Writing

Hop Down the Rabbit Hole

Writing is tough.

Writing is tough. At any level. From learning to put one word after another (and in order!) to construct one meaningful sentence to the classic high school essay to writing award-winning books, it isn’t easy. It’s a rewarding kind of tough, though. Challenging but rewarding as most creative ventures tend to be.

The blank page can be a fearsome opponent. The nothingness intimidates. One of the magical rewards of writing is overcoming the mountain of blank space with a word or an idea. The breakthrough lets the creative gears fall in place and allows the river to flow. 

Perhaps as daunting as the blank page is a second barrier to writing. Its roots lie in the way we are taught to write from day one in elementary school. It’s constrained, tightly-focused writing. The expectation a well-written sentence has to come out of the gate and hit the center target with great precision using a minimum of words. Don’t get me wrong, focus is an absolute in teaching beginning writers. What would written communication be like if we all wrote exactly like your favorite five-year-old breathlessly telling the story of how the clown at the birthday party tripped and popped the balloon elephant he was making which scared the magician’s rabbit who escaped and pooped while hopping across the birthday cake? 

So, out of necessity, we are taught to write tight from the beginning. We are taught we must not take a false step off the path or else, like in Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder, we crush a butterfly and scramble the entire space-time continuum. But what happens when we’re ready to take a step and can’t see even a hint of a path? Like with the blank page, we can get stuck. Paralysis by analysis. 

See? Writing is tough.

So, what’s the remedy?

Well, we first need to loosen the thumbscrews of the deeply ingrained idea of user-focused writing. We need a distraction to help us step back and attack the blank page and/or the paralysis of a constrictive focus. Pull back and give yourself some space. That’s what drafting is. It’s finding your way but on a wide and sometimes rambling path.

(Psst, come closer. I don’t want the writing police or your high school English teacher to hear this.) There are also rabbit holes! Yes! The dreaded rabbit hole can help your writing in more ways than you think if you use them with discipline and measure. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 640px-Down_the_Rabbit_Hole.png

John Tenniel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The rabbit hole of research is one of my personal favorite places to hang out as a writer. It’s part of what brings me joy as an ever-curious 58-year-old writer. I used to feel guilty about this research rabbit hole obsession until I discovered that, while the rabbit hole can be a distraction if entered unchecked, it was creating path after path after path for my writing. Paths forward, new paths, paths that veered away from dead ends on discarded writing projects. What has always been considered a waste of time and focus became a great creative tool for me. 

The rabbit hole has become a way to fight through blank page syndrome and break the shackles of tight, and often restrictive, focus that is still ingrained in my brain from elementary school. It’s an idea generator, a brainstorming tool, and a source of necessary or (often at the time) obscure facts which may worm their way into future stories. Out of chaos comes order.

Chaos into order.

The tricks to making the rabbit hole work for you as a writer are simple but can be difficult in execution. The first trick is to stay the master of the rabbit hole, whether it’s the internet, the library, a stack of articles, or books. You can’t turn yourself over completely to it and tumble endlessly from researching what kids might have eaten on the banks of the Nile in the Old Kingdom period to find yourself 45 minutes later checking out the latest Beyonce videos and fashions. 

The second trick is a very useful skill. The beauty of a skill is it can be learned, practiced, and mastered. It’s the ability to look at the chaos, organize it into a fashion that makes sense to you, and store the organized pieces for later. It’s like being a sculptor. Take a block of stone, wood, or clay and remove the pieces that don’t belong in the composition. The skill is the ability to manage information. The skill to find the gold hidden deep within the rabbit hole and then establish order from chaos.

As you can see, rabbit holes can be a writer’s friend and a valuable tool in the writer’s toolbox. Writing is tough. Any tools we acquire to help us over the hills and humps that stand in our way are more valuable than gold. Because, in the end, the most important thing in writing is writing that next word and building our stories one word at a time, brick by brick.

The moral of the story.

Find what works for you. 

Find what brings you joy in doing creative things. 

Do those things. 

Repeat.

 

Alex Lehner, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

A Case for New Beginnings

Writing Excuses is in its 17th season!

For years now I’ve listened to a podcast called Writing Excuses. It’s a show that focuses mainly on writing technique, and it’s hosted by a plethora of veteran authors, one of whom is the very talented Brandon Sanderson. A few seasons back, Brandon made a comment about deleting the early chapters of a manuscript and rewriting them completely (in fact, Brandon talks about this often and even includes many of the deleted scenes on his website).

