Yes, Google is great. Really, it’s revolutionized the world. But the web doesn’t end at Google’s doors. For the writer, there are some really, really terrific research tools just waiting to be discovered. So, let’s discover ‘em!
Ms. Freckles – Crisply designed site that puts a boatload of info at your fingertips. It’s particularly strong for writers needing translations or definitions of non-English words. http://www.msfreckles.com/index.php?lang=en
Questia – Offers access to a huge collection of books and journal articles in the humanities and social sciences, plus magazine and newspaper articles, much of which are unavailable elsewhere. There’s a monthly cost, but you can get a 72 hour free trial to check it out. http://www.questia.com
Yahoo Kids – OK, you’ve heard of Yahoo, but have you checked out this search tool? From this page, you’ll be able to dig through pop culture in no time. Need to know what your readers are into? Here’s where to turn! http://kids.yahoo.com
Complete Planet - Got some serious research to do? Have a look at Complete Planet, which provides over 70,000+ searchable “deep web” databases and specialty search engines. http://aip.completeplanet.com/
A wise owl. A trickster fox. An innocent heroine who needs a brave warrior knight to save her. How many stories can you name that have versions of these characters?
Throughout the ages, writers from William Shakespeare to George Lucas have drawn from archetypes, or prototypical characters, to populate their stories. Certain character types have always fit into the literature that’s been passed down over time. Psychiatrist Carl Jung said archetypes are part of our collective unconsciousness. And scholars such as Joseph Campbell point to archetypal characters in mythology and folklore to explain universal story structures such as the hero’s journey.
Author Christopher Vogler gives writers a handy guide in his book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters. Vogler describes seven character archetypes:
Hero: This is the classic protagonist with whom the reader identifies. The Hero ultimately embodies our most cherished values, though may have to go through a period of learning or transition to get there. Heroes can be willing or unwilling, deliberate or accidental.
Mentor: The Mentor assists the Hero in some way, giving him advice or teaching him skills. Mentors can appear at crucial moments, or be present in large chunks of the story. Mentors symbolize wisdom, knowledge and experience.
Threshold Guardian: This is a character who shows up to pose an obstacle to the hero at a transitional point in the story (a gatekeeper would be a classic Threshold Guardian). In classic myths, the guardian often required the Hero to answer a riddle, give a gift, or even fight the guardian before proceeding on his journey. When the Hero passes the Guardian and crosses the threshold, he’s achieved a significant point of growth.
Herald: The Herald provides the information that triggers the Hero into action. The Herald can be a person, a letter, a phone call, a newspaper article; anything that sets the Hero’s story in motion.
Shapeshifter: The Shapeshifter represents uncertainty and change. He may be a character who keeps changing sides or whose allegiance is uncertain. Shapeshifters can combine with other characters (such as the Trickster or Mentor) to keep the Hero on his toes.
Shadow: The Shadow creates the tension in the story. The Shadow is often opposes the hero and is typically the main antagonist. They may also be people who provide obstacles along the way, although not as a guardian. The shadow also represents the darker side of our own nature.
Trickster: The Trickster provides entertainment in the story. Tricksters can be silly, clever or even wise. They often keep the Hero a bit off balance.
These are not the only archetypes recognized in literature. In her book The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By, Carol Pearson identifies the Innocent, Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, Martyr, and Magician. She expanded on these ideas in Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help Us Find Ourselves and Transform Our World. Type the keyword “archetypes” in Amazon.com, and you’ll pull up dozens of other listings. It’s easy to get lost in academic studies of archetypes and what they mean to our shared human history. But the bottom line is this: certain characters have always struck a chord with storytellers because they represent different aspects of our own nature. This is especially true with science fiction and fantasy, where stories contain many symbolic elements (think of The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars). If we throw these often-competing aspects into the same pot and stir it up, we get some interesting results.
A word of caution: Don’t rely on standard archetypes exclusively when developing your characters, or you’ll quickly devolve into stereotypes. We all know these characters inside and out because we’ve seen them so often. So while it’s useful to have a general understanding of archetypes and how they react to one another, use them as inspiration but take them in unexpected directions. As a starting point, try combining two archetypes into one character: a Martyr/Shapeshifter (a jealous boyfriend who pretends to support a girl’s dream of being an actress, but really sabotages it); a Shadow/Trixter (an antagonist who uses humor to work against the Hero); a Wanderer/Hero who craves independence and autonomy but must learn to work with others to get what he wants.
