Posts Tagged writing lesson

How To Write A Novel Without Feeling Lost

It’s a commonly held statistic that 97% of people who set out to write a novel never finish it. 97%! I don’t know where the statistic comes from, but as someone who has finished novels (11 of them) and has struggled with every single one, I don’t doubt this statistic at all. Writing a novel isn’t for the faint of heart. Novels, even middle-grade novels, are big unwieldy things that can feel like putty running through your fingers. It’s very easy to get lost.

Take it from Lisa Simpson:


Recently I taught a new class specifically to help with this problem. The class proved so popular, I ended up teaching it twice: once at the Austin SCBWI annual conference and once for the Writers League of Texas. The class was called “How To Write a Novel Without Getting Intimidated” and it got great reviews, with attendees saying they felt more like they could tackle their project. I was excited it helped. When I first started writing middle-grade, I felt VERY intimidated and got lost often. Here are some of the tips I passed on:


I used to read books and think, “How can I do this? This whole thing?” Well, the truth is, you don’t have to do create the whole thing, not immediately. All you need to start is an idea, even the smallest idea of an idea. When I wrote THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST, all I started with was a question: What if a boy woke on a deserted beach with no memory of who he was or how he had gotten there? Big trees are grown from a tiny seed, and your book will start with a small idea. You don’t have to know everything when you begin. Discovery is a big part of the fun of writing.


Many writers start writing as soon as they have their idea. They get excited and want to jump right in. And that’s wonderful! It’s good to be excited. But not knowing much about your story can make you get lost quickly and feel like giving up. I mean, imagine if you got the idea to make pancakes because you read about them in a book. You don’t have a picture or a recipe or anything, you just know they’re going to be great. So you go into your kitchen and… Just like in cooking, a little planning for your novel goes a long way. You don’t have to know everything about your character, your world, or your plot, but the more you do know, the less likely you’re going to get lost.

Some good things to figure out up front are:

  • basic info about your character (age, name, home)
  • basic info about your setting (rural, city, another planet)
  • your main character’s problem/goal (what they’ll solve over the course of the story)
  • and the main obstacle (another person, aliens, nature, or the character themself)

There are plenty of other things you can brainstorm before you begin, but if you have at least these ingredients, you’ll be much less likely to get lost and give up.


I started out as a pantser (writing solely by the seat of my pants and following the story wherever it went), but I quickly learned there are more efficient ways. Now, I can hear some of you saying, “I don’t want to outline. It stifles my creative freedom.” But done right, outlining can help to build your creative freedom! (I wrote about my outlining journey on my blog.)

To keep me from getting lost when I’m writing, I find it useful to have a map, even if I venture away from it. An outline for a novel can be as simple as just a few story highlights or as in-depth as a plan for every scene of the book. I like to think of mine as a GPS. I know where I’m heading, and if I veer off course, I can take a different route. Outlines don’t have to stay the same as you write. Mine change constantly. But having one, even a really basic one, helps me stay the course.


Even if you’re not into outlining, there are still tools you can use to keep you focused as you write your whole novel. Your story is about your character trying to achieve their goal, so as you write, keep that goal handy. One way is to write a one-sentence pitch. A one-sentence pitch has your character, their problem, and what they need to do about it. So for my novel ARROW, the one-sentence pitch would be: A boy who grew up in a magically hidden rainforest must figure out how to fix the magic before outsiders from the dry, arid world exploit his home.

Write a one-sentence for your book, then keep it available as you pants through your story. When you get stuck, pull it out and see what you can do to get your character back on track. If a one-sentence pitch is too hard to write right now, this also works with jacket copy. Write the copy that will be on the back or inside flap of your book when it’s published (because it will be if you finish and revise) and use that to keep yourself motivated.


I used to compare my first drafts with the already published books I was reading, and I’d get frustrated because I knew mine wasn’t as good. But I was forgetting that all the books on my shelves were revised over and over and over again. First drafts are just that: Firsts. Knowing that I’m allowed as many other drafts as I need freed me up from thinking my first draft had to be perfect.


I get it. You’ve got dreams of walking into your local bookstore and seeing your book on their shelves. You want that day to be tomorrow, even today! But publishing journeys are loooooooooooong, and the best way to get an agent or editor interested in your work is to create great work. So don’t stress. Take your time. Even if you spend five minutes on your novel every day, you will one day end up with a full novel. Then you’ll be like Kermit and beat 97% of other writers.


Happy writing!

