World Building: Not Just a Matter of Fantasy

world bldgWhen you say “world building,” many people assume you are talking about fantasy.  The truth is that you have to world build any time you are taking readers into a specific world with which they are unfamiliar.

Yes, Rowling had to world build in Harry Potter.  But Milne also carefully constructed the 100 Acre Wood.  Whether you are writing a mystery in which the setting is key or a gothic story with a dark, moody setting that impacts the story, you too will have to world build.  Here are 5 things to keep in mind.

1.  Know your setting before you write about it.  You need to have the details in place before you start writing.  Some writers create maps.  Others pin images on Pinterest.  Still others print things off and make a scrap book.  Do whatever works for you but know your setting ahead of time.

2.  Pick and choose.  Especially when you’ve created a complex and wonderful world, you’re going to want to share it with your readers.  The key will be feeding them the information a little at a time so as not to overwhelm.  This means that you will have to pick and choose the details you want to reveal first.  To know what to reveal when…

3.  Consider your scene.  As you take your reader into the setting for the first time, what is the most important thing to reveal?  A lot of this will depend on your scene.  If you want to create an air of mystery, you will reveal something strange or curious.  If you want to an air of forboding, you will reveal something creepy or ominous.  What detail from your setting will best convey this?  Once you know you are ready to …

4.  Create your tone.  You know what you want to get across and what details you have chosen to do it.  Now carefully choose the words that will do this.  Branches can be spidery or grasping.  The scene of flowers can be fresh or cloying.  It all depends on what you want to convey.

5.  Consider your character.  Now that you know what you want to do and how you can do it, consider your character.  These have to be details that your point of view character would note.  Does it still work, if not, you have some fine tuning to do.

It sounds like a lot of work but if you do it right, you will create a rich, vibrant story world that pulls your readers in and drives your story forward.


POV: Beware the Shift

Point of view.  As a writer, you’re most likely familiar with this term.  Point of view is the view from which you are telling the story.  If you’re not sure what that means, think of it as who is holding the camera.  If you are telling the story from the point of view of your main character, your reader will get the entire story, including thoughts and feelings, from the perspective of this character.  This can be done either through a third person telling (Mark couldn’t believe how hot it was when he stepped outside) or first person (I couldn’t believe how hot it was when I stepped outside).

One of the hardest things to learn in writing is not to shift points of view.  You do that when you are merrily writing the story from Mark’s point of view but then tell us something that only Atticus knows or something Atticus has just observed.

Mark hurried out the front door and staggered as he hit the hot, humid wall of air but hurried on his way.  He couldn’t afford to be late to work again.  

Atticus briefly considered telling him that 9th Street was closed.  Let him find out himself.

Mark started his car and pulled away from the curb, merging into traffic.

Whether you give us this information from Atticus as a thought or a line of dialogue, without your point of view character present you are guilty of the point of view shift.  I’d love to say that I never make this mistake but it does occassionally happen.  I think it may be one of those things that is easier for someone else to spot in your work so I don’t really mind when my critique group points one out.  The problem is that a shift can confuse your reader.

You can avoid this problem by writing from an omniscient point of view.  This is like the camera being overhead, spying on everyone.  That said, I’m not a big fan of the onmiscient point of view because I want to be in one character’s head.  For me, it’s easier to keep track of the story.

If you find yourself frequently popping into another character’s head, you may need to write the story from a different point of view or from more than one.  Multiple point of view stories are suitable for older readers and often change points of view between scenes or chapters.  Experiment to see what works best for your story.



Backstory: How to Avoid the Info Dump

TangerineOne of the trickiest things to do when writing a middle grade or young adult novel is work in the backstory.  The problem for most writers is that they want to tell too much too soon.  And that makes sense.  After all, they’ve spent so much time in developing their character and creating a compelling past that they want to share it.  All.  Right now.

Unfortunately the most common ways to do this are through long flashbacks or lengthy blocks of dialogue.  Zzzzzzz.

Oh, did I nod off?  It’s just that nothing was happening so I just closed my eyes for a moment.  When writers slow their stories down too much when delivering blocks of backstory, they can easily lose their readers.

The key is to dole the backstory out in dribs and drabs.  When the main character refuses to attend prom, she can tell a pushy classmate that she refuses to repeat last year’s fiasco.  An eighteen year-old character with a car in the garage, might sit behind the wheel while morning a lost driver’s license.  And then the story moves on.

What?  The readers are going to want to know more?  Quite likely but they will also keep reading so that they can find out more.

