the next 9, come up with positive and negative character traits or quirks. Another 9 can contain settings, and on the final 9, jot down villains you wouldn’t want to meet (these can range from monsters and creatures to humans or aliens). Shuffle each pile, keeping them facedown. Then use the five cards you select to create a story. Reuse them regularly and expand the piles as new ideas strike you.

If you’d like more writing prompts, check out Reedsy.com to get new weekly prompts in a variety of genres. Here’s the link for children’s writing, but you can use the drop-down menu to select other categories: https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/for-kids/. Happy writing!

Now take out your notebook and get started:

Write about waking up one morning in a totally different place than where you went to bed.

Close your eyes, open a dictionary or a random book, and put your finger on the page. Jot down the word your finger is pointing to. Do it 3 times, and then combine those three words in a story.

One thing I’ve never told anyone is . . .

Create a character who’s the complete opposite of you – physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, etc. Then give this character a challenge or problem. How would they solve it?

Think of the meanest, cruelest character. Then write a story that transforms that person.

If I could do anything_______________, I’d ______________________________________.

Recall a favorite smell. Close your eyes and reminisce about the scent and taste. Experience it fully. Try to describe it fully. What does it remind you of? Write about a time when you smelled this.

Your character is at a Haunted Hayride or a Funhouse. All of a sudden, one of the props becomes real. What happens and what do the characters do?

You walk into a schoolroom and there’s an alien (or another strange creature) in place of the teacher.

If you could give a speech to the whole world, what would you like to tell everyone?

Strand your character on an island alone. As they explore their surroundings, what do they find? Items from past inhabitants? Unusual plants and creatures? Other inhabitants?

It’s 3 a.m. Someone knocks at the door. What do you do? Describe your feelings. Who is it? What do they want?

With your eyes closed, point to a place on a globe or map. Find out a little more about that spot and write a story about someone who lives there.

You’re locked in a room with a ticking bomb. Now what?

You are given a new identity and sent to a new location. Who are you now? What do you regret leaving behind? How do you adjust to your new life?

You’ve just been given a hundred thousand dollars but you can’t spend it on yourself. How would you use that money? How does it make you feel to do this, and how do others react to what you’ve done?

You’ve been recruited for a top-secret spy mission. Where have you been sent, and what dangers do you encounter?

Pick a color. Describe how it makes you feel and why. Explore all the places you’d find this color. Think of one place you’d never find it, then change it to your color and describe how people react.

One day, time starts running backward. What happens?

Choose an emotion you struggle to control. Write about what life would be like if you gave it free rein? What if everyone around you did? Now write about a world devoid of that emotion. You don’t have it, and neither does anyone else.

Your town is being invaded. They’re after one person. Who is that person? And why have these invaders come?

Pick any object in the room. Make it come alive, and write about life from its point of view.

A little child’s life is in danger. You are the only one who can save this child. How do you react? What’s happening around you, and who can you trust? How do you keep this child safe?

What was the most important lesson you ever learned? Create obstacles and problems that will show a character that lesson.

My most embarrassing moment was . . .

A message in a bottle washes up on shore. Who is it from? And what do you do about it?

If you could spend time with anyone (dead or alive), who would you choose and what would you do and talk about?

As the clock hands reached midnight . . .

You exchange bodies with someone. How do each of you experience your new life?

If I could relive one day in my life, I’d choose . . .

You wake up to find your house filled with animals. What do you do?

You can choose one superpower. What is it, and how will you use it?

What would you do if you had no fear?

You’ve gotten in trouble for something you didn’t do. What now?

Describe a magical kingdom under the sea.

You turn into a tree. What is your life like now?

You’re floating on a cloud high above the world. How does it feel? What do you see?

A terrorist hijacks the plane you’re on. What does the terrorist want? How do the passengers react? Where does the plane end up?

You suddenly shrink to two inches tall. How does the world look now?

Your best friend isn’t who you think they are. Who are they? How did you find out? And what will you do now?

If I were in charge of the world, I’d . . .

Describe life through the eyes of an animal.

You find yourself in your pet’s body, and your pet is living in yours. What now?

You have a day where everything goes wrong, but it all turns out right.

You’re granted three wishes.

Float down a drain.

You wake in a bug’s body. Explore life from this new point of view.

You’re transported back in time. Where do you go? What happens and how do you feel?

The funniest thing that ever happened to me is . . .

Hold a small object in your hand and write about how it feels, what it’s used for, where it came from. Now let it take you on an adventure.

You’re lost at sea. How do you feel? What do you see around you? What do you wish for most?