Monday, March 30, 2020

Improve Your Writing Through Improv Exercises

As writers, we're always trying to hone our craft. We take courses, we form critique groups, we join online writing communities, we read books on craft, we read within and outside our genre, we write or "percolate" and revise.

Ten Creative Exercises That Will Improve Your Writing is written by Leigh Anne Jasheway, a guest writer on The Writer’s Dig. She is a comedy writer, standup comic, author of 21 published books and teaches comedy writing.

Leigh has discovered that the concepts taught through improv can spark creativity, advance your storytelling, expand your dialogue expertise, help in problem solving and, best of all, restore the fun in writing.

These exercises can be done alone or with a partner. Pick your favorites, free yourself from the writing world of rules and have fun with it!

Friday, February 28, 2020

Middle Grade Versus Young Adult

One of the first decisions a children's novel writer must make is will the novel be a middle grade or a young adult? Knowing the differences will save you an enormous amount of time and inconsolable frustration. (Been there, done that.)

I wrote a 70,000-word YA, revised it many times, had several critiques including paying for whole novel critiques. The last critiquer suggested “it’s more of a middle grade than a young adult.”

Ok, I thought. I can make the changes, it shouldn’t be so bad. Shortly after I started, I realized I’ll have to check and revise almost every sentence, delete scenes, change scenes and add scenes. It was a nightmare and I realized I would be rewriting the entire novel. (I have shelved that project until I can decide what to do with it.)

I’ve broken down the differences between middle grade and young adults novels. 

1. MG basics: Age of readers, 8 to 12; word count 30,000 to 50,000; age of protagonist usually 10 to 13.

YA basics: Age of readers, 13 to 18; word count 50,000 to 75,000; age of protagonist 14 and up.

2. Romantic relationships: MG: holding hands, having a crush, innocent kiss or first kiss and starting to like someone as more than a friend.

YA: character can be sexually active and relationships can involve deep feelings of love.

3. Language: MG: swearing should be avoided (even though we know that many in that age group do swear). Your book could be banned because of profanity, parents won’t buy it and libraries won’t order it.

YA: swearing is more acceptable, but don’t do it gratuitously, in other words, is the swearing appropriate to the situation, the emotion that is being displayed, etc.

4. Violence: MG: brutal viciousness (stabbing, machine gun slaughters, etc.) are not acceptable in this category. Remember the reader is as young as 8 and in third grade. Your book will be banned or rejected by editors or agents.

YA: violence is acceptable, but it should serve a purpose not thrown in because you’re trying to make the book edgy or feel this will make it YA. YA books can also be banned for sexual content, language and violence.

5. Their world: MG: their focus is on home, family and friends and their place within that structure. They may engage in pretend play. They are dependent upon parents for transportation, money, food, clothing and shelter. Even if they have a part time job, they are not able to meet all their needs. They do not think long term, for example, what college do they want to attend, etc.

YA: they have more freedom, more experiences and more opportunities which means more decision making. They drive, they may drink, do drugs, etc. They may make poor choices because they are inexperienced in the real world of adulting. They start thinking about the future: going to college or not going, what do they want to do with their life, etc.

6. Interpreting experiences: MG: they will be having new experiences and new feelings that will be foreign to them. They may have trouble processing them and understanding them.

YA: when they have new experiences, they may be able to draw on a past experience to help them interpret the situation.

7. Language and voice: MG: simple sentence structure (not easy reader structure), but the sentences are not punctuated with a lot of asides and howevers and extraneous thoughts and are usually written in third person.

YA: sentence structure is more complicated, there can be multiple clauses and the sentence could be a whole paragraph. The voice is usually first person.

8. Ending: MG: these usually have a happy ending or end with hope. The main character is transformed because of her experience and now sees her world with a different perspective.

YA: the ending can be happy or sad. Through his experiences or journey, his world has crashed into the real world. The main character is trying to find his identity, his purpose. Some of these questions have been answered and some not, but he knows the answers are out there.