As a writer who barely scrapes together enough time to write a first draft at all, the idea of deleting entire chapters was (okay…is) pretty terrifying. All that work, all that setup, all those precious words just…gone. 

I have beginnings on the brain this month largely because I’m a middle school teacher, and September is a month of beginnings. New classes, new students, new Spongebob Squarepants socks. As I think about it now, there have definitely been school years that could’ve used a better introductory chapter. Life, of course, doesn’t allow us to delete and redraft, but as a writing technique this is something I’m warming up to.

Maybe you’re like me — balking at the thought of trashing entire sections of a manuscript. With that in mind, I’d like to make a case for new beginnings by highlighting a few authors who aren’t shy about laying their work on the chopping block.

The 10% Rule

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King recalls early advice from an editor that suggested his second draft should be 10% shorter than the first. The idea that much of editing is deleting transformed King’s writing and helped propel him to the success he has today. Writer and editor Erin Whalen digs into the details of this strategy on her blog, and it’s definitely worth a look.

Short Chapters

Another wildly successful author who’s recently branched out to middle grade is James Patterson. In countless interviews and articles about his craft, Patterson’s notoriously short chapters are often highlighted and pondered. So much of what gives Patterson’s books the punch and the pace they have is his willingness to sometimes say as little as possible. The underlying mantra here is not too dissimilar from my own mindset when I have to stop by a fellow teacher’s classroom on my way out at the end of the day — get in, get to the point, and get out!

 

Murder Your Darlings

This is perhaps one of the most well-known ideas where writing and editing is concerned, but just to be clear, no one is advocating for actual murder here. The phrase, which has taken various forms and been attributed to several different authors (William Faulkner among the most famous of them), centers on the idea that sometimes deleting the things most precious to us is the best way to advance a story. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule (Margery Bayne at the writing cooperative does a great job unpacking this idea more fully), but the takeaway for me, both as a writer and as a human, is to edit objectively. Getting swept up in the emotion of something is a surefire way to keep stuff around that probably needs to go, whether it’s chapters in a manuscript, junk in the attic, or toxic people in my life (but just to reiterate, actual murder is bad).  

The writing graveyard isn’t as scary as it sounds!

Whether you’re writing a new book or just starting a new season in life, a willingness to remove the unnecessary and even start over entirely is profoundly helpful. I’ve already got a few chapters in my new manuscript that need to go, and thanks to techniques like the writing graveyard, I don’t necessarily have to toss anything permanently (though I suspect some of it should definitely be tossed permanently). 

Best of luck as you embark on new beginnings this fall, and feel free to drop other editing strategies in the comments. Happy writing!

How To Write Chapter Books with 8 Chapter Book Authors

From the Mixed Up Files writer Samantha M Clark here, and a couple weeks ago, my debut chapter book series, the GEMSTONE DRAGONS, was released by Bloomsbury. Moving from writing my middle-grade to writing chapter books has been a lot of fun but also had some challenges. So for this post, I chatted with some other chapter book authors about their experiences writing for this category and want to share what we said.

Before I get to our chat, a few quick notes about chapter books, in case you don’t know what they are:

  • While the sweet spot for MG readers is 8 and up, chapter books are generally appropriate for ages 6 and up.
  • They’re shorter than middle-grade too. My shortest MG, AMERICAN HORSE TALES: HOLLYWOOD, is 20,000 words. Chapter books, however, are usually between 8,000 to 12,000 words. My GEMSTONE DRAGONS are each around 10,000 words, laid out in the book with lots of spacing between the lines and a bigger font size.
  • Also, although MGs sometimes have interior illustrations, chapter books always have them. For example, the first GEMSTONE DRAGONS book has 16 illustrations sprinkled throughout the 111-page story.
  • And finally, chapter books are nearly always designed to be series; quick, multiple-read books that hook young readers into becoming lifelong readers.