One book that does this extremely well is Tangerine by Edward Bloor.  The main character, Paul, is almost legally blind.  He struggles in the shadow of his hero brother.  Little by little, Bloor reveals to the reader what happened to Paul’s eye sight.  He manages to do this just a bit at a time because Paul doesn’t remember what happened. He blanked it out.  Another way to do this is to tell the story from the point of view of a character who is new to the area and doesn’t know what happened at prom last year or to a particular person.

Although the author needs to know what happened, the reader may not need to know or may not need to know everything at once.  Bit by bit.  That’s the best way to deliver backstory.


When to Submit Your Story

agent“When should I send in my story?  Is it okay to submit during a Book Fair?”

I’ve always been surprised how many writers have complicated systems about when and when not to submit their work.  They won’t send it in too close to Christmas because editors are just cleaning off their desks.  They won’t sent it in to close to a book fair because a busy agent might just reject it.  Summer vacation?  Nope.

That’s why I laughed when I saw Janet Reid’s response to this question.  To inelegantly summarize her answer, send it when it is ready.  If they are too busy, they will let it sit in their e-mail inbox.  They won’t take the time to reject it just to make it go away.

I’m not sure why writers have such a complicated set of rules about when to submit.  I suspect it has something to do with a bit of sympathetic magic superstition.  If I obey this complex array of rules, the universe will see me as worthy and I will land the agent of my dreams.

Um, no.  If you want to land the agent of your dreams follow these five simple steps.

1.  Find an agent who represents your type of writing.

2.  Make sure this agent doesn’t have an author just like you.

3.  Write, rewrite and rewrite some more.  Learn your craft and learn it well.

4.  Follow the instructions concerning how this agent wants to receive work.

5.  Hit send.

It may not work the first time, the tenth time or even the 22nd time but there are the steps that will mark you as a professional and will help you catch the eye of an equally professional agent.  Somehow I suspect that this works much better than only submitting in months with an odd number of days.


Insight: SCBWI Member Benefit

InsightIt’s been a while since I wrote about SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.  When I started writing for children, this was the only game in town.  The internet was pretty darn new (yes, it’s been THAT long) and this was the best way to get a lot of information as well as access educational opportunities.

With the internet, you have access to so much information, but SCBWI still offers so much to its members.  The best part is that they are always working to expand on these benefits.  Perhaps their latest creation is Insight.  It is a monthly e-report on the industry.  Because of this, it is both more current than a print newsletter (duh) but also has the muscle of the Society behind it.  If you read the information in Insight, you know it has been vetted by industry experts and professionals in the field.

Here are just a few of the things that were in the first (June 1, 2015) issue.

Interview with Allyn Johnston.  Johnston is one of my dream editors.  My son loved her books (Mr. Putter and Tabby); I still love her books.  This woman is IT.  Lot’s of great info in this interview.

On the Shelves.  This column profiles a different indie book store each month.  Did you know that indies are making a rebound? Check out this column to find out why?

Draw This!  A monthly prompt for illustrators and no one says that the writers can’t use it too.

Monthly Contest.  There is also a monthly writing prompt and contest.  The winner receives a piece of SCBWI swag.  There just aren’t prizes for us.

There are also inspirational bits from noted writers (find out how Linda Sue Parks writes) and tips for illustrators.

I’ve been a members of SCBWI since 1991 and have never regretted it.  In addition to everythings else, it is an amazing networking opportunity.  Find out how to join here.



Finding an Agent

This week, I drafted the backmatter for a nonfiction picture book on prayer.  I actually wrote that I revised it but then changed that to drafted.  This version is so different from the first that I’m hesitant to call it a rewrite.  This means that I have two picture books ready to go out.  One more and I’ll start submitting to . . . agents?  Editors?  Today, I’m thinking agents.  Because of that I’ve been reading agents blogs looking for information on how to query.  One of my favorites is Janet Reid’s blog.

One of the things that she wrote about was how to tell an agent that an editor you met at a conference currently has the manuscript in question.  That’s good news right?

Actually, Reid says that it really isn’t good news.  It is, in fact, the kind of thing that agents hate to hear.  The reason is that although the editor agreed to read it, it may not be perfect for them.  The agent will read your manuscript and immediately know that.  But now that the editor has received your manuscript in submission, the agent can’t send your work to anyone else in that imprint.

What this means is that the fewer people who have seen your manuscript as a submission the better.

I wonder how many of these things that authors consider great news (someone liked my work!) are really no help in attracting an agent. My guess is that this list includes won a writer’s guild writing contest, got a good critique at a class or was much acclaimed by your college writing professor.