If you’re writing MG, read MG and pay attention to the sentence structure, vocabulary, word choice and if using analogies, make sure they are relatable experiences to the MG reader.

The same applies if you are writing for YA. Read them. Study them. Pay attention to content, message, amount of sex, violence and language.

For more information and my sources:

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Role of Your First Chapter

The first chapter is more than the opening pages of your story. The functions are many and sometimes it may feel like mission impossible as you revise and rewrite. Who knew the burdens and challenges inherent in our first chapter? 

The roles of our first chapter are listed below. Some of my examples are personal favorites or well known titles.

1. Grab the editor’s, agent’s or reader’s attention by your compelling first few lines, sentences and paragraphs.

           In THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak, his sixth line reads “You are going to die.” What? Why?! You are immediately intrigued, curious, maybe even frightened, but you keep reading.

2. Introduce the main characters

In THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins, Rachel is a heavy drinker, divorced, and unhappy. She lives in Cathy’s flat, a former school friend, and frequently leaves drunken messes that Cathy cleans up. We learn about Rachel’s former life with Tom, her ex-husband, who she still loves. Rachel doesn’t respect boundaries and drunk calls and texts him which causes problems between him and his new wife, Anna. Rachel is obsessed with a couple that she watches through the train window at a signal stop. She calls them Jess and Jason and has invented a perfect, happy life for them.

       3. Hints at theme

In THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS, a Newbery Honor, by Katherine Paterson, we learn in the first chapter Miss Ellis, the social worker, has placed Gilly with multiple foster families desperately trying to find a home for her. The theme is about love and belonging.

       4. Sets the tone

Is your story humorous with silly plotlines line the CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS books by Dav Pilkey or is it a serious subject like gangs and police violence in THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas? 

       5. Lays down the foundation for conflicts or problems that will arise later.

In THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas, Starr and her friend, Khalil, suspected of being a drug dealer, run out of a party after shots are fired by a gang member. They drive away, but see the flashing lights of a siren behind them. We have a shooting in a black neighborhood and a cop pulling over the main character and her friend, what could go wrong?

Once you've completed your novel, you may have to revise your first chapter to include or strengthen one or more of the elements above. Sometimes, it is because your novel has wandered and what you intended to write about has changed. Now you have to revisit the first chapter and make sure you've planted enough seeds to ensure that it will grow in the right direction.

You can do it!

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Is Your Picture Book a Short Story?

After rough drafting your picture book manuscript and revising it several times, you anxiously share it with your critique group. You hear suggestions and comments, some of which you agree with, some not, but the devastating opinion is when you hear, it’s more of a short story and you should consider magazines. AAAAH!

As writers, we need to accept criticism of our work.  Okay, we can do that. But when is a story more suited for a magazine than a picture book (ages 5 to 9)?

Both traditional picture books (not mood books) and short stories have main characters who should solve their own problems and both picture books and short stories should have a take-away message. The basic differences between short stories and picture books are explained below.

Short stories have more descriptions of your characters and setting because there are only a few art spots, word counts will vary for each magazine (400 to 800 for Highlights for Children), the read-a-loud quality and multiple readings are not as important and you don’t have to worry about scene changes or page turns.

In a picture book, there is little description of the characters and the setting because we leave room for the illustrator, the word count is short, usually 500 words or less (different publishers have different guidelines), the take-away should not be pedantic or preachy, the language should be amusing with a read-a-loud quality to encourage multiple readings, enough different scenes to support a 32-page format and a text to encourage page turns.

The differences are few, but critical to your understanding if your objective is to write picture books.  

I recently read  Go Sleep In Your Own Bed by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Lori Nichols. When the pig goes to bed and finds a cow in his sty, it sets off a chain reaction of all the animals moving to their own bed.