If you see your characters reflected closely in the definitions of literary archetypes, you haven’t worked hard enough to make them unique. Use these definitions as a tool: learn what purpose each character serves in the story, understand how the characters react to each other, see what happens to the plot when a new archetype enters the scene. Then trust that an intuitive knowledge of archetypes is part of your storyteller’s DNA, and just write.
In this video, we explore a segment of children’s publishing that offers less competition and more opportunity for beginning writers — nonfiction magazine writing. If you’re looking for a quick, fun and rewarding way to build publishing credits and experience, we’ve got all the info you need!
All good children’s fiction contains basic elements around which the plot revolves. Though each story is different, there are certain “checkpoints” found in all novels. Paying close attention to these areas will help you pace the action of your story and keep the plot moving.
The beginning. Your story should start at the point in your character’s life where his or her everyday world changes. Don’t waste the first chapter describing your character or the setting of the book; most of that information won’t be necessary to the story, and if it is it can be worked in later. Begin the book with action or dialogue.
The first chapter. By the end of the first chapter, your readers should know something about your main character and what problem, or conflict, that character will be facing in the book. In middle grade and young adult novels the conflict sometimes changes during the course of the story, but the first conflict (that pulls the character out of his everyday world) should be evident early on. Your readers must know enough at this point to believe the conflict is valid and to care about the character.
Chapter endings. If chapters end in the middle of a scene, your reader will want to turn the page and see what happens next. This is especially true with chapter books for readers ages 7-10. Ending a chapter with action or dialogue helps to keep the momentum of the story going.
The story’s climax. The climax of the book, when your main character comes face-to-face with the conflict, should be a natural outcome of everything that’s happened up to this point. Too many beginning writers draw out the climax, diluting its impact. Ideally, the climax is contained within a scene, or a chapter at the most. The height of the climax, like the peak of a roller coaster, occurs at the end of a chapter.
The story’s resolution. The resolution must be brought about by the main character. It occurs directly after the plot’s climax, and is also contained within a chapter. The resolution must be believable and, ideally, a surprise to the reader.
The ending. The story ends soon after the resolution has been reached. Often the resolution occurs in the last chapter, with only a few paragraphs that follow showing how life returned to normal for your character. Padding the ending is a common mistake with beginning writers; the resolution itself should be a satisfying conclusion to the book, and anything extra will simply take away from all that’s gone before.
Other points to consider. Is the point of view consistent throughout the book? Does one character emerge as the focus of the story? Too often, two or three characters are vying for the reader’s attention, especially in chapter books. And finally, is the conflict important or intriguing enough for your readers to want to see how the story turns out? When in doubt, make the conflict bigger rather than smaller. Remember, you’re asking your readers to invest time and energy in your book. Give them a problem they’ll care about, and they’ll gladly oblige.
You’re driven to write a children’s book, but you’re not sure what you want to write about. No problem, let’s figure it out. In this video, we’ll give you some tips for avoiding what *not* to write about, and how to mine your own life experiences for great subjects.
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It seems when kids turn 13, one word sums up their lives: melodrama. Emotions hover on the surface; every event is huge. Adults are idiots who don’t understand them, and their classmates are constantly watching to make sure they don’t do anything stupid (which includes wearing the wrong clothes to saying the wrong thing to listening to the wrong music). Oh. My. God. As adults on the receiving end of this hysteria, we may roll our eyes or deliberately show up at Back to School Night with wet hair, just to see our child’s response. But as authors, we can mine the drama for its flip side: humor.
Many books for teens feature characters who are on the edge of the abyss and facing life-or-death situations, extreme moral choices, or have been dealt a tough hand and have to somehow live with it. Their drama is achingly real. Or, a protagonist might be self-assured enough to rise above the sniping judgements of his peers. Both characters are admirable, but often not funny. Humor comes from a flawed character the reader genuinely likes, who’s in a sticky situation the reader can easily imagine. Then the author turns it up a notch. The reader gets to laugh at someone who’s like her, but from the safety of not having to actually suffer the humiliation personally.