So, how do you write them? In this post, you’ll hear from the following authors:

Marya Khan and the Incredible Henna Party by Saadia FaruqiSaadia Faruqi, whose brand new MARYA KHAN AND THE INCREDIBLE HENNA PARTY launches from Abrams Kids on October 18, with a second book, MARYA KHAN AND THE FABULOUS JASMINE GARDEN coming out March 28

Kelly Starling Lyons, whose first two books in the MILES LEWIS series, KING OF THE ICE and WHIZ KID, came out from Penguin Workshop in July

Kathryn Holmes, whose CLASS CRITTERS series from Abrams/Amulet added the third book, MADISON MORRIS IS NOT A MOUSE!, on August 16

Jennifer Torres, whose CATALINA INCOGNITO series published by Aladdin, is adding its fourth book, SKATEBOARD STAR, on November 22

Debbi Michiko Florence, whose fifth JASMINE TOGUCHI book, BRAVE EXPLORER, comes out from FSGBYR/Macmillan on October 18

Rie Neal, whose third and fourth books in her ASTRID THE ASTRONAUT series, published by Aladdin, are coming soon: HYDROPONIC HIJINKS on October 11 and ROBOT REBELLION on February 28

Lyla Lee, whose eighth book in her MINDY KIM series, MINDY KIM MAKES A SPLASH, came out this past July from Aladdin/Simon and Schuster

(And by the way, all these authors and two others are offering books in a giant giveaway right now here. Ends Aug. 20.)

Samantha: What did chapter books mean to you as a kid and what were your favorites?

Rie: I loved chapter books as a kid! I think I especially enjoyed the predictability of the setting and characters, the fact that I could read them so quickly, and … they had pictures!! I kept reading chapter books even when I was older, sometimes, when I wanted a quick dose of comfort. My favorites were the Polk Street School Kids and Babysitter’s Little Sister.

Samantha: Same here on the comfort. I loved the illustrations in chapter books and would scour them for every detail that had been in the text. When I saw the illustrations for my GEMSTONE DRAGONS books, I did the same.

Mindy Kim Makes a Splash by Lyla LeeLyla: As an immigrant and child of immigrants who came to the US at a young age, chapter books in English were my first exposure to “American culture.” In order to understand the new country I lived in and also catch up on the stories (fantasy or contemporary) my new friends in the US liked to read, I read a lot and even taught myself English through these books. I had quite a few favorites but I especially loved the Ramona Quimby books and The Magic Tree House series.

Samantha: I love that, Lyla! Why did you all want to write a chapter book series?

Saadia: I have a very popular early reader series called YASMIN, perfect for kids upto second grade. Once those readers grow a little older, they want something more advanced and complicated, but they’re not ready yet for middle grade novels. After several requests from parents and teachers about this gap, I decided to write a series for YASMIN fans who are older now.

Miles Lewis: King of the Ice by Kelly Starling LyonsKelly: Growing up, I loved to read, but I didn’t see chapter book series with Black kids as the stars. That invisibility sent a message that our stories didn’t matter. I knew that they did. My mom wrote and acted in Black theater. Our home was filled with books about heroes like Mary McLeod Bethune and Malcolm X. I didn’t realize it then, but a seed was being planted that I could help make a difference through writing books that centered Black children.

It was like coming full circle when my debut, NEATE: EDDIE’S ORDEAL, a chapter book in a series created by Just Us Books was published. I enjoyed coming up with a plot for their wonderful characters and dreamed of one day having a series of my own. A decade later, a Penguin Workshop editor invited me to write an early chapter book. Here was my chance to create the characters I longed to see. At every school and library I visit, there are children who are unsung. They need to know that they’re seen and loved. Toni Morrison famously said, “If there is a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” My MILES LEWIS and JADA JONES series are tributes to kids who dare to shine by being who they are.

Catalina Incognito: Skateboard Star by Jennifer TorresJennifer: Chapter books meet kids when they are beginning to see themselves as readers. To me, there’s something so special about that moment. Like Kelly, I want children, especially children who are newly devouring words, to see themselves and their stories in books. To be able to picture themselves having magical adventures like Catalina, who reflects my own Mexican-American background and experience.

Samantha: Such great answers. Chapters really are a great bridge between early readers and MG, and as the sweet spot — I think — for helping kids become life-long readers, it is SO important that all children are represented. When you first set out to write a chapter book, what did you do to prepare?

Kelly: My best advice is to read mentor texts. That’s where I started. When I was writing for Just Us Books’ NEATE series, they sent me the first three titles to study. That helped me understand how to draw readers in, the way chapter books are put together, what elements help establish characters and aid in their growth and development through the story. I did the same when writing my JADA JONES and MILES LEWIS series. I read other chapter books to see what styles resonated with me, what innovations I could bring and learn some structural tips. Read the mentor texts for the joy of the story and then take them apart and figure out how the writer made them sing.