The language is entertaining with onomatopoeia, fun verbs like “straggled, peckety-droop” and pleasing expressions like “Oh, fluff and feathers.”

Page turns are encouraged by each animal going to bed and finding a partially hidden animal already bedded down. “Who do you think he found?” The reader must turn the page to expose the animal. The repeating refrain of “Get up! . . .Go sleep in your own bed!” is read by the reader.

Go Sleep In Your Own Bed is an outstanding example of lively, read-a-loud language and a text that encourages page turns.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

November 2019 Self-Editing Workshop

Our Children's Writers of the Hudson Valley fall event was a self-editing workshop focusing on query pitches led by Katherine Jacobs, a Senior Editor at Roaring Brook Press, Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. Katherine was engaging, informative and a pleasure to spend the afternoon with.

The first free writing exercise was to describe your work in progress and then using that writing sample, find words or phrases that get to the core of your story. We discussed what is the most important thing your reader needs to know about your story on the first page followed by another writing exercise.

We examined the first page of two published works and discussed the important information that we learned from them. Katherine then explained the written pitches for those two published works, one for a picture book and one for a novel.

Katherine Jacobs

Using information from our prior writing exercises, we worked on our own pitches.

There was a discussion about competitive titles and agents. Everyone left with a handout with more advice for their work in progress.

We look forward to seeing Katherine again!

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Wednesday, October 30, 2019


SOME DAYS by Karen Kaufman Orloff illustrated by Ziyue Chen is a mood book. Children, just like adults, ride an emotional roller coaster. They get stressed (“Feeling all alone days.”), they get disappointed (“No kickball for us days.”), they have happy, sad and mad days. The situations in this picture book are kid-friendly and relatable (playing in the snow, playing dress up, making a water mess to name a few). The child listening to the story may not be able to label the different emotions on the pages, but they will understand they’ve felt that way, too. And it’s okay.

The art is vibrant with varying perspectives. Although, we do not know the relationship between the girl and boy, the girl is light skinned and the boy is browned skinned, this reflects the world we live in. Many of the children’s emotions depicted on the pages are not stated. The expressive faces on the characters assist the reader in identifying the emotions. Children will learn a new skill, feel a sense of mastery in reading facial expressions and feel a little more secure in their world that can seem chaotic at times.

I WISH YOU MORE by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld is a book about wishes. Some wishes are about friendship, inquisitiveness, sharing and time for me moments. Some of the sentences show contrast (“…more pause than fast-forward.”) and some show a relationship (“…more umbrella than rain.”). Other sentences show determination (“…more can than knot.”). Love the word play! The situations depicted are also kid-friendly and relatable (swimming, collecting treasures, blowing a dandelion and others).

The art is engaging and sweet with plenty of white space to encourage the child to think about the wish or focus on the character. The characters are different ethnicities, making the reader feel welcomed and more able to identify with the wishes. My favorite page is a double page spread of a boy reading his book under the covers with his alligator slippers under the bed. The scene is quiet and peaceful with warm shades of blue that lead us to the lovely ending.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Hybrid Publishing: Is it for You?

Hybrid publishing is similar to self-publishing in that the author pays for some or all of the services. They are like traditional publishing in that the hybrid business model mirrors traditional publishers – a submission process, using book designers, editing manuscripts and making the business decisions.

The benefits of hybrid publishing are the author is seen as a business partner, and because they are financing their project, they keep the majority of the profits.

There are four classes of hybrid publishing:
1. Traditional publishers who hybrid publish, but keep it a secret.
2. Partnership publishing models
3. Agent-assisted publishing models
4. Other assisted publishing models

Authors have choices and must make the choice that is right for them. Some authors are comfortable converting their files and uploading their work, doing book design, editing, marketing and promotions. Others don’t have the desire or interest to learn self-publishing and want someone else to turn their manuscript into a finished project. Others want a little of both.

Click the link to find my source and read the distinctions between different hybrid publishers. The article also names publishers in the last three categories.