In Denise Vega’s click here (to find out how i survived seventh grade), Erin Swift is not having the best start to middle school. Her big feet are the butt of jokes, she lands the role of Corn Cob in the school play, and the Cute Boy she has a crush on becomes infatuated with her best friend Jilly. But Erin’s a whiz with computers, and joins the Intranet Club to become the lead designer for the school’s web site. She also keeps a secret blog where she spills all her innermost thoughts and true feelings about everyone at her school. When her blog accidentally gets posted on the school web site, Erin’s convinced she’s going to die. Vega’s taken traditional middle school dynamics and filtered them through Erin’s self-deprecating lens, which lightens up the angst of the genuinely heart-wrenching scenes (Cute Boy’s attraction to Jilly, Erin overhearing girls criticizing her in the bathroom). Then Vega throws in every middle schooler’s worst fear: that they’ll be stripped metaphorically naked in front of their peers and revealed for who they really are. If Erin’s public blog was the only drama in the book, we’d pity Erin but not really identify with her. But because of the melodrama in earlier scenes, we know that Erin’s learning to laugh at herself, and she’ll find a way to survive this very real problem.
Parents offer endless inspiration for melodrama. If you’re looking for a good adolescent plot twist, simply ask yourself, “What the most embarrassing thing a parent could do to this character?” Your answer might give you a whole book. The opening line of Shelley Pearsall’s All Shook Up says it all: “Looking back, I would say everything in my life changed the summer I turned thirteen and my dad turned into Elvis.”
Like Vega, Pearsall keeps close to comforting upper middle grade territory but then cranks up the embarrassment. Josh is sent to live with his father in Chicago one summer when his mother has to take care of his sick grandmother. Josh hasn’t seen his dad for a while, and assumes he’s still the scatterbrained shoe salesman he remembered. But Dad’s got a new gig as an Elvis impersonator. And what’s more, when Josh’s visit is extended into the fall and he starts school in Chicago, one of his classmates leaves him anonymous notes about Elvis. Josh’s dwindling ability to keep his dad’s identity a secret is completely shattered when Dad is invited to perform at the school’s 1950s concert, and Josh must take drastic action that threatens to ruin his relationship with his father forever. Readers will certainly emphasize with Josh, but also observe how he and his father learn to compromise and respect the person each has become. Josh is forced to think about someone other than himself, which (along with the fact that Dad is a terrific performer) helps deflate the social suicide of having Elvis for a dad.
For my money, one of the best young adult beach reads you’ll find is Two Parties, One Tux, and a Very Short Film About The Grapes of Wrath by Steven Goldman. 17-year-old Mitchell is a slightly scrawny, socially inept, average student, whose best (and only real) friend tells Mitchell he’s gay one day at lunch. Mitchell’s junior high school year is marked by trying to talk to girls (Does his sister and her best friend count?), navigating the school hierarchy, reassessing his friendship with David, and turning in a slightly pornographic claymation film in lieu of an English paper on a book he hasn’t read. Much of the humor comes from Mitchell’s dry, somewhat clueless first-person voice. He’s hovering outside the whirl of popularity, and so can comment on high school without having much to lose. School Library Journal called the book “A side-splitting slice of male adolescence, [that] turns the spotlight on the ridiculousness that is the average, contemporary American high school experience.”
When I asked Goldman how he writes humor, he said, “I was just trying to capture some of the feelings I could remember from high school, and really see the world through the eyes and the running narration of a character with a particular view of the world and a particular way of expressing his feelings. One of the things I really enjoy about writing YA is that I find high school students to be funny. Frankly, I think they have better senses of humor than adults. They are willing to put themselves in situations that no one with a brain would, and yet they have the intelligence to realize that they are doing it. That risk-taking extends to language as well — they will say things that are brutally honest and horrible and therefore frequently funny.” This brutal honesty, both with each other and themselves, creates those situations bordering on melodrama. Once of my favorite scenes from Two Parties is at prom, when Mitchell is in the bathroom thinking about his date who’s abandoned him, and he accidentally pees on his white tux pants. While laughing at Mitchell’s description of himself, I couldn’t help but cringe at the image of him walking through the school gym with wet pants. Even as an adult, I still feel I share in Mitchell’s experience. That’s why writing humor for teens may be easier than you think. As Goldman said, “We never really recover from our adolescence; those years starting in middle school and continuing through high school are so formative that they we can still find them in a lot of the ways that we feel about things as an adult. I might be 45, but when I walk into a party I swear I’m still 17 and clueless about what to do next. We may leave high school, but we never really escape it.”