STEM Tuesday — Deep Space and Beyond — Writing Craft & Resources

Interesting Intros

If you are like me, by the time you’ve read the first page or two, you’ve already decided if you’ll finish a book. The beginning, the intro, the hook, those are crucial to a reading experience.

blank page, book, textbook, university, wisdom, writingSo crucial, in fact, that when a nonfiction author writes a book proposal (an overview, outline, comparable books, audience information, author platform, etc.) the writing sample that accompanies the proposal almost always includes the introduction. Editors don’t ask to see the chapter that will require the utmost skill in handling technical information – in the space books featured this month that could include trajectories, subsystems, eight letter acronyms, and numbers too large for the human brain to grasp. They don’t ask to see the conclusion chapter – the one that is likely to require the greatest artistic ability to tie up the loose ends of in-depth concepts, inspire the reader, and launch them into further inquiry. No, editors want to see the introduction. The one that requires both art and craft, wound together skillfully enough to hook a young reader.

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So, how do successful writers begin? Let’s take a look at the choices made by Mary Kay Carson, Elizabeth Rusch, and Catherine Thimmesh in Mission to Pluto: The First Visit to an Ice Dwarf and the Kuiper Belt, Impact: Asteroids and the Science of Saving the World, and Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon.

Setting the Mood

The first spread of Mission to Pluto is filled with a photo, a room packed with adults waving American flags and cheering. Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgThe text is all about setting the scene. Author Mary Kay Carson could have chosen just about any detail:

  • the phones clicking pictures
  • the type of stick the flags were attached to
  • the hair styles of the individuals

But instead she picked details that accentuated her subject matter:

  • a nine-sided mission patch
  • a robotic spacecraft
  • a dwarf planet

She selected characters such as Bill Nye, the Science Guy, whose inclusion emphasized the magnitude of the occasion. And, she chose a quote (“Now we’re finally going to find out what really…”) that focused a spotlight on the mood in the room – a mood of anticipation. Thanks to the author’s skill, the text oozes that mood and lures me into flipping that page.

Building Anticipation

When you open Impact, you’ll be gazing deep into the starry sky. Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgLike Carson, Rusch puts us right into a scene. From the text, we get concrete information like the date and location (a Russian city) but we get much more. People are “bundled up tightly;” they “crunched their way through the snow.” When I read “At 9:20 a.m.” – not “That morning” or “Sometime that day” – my readering radar goes off because that specificity is a clue that something is about to happen.

In the next bit, the words: “a strange bright point” followed by mysterious smoky trails tell us just enough to imply impending action. Not yet willing to give away the action, Rusch then artfully turns our attention to a class of fourth graders. Who’s the intended audience of this book? Fourth graders. Brilliant. Only then, when the scene is set, the anticipation built, and the relatable characters introduced, only then does the author unleash the action.  “Duck and cover!” Eager to know what happens to these kids, we flip the page.

Using the Unexpected

Team Moon begins with a full-page, labeled image of the flight path of Apollo 11. Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgBecause the path is not nearly as straight forward as I had anticipated, my finger immediately starts tracing the white and then the blue lines and purple arrows. That image is coupled with a simple intro “The Dream . . . ” and a teaser “And the Challenge . . .” which has me charging forward to learn more.

The next page is not at all what I had expected, either. There is no traditional introductory sentence, no watered down overview of the lesson we are about to receive, no generalizations what-so-ever. Instead there is an unexpected photograph (black and white, a crowd of men huddled around a tv set), lots of specific verbs (dominate, transmit, clicked), and language that gushes with enthusiasm (flat-out miracle, wonder of wonders, flush with anticipation).

Applying These Lessons

Close reading of these introductions has me reflecting on my own writing. Could I make use of more specific verbs? How can I build the anticipation? Which of the many characters in a science story will be the best hook for my target audience? I’m grateful for mentor texts such as these.

By Heather L. Montgomery

Heather L. Montgomery writes for kids who are WILD about animals. She reads and writes while high in a tree, standing in a stream, or perched on a mountaintop boulder.



The Out Of Left Field files this month focus on nonfiction kidlit resources. Readers and teachers, if you have any interesting resources to share, please leave them in a comment below. The Nonfiction minute offers a searchable archive of 400-word essays written and read by nonfiction kidlit authors. Each is accompanied by lesson suggestions. Nonfiction author Melissa Stewart offers fabulous nonfiction reading resources, nonfiction writing resources, revision timelines and more. Don’t miss her blog! 100 great science books for kids!

STEM Tuesday – Shining the Light on Technology, Engineering, and Math — Writing Craft & Resources

TEM From An “S” Guy

When I first saw the June STEM Tuesday June topic, Shining the Light on the TEM in STEM, I did a double take. Being a scientist, I felt left out. I threw stuff. I cursed. I ranted to my friendly Aeromonas bacterial cultures in the lab about feeling left out.

Fortunately, my cultures are good listeners and the wise bacteria kindly pointed out the fact that, if looked at from a neutral eye, the “S” in STEM actually does get a lion’s share of the STEM attention. I took this prokaryotic wisdom into consideration, returned the agar plate to the incubator, and went home to contemplate the need to shine a light specifically on the technology, engineering, and mathematics side of STEM.

