3 Tips for Creating Distinct Character Voices

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As I work on Airstream, my middle grade science fiction novel, I’m working to create distinct character voices. This is especially important because, as is so often the case with speculative fiction, I have a larger cast of characters than I normally work with. It is also tricky because you meet one group of siblings and then, five chapters later, the second group of siblings.

Not only do I have 6 characters to keep track of, I also need to make sure that they don’t sound alike. Here are three things that I do to give each character a voice of their own.

Consider Who They Are

The first thing that I do is consider who my character is. I’m not going to summarize all six of them for you but instead will focus on two key characters.

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Ada is 11. She is a scientist, obsessively loves to learn, and is an introvert. She isn’t shy, so she is outspoken, but prefers to be alone or around only a handful of people. Team work is not her thing.

Jaxon is 17. Jaxon is a natural athlete who loves little more than competitive sports. He’s a fair student but prefers school for the social aspects. He is loud and boisterous but reigns it in when he’s around his sister.

Create a Unique Vocabulary

Once I know a bit about each character, I consider their vocabulary. Ada peppers what she says with science terminology. She sounds “brainy.” She also has a tendency to sound combative because she knows she is smarter than a lot of people.

You might also expect Jaxon, the competitive athlete, to sound combative. But he’s a team player. Ada tells other people what to do. Jaxon discusses what “we” should do as well as what is good for the group.

Read Dialogue Aloud

Last but not least, I read the dialogue aloud. Remember that dialogue is speech spoken aloud. While you never write exactly the way that people actually speak, you want dialogue to flow and sound natural unless you need your character to sound stilted. Reading the text aloud helps me to hear each of my characters.

Use these three tips to create and hone unique voices for your various characters. Soon you’ll have a cast of independent characters, each with something to say.


The Classes I Teach

I often write about the classes and webinars that I take. I don’t write nearly as often about the three classes I teach through WOW! Women on Writing. Read on to find out more.

Pitching, Querying and Submitting Your Work

Whether you write essays, short stories or novels, sending your work to an agent, editor or publisher is a daunting task. This course will teach you to assemble submission basics including a pitch and a query letter. These tools will enable you to get your work in front of industry professionals. We will also discuss how to find markets and how to manage rejection.

This is the least specific class I teach in that it is suitable for novelists, nonfiction writers, poets, and those who write for children.

Find out more or sign up here.

Research: Prepping to Write Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults

Nonfiction for children and teens lines the bookshelves of libraries and bookstores, fills magazines and e-zines and is used in classrooms around the world. The first step in taking your place in this market is learning to do the research. That may sound relatively simple, but done right it includes researching markets and possible topics as well as locating accurate source materials. This course will help you develop the skills you need to take on these tasks with confidence.

If you are interested in writing adult nonfiction, this class would be helpful but I know a lot less about adult nonfiction than I do nonfiction for the juvenile markets. That said, I love doing research of all kinds and end up learning about a wide range of topics from my students.

Find out more or sign up here.

Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults

Biographies, science, history, how-to, and more. Nonfiction is published in book form, online and in both magazines and e-zines. Not only do teachers and school librarians seek nonfiction for their students, children and teens read it for fun. In this course, you will learn how to organize your material, write and revise not only the manuscript you workshop in class but future projects as well.

This class is my sweet spot. All of my books thus far are nonfiction. I love finding engaging ways to bring nonfiction to young readers.

Find out more or sign up here.

Let me know if you have any questions!


When Do You Revise?

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Not everyone writes the same way. My friend Pat likes to work in the library. I prefer writing in my home office. But another way we all differ is when we revise.

As You Write

Some of us revise our work as we write. When I use this technique, I sometimes go over what I wrote the day before, tightening and adjusting the previous days work. Only then do I begin to write something new.

This helps me to see where I left off before I try adding to the manuscript.

Still I know that I don’t catch everything because I don’t have the big picture in mind. I need to know what happens in scene 6 to set up scene 1. That’s why I also revise . . .

After I’ve Completed a Full Draft

The best way for my to revise the manuscirpt as a whole is after I’ve completed a full draft. In fact, that’s what I have to have when I rework things using Darcy Pattison’s Novel Metamorphosis. To use Darcy’s techniques to study pacing, character and balance you have to have the full manuscript down.

And really? How else are you going to envision the whole? You need to have a full draft! But to do this best you need . . .

A Lengthy Absence

I try to set a manuscript aside for a month before I come back to it. This isn’t generally possible for my work-for-hire projects, but I do it when I can.

An absence of a month or more means that everything isn’t fresh in my mind. When I reread the manuscript after a lengthy absence, it is easier to see what I laid down in the manuscript vs what I planned to write. The two are generally somewhat different from each other.