Class Critters: Madison Morris Is Not A Mouse by Kathryn HolmesKathryn: Like Kelly, I did a lot of reading of the chapter books that were already on shelves. I’d previously published YA (and had written MG, though my first published MG will not release until 2024), so I needed to get a sense of both the younger voice and the rhythm of a story of this length. Additionally, my daughter was a toddler when I started working on the CLASS CRITTERS series, and when I took her to the playground, I found myself observing young elementary schoolers. How were they interacting with one another? What kinds of conversations were they having? What issues were they dealing with that I could potentially tackle in a story? Being a fly on the wall, so to speak, gave me a lot of inspiration and insight.

Rie: ASTRID isn’t my first chapter book series (I did a write-for-hire series for Little Bee Books before this), but I wanted to put my two cents in for this one! Yes to mentor texts for sure! And in terms of getting into the language level for chapter books, one tool I’ve found really helpful is to use a service that will scan your draft and give you a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score (or any other similar metric). My tendency is to write my first drafts at more of a middle-grade reading level, which is too complex for chapter books. So, after I go through developmental edits, I use the Flesch-Kincaid (it’s available through MS Word in Editor–Document Stats–Insights), and I go through sentence by sentence until I’ve simplified the language down to between a 1.0 and 2.0 grade level rating. It sounds super tedious, I know, but it has really helped me!

Samantha: I analyzed mentor texts too! I bought some and borrowed a bunch more from the library, then I looked at everything from chapter breaks, number of chapters, sentence structures, voice… I broke down some of the stories into outlines so I could see how they were different of the same to my MG. And I did have the problem of making some of my language too MG when I was working on books 3 and 4, which come out on Dec. 27. I’ll have to remember the Flesch-Kincaid tip, Rie! It seems like a lot of us also write MG. Outside of language, how is writing chapter books different from writing MG?

Saadia: In some ways, it’s the same. You still have to write the best possible story, develop your characters, and take care of your craft. But in other ways, writing a chapter book is very different from middle grade novels. The plot has to be much simpler, and the main character takes center stage in a very obvious way. I think it’s so much fun writing chapter books!

Jasmine Toguchi: Brave Explorer by Debbi Michiko FlorenceDebbi: I agree with Saadia! As a writer, you still need to know and develop the characters just as deeply in chapter books as in novels for older readers. But because chapter books are for newly independent readers, it helps to create characters that have memorable personalities, quirks, and phrases so that the reader can anticipate some things and feel successful. Like how Jasmine Toguchi always says “Wowee zowee” when she’s excited and “Walnuts” when she’s disappointed. And also, chapter books are often part of a series, so it helps to be able to carry those things through all the books.

Samantha: Great tips! Speaking of series, how did you approach that aspect of chapter books, ie. creating characters and a world that would continue?

Kathryn: Because each book in the CLASS CRITTERS series has a different protagonist, I spent a lot of time world-building their classroom. I knew as I wrote book one, TALLY TUTTLE TURNS INTO A TURTLE, that every kid Tally interacted with was a potential protagonist down the line. I took the time to name every child and come up with an animal that they could transform into, as well as a possible reason for the transformation. I made a spreadsheet! With 24 kids in the class, I also had to think about how to introduce them in a way that would make them (and their idiosyncrasies) feel familiar in subsequent books without the number of characters ever becoming overwhelming. David Dixon (narrator of book 2) and Madison Morris (narrator of book 3) both appear in Tally Tuttle’s story, and Tally features in their books—but David and Madison’s stories also introduce kids that aren’t in Tally’s story. So, with each book, the classroom feels a little more fleshed out. No kid is just a side character; they all have the potential to be the hero of their own story one day.

Jennifer: While each of the books stands alone, I knew I wanted the main character, Catalina, to grow and change over the course of the series. So I kept track of the skills she develops from book-to-book and spent a lot of time thinking through how her relationships with others would shift as she learns and responds to challenges. I also had some threads I wanted to pull through all four books: Cat’s Stitch and Share lessons at the library, her best friend’s latest telenovela obsession, a magical disguise. I think that helped create a consistent and familiar world.

