Posts Tagged writing advice

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 Advice From MG Women Authors

To celebrate Women’s History Month, I put out a call for writing advice from women middle-grade authors. Here are their wonderful tips:

“Write your truth! There’s a reader out there who needs it.” —Mae Respicio, ANY DAY WITH YOU

“All the talent in the world will not get you over the finish line in publishing. Persistence is the true measure of a professional.” —Janet Fox, THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS

“A mistake is never a mistake unless you don’t learn from it.” —S.A. Larsen, MOTLEY EDUCATION

“Half of writing is daydreaming. It’s not putting words on a page, it’s staring out a window waiting for the story to float by.” —Lija Fisher, THE CRYPTID CATCHER

“Writing is an act of empowerment: You’re creating your own world. It’s a place for your individual voice to ring out. So tell the story you need to, and enjoy the process!” —Diane Magras, THE MAD WOLF’S DAUGHTER and THE HUNT FOR THE MAD WOLF’S DAUGHTER

“Nobody writes well in a first draft. I think the reason many writers fail to finish projects is because they are putting too much pressure on themselves to be a ‘good’ writer – whatever that means. I am a firm believer in Anne Lamott’s advice to write crummy rough drafts. The important thing is to get the story on paper so you have the raw material to work with. Then, in revision, that’s when the real work starts, sculpting, shaping, and finding the best way to tell your story.” —Tara Gilboy, UNWRITTEN and REWRITTEN

“Connect with other writers. They are a wonderful source of motivation and support, and will help you to hone your craft.” —Anne O’Brien Carelli, SKYLARK AND WALLCREEPER and ONE LIGHT

“Every piece of writing you create contains a piece of yourself. It can feel scary to send that piece out into the world, into the hands of other people. But when you realize (and you will) that you’re brave enough to do it—and strong enough to survive the possibility that others may not be careful or even kind with that piece of yourself—you will join in the miracle and magic of a writer’s gift: You will have healed a corner of the world, someone’s world, with that small gift of you. So be brave.” —R.L. Toalson, THE COLORS OF THE RAIN and THE WOODS

“Your first draft is not supposed to be perfect! It is easy to get intimidated when you read a great book or interesting news story, but it’s not only possible, but probable, that the writer’s first draft wasn’t good — at all. That’s okay, first drafts aren’t supposed to be good. They exist to get the information down, then you go back and fix it all up and make it sound better the next time through it, and the time after that. Give yourself a break if your first draft (or first time you play a new song or try to draw a photo or learn a new dance move) needs love and attention to get better. That’s all part of the process!” —Andrea Pyros, MY YEAR OF EPIC ROCK and PINK HAIR AND OTHER TERRIBLE IDEAS

“As a former advice columnist and life coach, I’ve doled out a fair number of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ over the years. My favorite piece of advice is this: ‘Don’t get too comfortable.’ That’s not to say you should sleep on a bed of nails or run a marathon in heels. I’m talking about stepping outside your comfort zone. Of doing the thing that scares you; that makes you say, ‘I can’t.’ Sure, it will be scary at first, and you may want to throw in the towel. You might even decide that trying is too hard—and you won’t even bother. But complacency comes at a cost. It will chip away at your confidence, until the ‘I can’ts’ feel more natural than the “I cans.” But that’s fear talking. You can do more than you realize. So, do the thing that scares you, whether it’s taking up a new hobby or starting a journal. If you don’t succeed, that’s okay. You can always try again.” —Melissa Roske, KAT GREENE COMES CLEAN

“What you need to succeed as an author: lots of hope, hard work, and chocolate.” Cynthia Reeg, FROM THE GRAVE and INTO THE SHADOWLANDS

“You guide your career, not an agent or publisher. Be deliberate in your career choices and keep the long-term in mind. Make a five or ten-year plan, even if many aspects of success feel out of your control. And don’t be afraid to experiment and fail along the way.” Kim Ventrella, HELLO FUTURE ME and THE SECRET LIFE OF SAM

I love all this advice! And here’s one from me:

“Have fun! Publishing can be a difficult industry and writing can be hard work, but the best part of that is the creating. Play with your characters. Explore your new world. And I’ll say it againhave fun.” —Samantha M Clark, THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST and ARROW

EPIC GARDENING FAILS (And what they’ve taught me about making art)

Growing Food and Writing Fiction

This spring my wife and I decided to stop talking about growing vegetables and actually grow some vegetables. We made this decision without doing much research about the actual business of growing vegetables, and that was mostly thanks to me. Any time my wife opened up a blog or website about growing techniques or climate zones, I’d launch into a lengthy monologue about how vegetables don’t need coddling and if it were really that hard there wouldn’t be gazillions of weeds in our yard. 