I’ve read several picture book manuscripts recently that don’t have plots. They have terrific ideas, charming scenes, even unique characters. But these particular manuscripts were missing that thread of story that starts on page one and tugs at the reader to continue turning the pages until the end. The events weren’t connected–they may have involved the same characters, but there was no cause-and-effect relationship that made one event logically follow another.
When writing children’s book fiction, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between a plot point and an incident. Incidents stand alone; they may lend themselves to vivid scenes, but they have no connection to what came before in the book, and have no effect on what happens on the next page. A plot point, on the other hand, couldn’t exist without everything that preceded it, and if you remove that plot point from the story, everything that happens afterwards wouldn’t make sense. Each point is a link in a chain. Break one, and the whole thing falls apart.
Incident stories also tend to lack conflict and tension. That’s because these books are more about conveying a mood, a place, or a point in time. They show a day in the life of a particular child, what a bunny sees on his first tour of the backyard, the comforting bedtime routine of a toddler. Many picture books of previous generations were actually incident books, and in fact this type of story is still being published today as books for children up to age three. But for the mainstream, hardcover picture book crowd–those kids ages four to eight–incident books won’t cut it anymore.
You can blame television, publishing conglomerates concerned with making money, or large bookstore chains that only want titles that fly off the shelves, but the bottom line is if you’re a first-time author writing a picture book, it needs to have a plot to sell. And let’s face it, plots are a good thing. They allow children to become emotionally invested in the story, wondering what’s going to happen next. They hold kids’ attention (even before television, young children didn’t have the longest of attention spans). They invite rereading, and retelling, over and over.
If you study newer picture books, you’ll see that some of the plots are very subtle. David Shannon’s Duck on a Bike, for example, seems at first glance like an incident story. Duck finds a bike on the farm and slowly rides past all the animals. As he passes each animal, it comments on the sight of a duck on a bike. This pattern is repeated several times until suddenly a bunch of kids come down the road on their bikes, park them by the farm house, and go inside. The next spread is wordless, showing all the animals staring at the bikes. The following illustration depicts all the farm animals careening around the barnyard on bicycles with silly grins plastered to their faces. As the story ends, the animals return the bikes to the house, And no one knew that on that afternoon, there had been a cow, a sheep, a dog, a cat, a horse, a chicken, a goat, two pigs, a mouse, and a duck on a bike.
The repetition of Duck pedaling past each animal on the bike paved the way for the story’s climax. It couldn’t have happened without all the scenes that came before.
Oh sure, you say, but what about a book like Ian Falconer’s Olivia? That’s a series of incidents in the life of a spunky girl pig. Yes, it is, and this popular book proves that for every rule there’s an exception. And though it doesn’t have a conventional plotline, it does have emotion (What child hasn’t seen him or herself in Olivia, and laughed at her approach to life?) and tension (Will Olivia get in trouble for drawing on her bedroom wall? Will she convince her mother to read her four bedtime stories instead of two?). It also has exquisite illustrations by the author (if you can write and illustrate, and do both well, you’re given a bit more room to stretch the rules). But most of all, it has a strong main character. Olivia is real, multilayered, and charming. The author took the time to develop the character first, so the reader will immediately identify with Olivia and be interested in the incidents that make up her day.
If you’re just starting out as a children’s book writer, or are writing your first picture book, do yourself a favor and create a story with a plot. But before you begin, develop your main character. If you have a real character with emotions, strengths and weaknesses, that character will inevitably want something. How that character goes about getting what he or she wants will lead you to your plot. It’s really that simple.
Now all you have to do is write the book.
Interested in learning how to write a book and send it to children’s book publishers? Come on over to The CBI Clubhouse for audios, videos, insider writing tips and much, much more!
I recently opened up my email to find this message: “Can I get published as a children’s book author if I’m not a good writer?” I was taken aback at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I appreciated the question. The sender knows her limitations, but dreams of getting published anyway. She’s not suffering under the delusion that she’s the next Dr. Seuss, and I admire that. She’s going to look at her work with a critical eye, and search for ways to make it better. This is assuming that it’s possible to learn to write well. I believe that it is.