It turns out that the science component of STEM does appear to hog the limelight and push the TEM to the shadows. The “T”, the “E’, and the “M” often get a bad rap. So I’ve changed my tune. Welcome to June, TEM! Glad to give you guys a moment in the electromagnetic energy waves of the solar spectrum.

But I also want to ask the TEM what we can do better to present and teach technology, engineering, and mathematics so they don’t seem quite so foreign to the majority of us. What can we do to make these things easier for young people to grasp? What can we do to help the young people who gravitate toward the TEM?

TEM Brain Muscle

TEM thinkers are often put into their own lane from the time they are young and kept there safely in that lane as they mature. Instead of expanding their knowledge base and widening their talents, TEM thinkers are often pigeon-holed to their specific skill set. Is this because they look at the world through the somewhat unique lenses of logic, design, and formula? Is there a certain level of trepidation for us to guide others down this TEM path when we ourselves are uncomfortable guiding them in those subjects?

What can we do to draw the non-TEM thinkers into at least an understanding of basic ideas and power of technology, engineering, and math? On the other hand, how can we develop TEM thinkers without slotting them down a narrow, pocket-protector lane in life?

Both TEM-phobics and TEM-philics need to be given problems to solve instead of shown the solutions. Allow them to develop their brain muscles and unique skills through problem-solving rather than simply giving them the names and uses of the tools in the toolbox. They need the space to try. They need the freedom to fail. They need an environment where mistakes are a step in the learning process and not an environment where the learning process is gauged solely by counting the mistakes.


I’ve been preaching for years that the scientific method is not a series of lifeless, formulated steps but is a full technicolor philosophy of problem-solving. It’s scientific storytelling! The scientific method is to problem-solving as plot and story structure is to a writer. It gives us a plan. It gives us a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Instead of looking at TEM as solely a conglomeration of code, circuits, calculations, and formulas, we should look at the code, circuits, calculations, and formulas as tools we use to tell a story.

Unfortunately, we often get caught up and confused by the tools instead of focusing on telling the problem-solving story. The story/solution is more important than the tools. For example, what’s more important when writing a simple program to calculate the slope of a line, the programming logic or the programming language? The language is the tool we can reference or find as needed, but the logic and the design are where the real magic lies.

Is it enough to only know that the Slope = (y2-y1) / (x2-x1) or can we be a better problem solver by understanding that the rise and run of the line numerically define the slope? By defining the slope in measurable terms, we define the characteristics of the line. Once we understand the characteristics of the line, we can use that knowledge to develop a ramp to help Mrs. Hays transport her gigantinormous suitcase of books easily up the school stairs and into her classroom each and every day. Now that’s a story!

Framing the TEM (and the “S”!) in terms of telling the story of the way something works or how a problem is solved can help young thinkers expand their STEM skills without getting tangled up in the sometimes confusing toolbox.

Novel Engineering

Novel engineering is a pretty cool concept I first learned about at the 2017 nErDcampKS. I wandered into this session with no idea what novel engineering was, and as a non-teacher, no idea of its power. The concept is surprisingly simple. The teachers use a text or a story and assign the students a problem to solve from the story. The students then work in groups or as individuals to analyze, design and build a solution to the problem. Makerspace rooms or areas in the schools can be set up to give the students the resources needed.

Linda Sue Park’s A LONG WALK TO WATER was a popular choice for middle school novel engineering projects. The teachers in the session talked about how the kids worked out solutions on how to find, carry and store water more effectively.

Another upper-elementary teacher gave the example of how she used the Rapunzel fairy tale in her classroom as a novel engineering project. The goal for the students was to design an alternative system for Rapunzel (a Barbie doll) to escape the four-foot tower built in the classroom without the aid of any knights in shining armor. This teacher said her students really got into the project and came up with great solutions, including an adventurous escape from the tower on a zip line.

Thinkers & Tinkerers

In the classroom, in the lab, or in the home, let young minds be thinkers and tinkerers. No matter what letter of the STEM acronym these young minds gravitate toward, they need the platform and the space to learn. Provide books and lessons and leadership to promote a maker environment for our STEM learners. Teach them to how to use the tools of code, structures, pathways, classifications, circuits, calculations, and formulas, to help them solve problems, not get trapped or intimidated by them.

The tools don’t solve problems, problem solvers do.

Thinkers and tinkerers rule!

Now back to work. Hopefully, those Aeromonas bacteria will allow me some of my own thinking space to work through the experimental problems I’m currently experiencing.

Have a great TEM month!

Mike Hays, STEMologist, Class I


The O.O.L.F Files

The Out Of Left Field files this month focus on the TEM of STEM. I have to admit, there’s some pretty cool stuff listed below to check out. Readers and teachers, if you have any interesting O.O.L.F. files links you’d like to share, please leave them in a comment below. The STEM Tuesday community appreciates it! We’re all in this together!