It turns out growing an eggplant is not the same thing as growing a weed. I suppose this explains why our front yard is not overrun with perfectly formed eggplants. 

So I’ve learned a few things about vegetable gardening. And as is often the case, the things I learn in one pursuit inevitably influence the way I think about others. In this case, I’ve noticed a few parallels between my questionable attempts at growing food and my questionable attempts at writing fiction for children. I’m sharing them here because whether you’re writing, teaching, parenting, or growing eggplants, it never hurts to glean a little extra information as you go (which I now humbly acknowledge).

Not everything develops as planned.

Radishes are deceptive little devils. They sprout fast and grow bright, promising leaves. You fawn over them and marvel at how they’ve been so easy to grow and why don’t more people grow radishes? Then you pull them out of the ground after the prescribed 28-day period and realize you’ve been duped. At least that was my experience. We harvested those little liars and I couldn’t believe that after 4 weeks I had nothing to show for all my efforts (and yes, all my bragging), but a few marble-sized nuggets of crunchy vermillion failure. 

The radish project looked promising. It all had the signs of a successful enterprise, but under the surface things weren’t developing the way they were supposed to. I have no idea why. Maybe it was the soil. Maybe I watered them too much. Or too little. I may never know. Just like I may never know why the first hundred thousand words I put into middle grade books didn’t develop into huge publishing contracts. But in both cases – my radishes and my writing – I have an opportunity to examine the finished project, no matter how disappointing, and try to figure out what went wrong. I think with the radishes it was the soil. I’m not sure what the writerly equivalent to that would be (stronger coffee during my drafting sessions?). But I’m going to keep exploring, keep dissecting those underdeveloped projects and trade the frustration of an unrealized goal for the promise of a new, and hopefully better crop next season.

 

Things get bitter when they drag on for too long.

A few people warned us that we’d eventually lose control of our zucchini plants. I shrugged at this, because how could you lose track of a zucchini? They’re bright green and quite large, and those people who lose track of them are probably not as committed to the art of home gardening as I am. But then summer happened – days of busy children and travel and sometimes way too much rain. One day I went out to make sure there wasn’t anything to harvest and found a zucchini the size of my arm snugged up against the wall of the garden. Without giving it much thought (I was still shunning research at this point) I paraded it around the house and then chopped it up for the grill. As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, it was terrible. The skin was tough, the flesh was mealy and bitter, and the seeds were gigantic and totally inedible. That zucchini had been growing for way too long.

I don’t know about you, but I have a few ongoing personal projects that have also reached “zucchini monstrosity” status. They’re the sort of things that never seem finished, and rather than harvesting what I have or simply moving on, I’ve let these projects remain connected to the vine of my creative brain and sap resources from other, more promising ideas.

After chewing my way through that thoroughly unappetizing zucchini, I resolved to never let anything grow that long again, and so far I’m doing better. I hope I can say the same for my creative pursuits – nothing is meant in to go on forever, and as many creatives have noted throughout history, art is never finished, but only abandoned.

 

Sometimes the most useful part of a project is the seed of something new.

Before I tossed that colossal zucchini in the compost pile, I finally broke down and looked up an online article about harvesting seeds. It turns out that in most cases you can only harvest the seeds of overripe, inedible fruit. So I left some uncooked seeds out to dry, then bagged them in an envelope and now have what I hope will be the beginnings of my zucchini crop next year. 

Something similar happened with the second book I ever wrote. It was quite a dud – full of tropes and predictable plot twists. It was long, too.  Much too wordy for the middle grade market. And that of course means I spent way too much time writing, editing, and rewriting what would ultimately be a book not even my mom would read (although she did ask several times). 

But out of that project came a system of developing characters that I still use now, three books and many short stories later. It was a seed born out of an overripe project that itself would never see the light of day. Most failed endeavors have something like that if you look for it – a seed of something new, pure potential packed into a tiny morsel of nearly overlooked insight. 

I think next year our garden will run a little more smoothly. Maybe the corn won’t fall over and the squash won’t vine its way to the top of our evergreen tree. Or maybe next season will be just as chaotic and I’ll have more lessons to learn. Either way, I’ll do my best to be thankful for the parallels and cultivate the garden of my writing with a bit more efficiency and skill. 

And I suppose reading a few extra articles wouldn’t hurt, either.