I’m not saying that you don’t want to show other professionals your work if it means that they can help you improve as a writer.  Improve all you can and then submit the best piece of writing you can create.  It’s this writing, not the glowing words of a conference critiquer, that are going to attract an agent.



Story Logic: Making Sense of Your Story World

Today I got to hear part of an “All Things Considered” piece on NPR about story logic.  The interview was with author Kelly Link and she talked about the difference between Day Time Logic and Night Time Logic.  Day Time Logic is the world we know.  Night Time Logic is something else.

“Night time logic it’s much more like dream logic,” said Link, “except that, you know, when you wake up from a dream, you think, well, that didn’t make sense. And I think night time logic in stories you think, I don’t understand why that made sense but I feel there was kind of an emotional truth to it.”

The story still has to have this emotional truth that resonates with the reader as well as a consistent story logic.  What do I mean by this?  If you establish a rule on page one, you have to abide by that rule on page 9.

I have to admit that I’ve always been drawn to stories with this slightly off-beat Night Time Logic. I think my favorite may be the worldless picture book Tuesday by David Wiesner.  The idea that anything and everything can happen will everyone is asleep grabbed me and I especially love the flying frogs.

Not that this is the only book of this type that I love.  I adore the fact that Max can declare himself a Wild Thing and then journey to Where the Wild Things Are.  Honestly, I don’t think that its coincidence that these stories happen at night.  It must makes it that much easier for readers to suspend their disbelief and buy into the story.

That said, Night Time Logic can also be found in day time stories.  Just think Raold Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach.  And we have the classics Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver’s Travels.

As a whole, these stories aren’t logical but they have a certain internal logic.  Accept the world of the story and it all fits together.  They’re wacky and fantastic and they stick in readers minds.  I have to admit – I have a night time logic story and hearing this interview tempts me to get it out and see if I can’t whip it into shape.


Grant for Writers

Front Cover
My favorite Walter Dean Myers book.

Just found out about this one so I am writing it up and substituting this post for the post I had planned for today.  Why?  Because the deadline to enter is June 21, 2015.

We Need Diverse Books has created a grant in honor of Walter Dean Myers.  (sniff — I love his books!)  The grant for $2000 is open to “diverse” authors.  This means that it is open to authors who are:

  •       Persons of color
  •       Native American
  •       LGBTQIA+
  •       Persons with a disability
  •       Marginalized religious and cultural minority

This does not mean that the person has growns up with diverse people or is married to, a parent of, or a sibling of a diverse person.

Applicants must be unpublished but working toward a career as a children’s author and/or illustrator of (but not limited to):

  • Picture Books
  • Early Reader Books
  • Chapter Books
  • Middle Grade Books
  • Young Adult
  • Graphic Novels
  • Non-Fiction
  • Poetry

There are detailed instructions on how to enter but if this sounds like you then click here and get a move on it.  The deadline is in only 2 days!


Word Count: How Long Does My Manuscript Need to Be?

manuscript lengthHow long should my manuscript be?”  It’s a common question with a complicated answer.  It needs to be as long as is needed to get the job done.

Not a very helpful answer is it?

In part, the answer depends on your target publisher.  Check out their market lisitng or guidelines and see what they have to say.  Some of them get pretty specific.

If you don’t have a target publisher, here are some lengths as supplied by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.  Yes, I know the majority of information they pubilsh is for members only but this is from the handout “From Keyboard to Printed Page” which we are allowed to share with non-members.

Board Books:  Under 1/2 page of text.

Picture Books:  2/3 manuscript pages.  Sue here: I’ve been told by various editors that the majority of picture book manuscripts being published today are less than 500 words long.

Easy Readers:  10 – 20 manuscript pages.  Sue here:  This one can have a lot of variety because a truly beginning reader will be much shorter than one for a child who is almost up to chapter books.

Chapter Books: 40-60 manuscript pages.

Middle Grade novel: 100- 250 manuscript pages.  Sue here:  Isn’t that a huge range?  Obviously, 100 page manuscripts are most often younger middle grade books while the longer ones are for readers who are almost ready for young adult novels.

Young Adult novel:  200 – 350 manuscript pages.

If your book is close but not in one of these ranges, you may need to massage the word count a bit.  To find out how I do this, visit the Muffin and read my post for today.



49.punctuationjungleI’m fully confident using some punctuation marks.  I rock periods and commas.  But when on earth do you use a bracket vs a brace?  A brace.  That was a new one to me — I knew the symbol but that is not what we called it in school.  Of course, now I can’t remember what we called it but my husband suggested bracket which is a destinct possibility.

Whatever you called this { and this }, this handy  graphic can help you determine when and where to use them.