When I make notes on my manuscript, I first read it through in a single sitting. No comments. No notes. To enable myself to do this, I will keep a pad of post-its and stick one on a page where I spot something I want to address. But no notes! I need to see the whole.

When I’ve read the whole thing, I take notes. Fix this. Do that. Add this in. Take that out. Then I reread it all again. Now is when I mark things up. When I think I’ve got it close to perfect, that’s when I need to go through it with Darcy’s book. She and I approach our writing differently so her techniques reveal things I wouldn’t catch on my own.

So – when do you revise? Do it do it one time and then submit your work? Or do you do it several times before you give it to your critique group?


Scene vs Chapter

Scene or sequel? It looks like a sequel to me.
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I’ve been working on Air Stream lately, writing from my Save the Cat scene outline. I’ve noticed that what I have listed as a scene in my outline only rarely corresponds to a chapter in my draft. Because of this, I’ve been reading up on what a scene is vs what a chapter is. Here is what I’ve found.

A Scene

Is a set building block.

In a scene, the character has a goal, attempts to achieve it, encounters an obstacle, and fails to meet the goal. Some people consider what comes next another type of scene, called the sequel. Others consider the sequel the part of every scene. In the sequel, the character reacts to the failure, figures out what the failure means for the story goal, and sets a new immediate goal.

Sequels do not have to be equal in length to the scene. In fact, some sequels are only a few words or lines. A character who is trying to sneak into a locked room has only moments to react when they hear someone coming. Oh no, I need to hide!

Etc. This pattern continues until you reach THE END.

A Chapter

Manages the pacing of the story. Long, languid chapters slow things down. Short chapters speed things up. Think about how quickly a novel-in-verse told moves.

Should end at a place that will make the reader want to turn the page and keep reading. Me? I favor cliff hanger endings. “What happens next?” As explained by K.M. Weiland, she breaks her chapter after the character’s failure to meet their goal and and before the sequel. The sequel then opens up the next chapter. The sequel is thus used to re-hook the reader again and again at the beginnig of every chapter.

The opening of a chapter can serve as a transition showing the passage of time. This is especially true in the final chapter that serves as an epilogue.

In a book with multiple point-of-view (POV) characters, a new chapter can mark the transition from one POV character to the other.

Am I doing it all correctly? Probably not. I’ve got a good sense of where to break a chapter (cliff hanger!) and I love the play of scene vs sequel. I’ve been instinctively breaking my chapters between the scene and the sequel.

None of this means that my pacing is 100% and that I won’t find one or more areas that need serious improvement. But I’m glad I took a look at this.

Now, back to chapter scene 6/chapter 4. I’ve got many chapters and scenes yet to go!


5 Questions to Help Determine Your Writing Path

Select your writing path.
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If you are a writer who reads blogs and articles and WRITES, my guess is that you want to achieve something. But, and this is super important, what looks like success to you may not look like succees to me.

This reality came home to me when I went to my first big, multi-day writers conference. I was happy with what I had achieved. Sure, there was more I still wanted to do, but I had reached some pretty impressive goals. I was a magazine writer and a newsletter writer. I had dozens and dozens of sales, but I learned at this conference that for many of my fellow writers, this meant nothing.

I didn’t have a book. Fortunately, I’ve always been remarkably strong willed. I didn’t need to argue with these people because I knew that I was following my path.

So, and this shouldn’t surprise you coming from me, you need to determine the steps in your own writing path. Here are five questions you need to ask yourself.


Why do you write? Maybe you write because you have a story you need to tell. Maybe you are writing the book that you wanted as a young reader. Maybe you want your children to see themselves in the characters of books. Each of us will have a different answer and it is an answer that may change over time.

What do you write?

You might be a picture book writer or a novelist. Maybe poems, essays or nonfiction articles are your passion. Some writers want to become known in one area. Others want to write many different things. What do you want?

What do you want to achieve?

This is different than what do you want to write because it has to do with writing goals. Maybe your goal is “to finish X manuscript.” Maybe you want to write 12 poems or 4 picture books. Maybe you’ve roughed out several manuscripts and want to polish your favorite.

What says “success”?

How will you know that you’ve achieved success? Maybe you need to hold your book in your hand. Maybe, more than anything, you want to have stories under submission. Maybe you want a social media following. Again, only you can answer this question.

What can you do to achieve it?

Once you have some idea what the markers for success are, consider the things that you can do to achieve them. Possible steps including writing regularly, attending conferences, finding a critique group, or putting together a website. You have to know what success looks like to get there but once you know, you can begin to identify your own writing path.


5 Ways to Get Words on the Page

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It doesn’t matter whether you write essays, novels, or short stories, often the hardest part is getting yourself to sit down and put words down. My critique group discussed this on Wednesday and it was also a discussion in my novel writing group.