Astrid the Astronaut by Rie NealRie: For Astrid, I wanted to use the breadth of the series to especially show how she’s growing as a team player and as a friend. Teamwork is SO important for astronauts (and for so many other professions, and just for life in general! Ha!), and it’s something that Astrid doesn’t really factor into her plan in the beginning–she’s too focused on doing things her way. So while each book has its own plot and character arc for Astrid, the greater arc of the series also shows her friend circle slowly expanding with each book–often with characters only mentioned briefly in previous books later becoming Astrid’s friends (instead of just acquaintances–or in the case of Pearl, enemies!).

Lyla: With MINDY KIM, I wrote books about topics that I myself cared about/found interesting when I was a chapter book reader myself. Getting a puppy for the first time (and proving to my parents that I am responsible enough for one), feeling singled out and sometimes like a downright outcast when I was the new kid at school that packed food from my culture for lunch, trying to find ways to preserve ties to my family and culture as a child from an immigrant household (but still have fun, too!), or even something as seemingly simple as learning how to swim. Even though the series isn’t strictly autobiographical (Mindy’s family and mine are very different, for example), putting myself back into Kid Me’s shoes really helped me develop the series and the world of the books.

Samantha: Wonderful! What’s the biggest thing you have learned from writing this chapter book series so far?

Debbi: Chapter book readers are the best! These are newly independent readers, and there’s nothing like the feeling of pride, success, and joy of reading an entire book yourself, alone, for the first time. And because of this, these readers are extremely loyal and enthusiastic. I get the best reader mail from readers who fall in love with Jasmine Toguchi and I love recommending other chapter book series to them.

Lyla: For me, the biggest lesson I learned was definitely that the most seemingly random and specific experiences in life can actually resonate with a lot of people. For example, when I first wrote the first MINDY KIM book, MINDY KIM AND THE YUMMY SEAWEED BUSINESS, I thought: “Okay, so I had this not-so-good experience in third grade where I was the new kid and the other students made fun of the lunch I brought from home” and for the third book, MINDY KIM AND THE BIRTHDAY PUPPY, I thought: “Well, in third grade I was so obsessed with dogs that getting a dog was all I could think about/was my ultimate goal in life.” These (and other plot points that I didn’t mention here) are seemingly arbitrary things that I pulled from my own life, but I still get emails today from both adults and children telling me they could relate with these parts of the stories.

Samantha: What was the biggest challenge creating this chapter book series?

Kathryn: Writing a series with different protagonists means coming up with a new, distinct voice for each book. It was a challenge to make each protagonist sound like themself—rather than a third-person omniscient narrator telling everyone’s stories. But it’s a challenge I’ve loved! For instance, David Dixon was my first time ever writing a boy narrator, and it was a delight to get inside his head. (I channeled my five nephews…) One of the most satisfying moments in each book’s process has been when I can fully hear the character in my head, speaking in their own unique voice as they experience their adventure.

Gemstone Dragons: Opal's Time To Shine by Samantha M ClarkSamantha: Different voices would be a challenge! For the GEMSTONE DRAGONS, I used third person because it had the classic feel of the chapter books I had grown up with, so that has been easier. But I’d say the biggest challenge has been separating myself from the MG mindset when I’m working on chapter books. As Saadia said earlier, there are a lot of similarities. I plot the stories the same way as my MG, just with fewer subplots. But I have to keep the readers’ age in my head much more when I’m writing and revising for both the language and story. For example, book 3 in the series has spooky elements and it was challenging to find just the right level of spookiness for this age group. What’s your best tip for writers who want to get into chapter books?

Saadia: Read a ton of chapter books! There is a lot of variety in the books already out there, in terms of word count and reading level. You want to make sure you absorb all that variety before making up your mind about where your book will fit.

Jennifer: I agree with Saadia! In developing the CATALINA INCOGNITO series, what most helped me get a feel for the voice, pacing, and plot structure of chapter books, was reading lots of chapter books. Luckily, there are so many good examples (many of my favorites are represented here!) and studying them is a joy. I also think it’s good to spend some time understanding chapter book readers, and who they are developmentally. Many of them are exploring new kinds of independence, discovering strengths and interests, and navigating their roles in friend groups and teams. They’re kind and inquisitive and often hilarious. All of that can inform and enrich your writing.

Samantha: Yes! Great advice. This has been such a fun conversation. Thank you to everyone! And readers, good luck in creating your own chapter books.