Very few writers have the innate ability to create vibrant, relevant, compelling stories right out of the gate. Most have to work at it. And those who see writing as a skill that is never quite mastered, requiring a lifelong devotion to the learning process, will be most successful. Where this gets tricky is that unlike other skills – such as baking a cake – there is no foolproof way to learn how to write. So while I can’t give you a one-size-fits-all method, I can give you some ideas on how you can find the path that works best for you.
Read, read, read. Why are editors always telling aspiring authors to read piles of children’s books? Because they give you a concrete representation of what works. Be sure you read good books (check reviews or ask a librarian or teacher for recommendations). By simply reading, you’ll learn about the ebb and flow of a story, how a character is introduced and developed, the types of conflicts appropriate for each age group, how to build tension in scenes and chapters, the relation of sub-plots to the main storyline, how dialogue moves the plot along, and much more. You’ll experience firsthand how a skilled author uses sensory images to immerse the reader completely in the story. By comparing several authors writing for the same age group, you’ll hear different literary voices.
I suggest reading books like those you wish to write, as well as books one level younger and one level older. So, if your goal is to write a middle grade mystery for ages 8-12, also read mysteries for ages 7-10 and 10-14. In this way, you’ll become educated about precisely what makes up a middle grade novel and how it’s different from fiction for older and younger readers. You might even learn that your story isn’t really for middle grades after all.
Another reason for reading a lot of quality books is that you need a yardstick against which to judge your own work. You’ll learn which “rules” can’t be broken and those that have more wiggle room. For example, you’ll be hard pressed to find a 60-page picture book in the stores, even by a well known author. If your picture book’s that long, you’ll have no choice but to rethink the story and fit it into 32 pages. However, you can experiment with unconventional characters and unexpected viewpoints. And the older the reader, the fewer rules apply. But no matter what you do with your plot, characters or writing style, make sure you know why you’re doing it. Don’t write the story in present tense unless it needs to unfold in real time for the reader. Don’t incorporate flashbacks unless they’re vital for understanding what’s going on in the story now.
Find a system that works for you. The first step toward learning to write is figuring out how you learn the best. Some authors I know are very left-brained; they love charts and graphs and lists. They thrive on tracking their scenes and plotting out their book on every level before they start to write. Those left-brainers will analyze published books and count the words per page, note which scene contains the plot’s catalyst, chart out where the tension rises and falls in each chapter. Others prefer to learn more intuitively. They read books, absorb the different writing styles, and maybe jot down a few notes with overall impressions or key points they want to remember. They have a general idea of where their own story is going, and aren’t afraid to experiment and take detours along the way.
If you don’t know where you fall on the spectrum, try different approaches and see what feels right. Remember that there is no one way of doing this, and every method has its pros and cons. Plotting out your story beforehand can prevent you from wandering off track, but the lists can become an evasive technique to keep you from actually writing the book. Letting the words spill onto the page with no grand plan feels very creative, but usually results in huge first drafts that have to be significantly trimmed and shaped. If you write long enough you’ll discover your weaknesses and devise ways to work around them. Maybe you outline first, then put it away while you write your first draft. Maybe you lay out your scenes on a plotline after each chapter, then revise as needed before moving on to the next chapter. If your dialogue tends to wander in circles before coming to the point, you’ll learn to get it on paper and then tighten it in the second draft.
Recognize your strengths. Some authors are brilliant nonfiction writers but can’t sell a fiction story. Others write wonderful picture books but are overwhelmed by all the layers to a novel. Instead of trying to force a style that isn’t you, start with what you’re naturally good at. You don’t have to publish fiction to be a successful author. You may dream of writing picture books, but if you have a knack for relating to teenagers, maybe young adult novels are your future.
Discovering your strengths involves experimenting with several writing styles and age groups. If you don’t know where to start, think about the kinds of children’s books you most like to read. Then play around with writing dialogue or scenes for the same age group. If you’re naturally drawn to nonfiction, make a list of topics that excite you. Start by writing about one of the subjects in the style of some of your favorite children’s magazines.
Above all, practice. Over the years I’ve worked with writers who have gotten published through sheer force of will. They’ve gone over manuscripts again and again, taking them from mediocre to polished. They’ve put aside ideas that simply didn’t work and turned to something new. And they never submitted the first or second draft to an editor, because those manuscripts could always be improved. They weren’t very good writers when they began, but they learned. And you can too.
Looking to send a manuscript to children’s book publishers? Here’s an easy three-step approach to help you find just the right publisher for your story!
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