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.

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Samantha M Clark
Samantha M Clark is the award-winning author of THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST and ARROW (Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster) and has always loved stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. After all, if four ordinary brothers and sisters can find a magical world at the back of a wardrobe, why can't she? While she looks for her real-life Narnia, she writes about other ordinary children and teens who've stumbled into a wardrobe of their own. In a past life, Samantha was a photojournalist and managing editor for newspapers and magazines. She lives with her husband and two kooky dogs in Austin, Texas. Samantha is the Regional Advisor for the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, and explores wardrobes every chance she gets. Sign up for news and giveaways at www.SamanthaMClark.com.