What I quickly realized is that different things work for different writers. That’s why it helps to be aware of various ways to get yourself to sit down and write. I don’t know what will work for you. You may not know what will work for you next month.

Here are five things for you to try.

Accountability or a Deadline

This is the idea behind NaNoWriMo. You have one month to write 50,000 words. For some writers, belonging to a critique group works much the same way. My group meets twice a month – once on Zoom and once in person. That’s two opportunities to get my work in front of my peers but only if I get something done.

Where You Write

Another factor can be location, location, location. My friend Pat cannot work on longer fiction at home. She has to go to the library. I told her that I didn’t think that would work for me because I’m too busy people watching. She admitted that she usually gets one of the study rooms. In this small, well-lit room, she isn’t distracted by her dogs, the laundry or anything else. She just sits and writes.

Turn Off the Monitor

Actually producing words can be tough if you keep going back to change the previoius line. Some people solve this problem by turning off their monitors. I am a horrible typist. Often enough when I can see things, I position my hands incorrectly. I would be the person who typed an entire page with my left hand one key off. But this might work for you.

Stop Mid-sentence

One of the writers I know online said that he always stops mid-sentence. He hates leaving a sentence unfinished and this pulls him back to his desk to write some more. Again, he stops mid-sentence.

I’m going to try this out tomorrow. I often stop mid-scene but if it is a tough scene, I’ll leave it for two days while I work on other things.

Just Five Minutes

Something that has worked for me is to give myself permission to write for just five minutes. This works when I am really busy. Or stressed. Or also working on a work-for-hire.

I don’t have to write two pages. I don’t have to write for fifteen minutes. I just have to write for five minutes. I can do that while pasta cooks!

There are a variety of reasons that we avoid writing. Perhaps one of these solutions will work for you. Or, you might want to share in the comments various techniques that you have used in the past.


Story Pacing: Getting It Right in Your Early Reader

Yasmin in Charge
Yasmin in Charge by Saadia Faruqi

I’ve been looking at some of my older manuscripts including several early readers. Soemthing felt off in the pacing which isn’t surprising. Like picture books, early readers don’t have a lot of text but they still have complete stories with a beginning, middle and ending.

To figure out how to correctly pace a story, I new I needed to do some reading. Fortunately I had Saadia Faruqi’s Yasmin in Charge checked out from the library. This is a compilaiton of four Yasmin stories bound into one book. This was perfect because I could sit down and read all four stories.

My reading revealed that each three-chapter story shared similar pacing.

In Yasmin the TEACHER:

Chapter 1: Set Up/Yasmin receives a gift of colored pencils and takes them to school.

Chapter 2: Complication or Goal/Teacher leaves Yasmin in charge but no one cooperates.

Chapter 3: Solution/Yasmin challenges her fellow students to a contest.

In Yasmin the CHEF:

Chapter 1: Set Up/Yasmin’s family is getting ready for a party.

Chapter 2: Complication/She doesn’t like any of the food but her attempts are all failures.

Chapter 3: Solution/Yasmin realizes what she can make. Everyone else loves it, but she thinks of a way to improve it.

As you can see, early readers still have three acts.

Act 1:

The reader meets the character and is introduced to what is going on in this particular book.

Act 2:

A problem arises and the character makes multiple attempts to solve it. All attempts fail.

Act 3:

What it seems like failure is eminent, the character comes up with a new solution. The key to this solution is often something from Act/Chapter 1. In the end, things work out although there may be a hint that the character has a plan for the future.

If your story isn’t coming together, check your pacing. Too slow a start can bore readers. Too fast a start leaves them wondering what is going on. Don’t be surprised if, like Yasmin, it takes multiple attempts to achieve success!


How to Start Your Biography

Yesterday I blogged about how to start your nonfiction manuscript. Sharon asked how to start a biography, specifically a biography of a noted children’s author. I knew I had to look into it before I could answer her and my answer turned into this post.

First things first, lets look at the openings of several biographies for children.

Who Was Laura Ingalls Wilder by Patricia Brennan Demuth is a middle grade biography. The book opens with her birth, emphasizing that she was born a pioneer in a log cabin. Reading the description of the book, I see that it shows how similar her life was to that depicted in her books.

Dr. Seuss: The Great Doodler by Kate Klimo is an early reader. The book opens with Ted Geisel sitting in his studio. The phone rings and he discovers that he has won the Pulitzer. The story line steps back to his childhood and his ever present doodles.

Sharon specifically asked about biographies about authors but I simply have to include Dr. Fauci: How a Boy from Brooklyn Became America’s Doctor by Kate Messner. The subtitle reveals the slant. This picture book opens with a spread about how curious Anthony was about his fish and so many other things.

So how do you start a biography? As these examples show, there are many ways to do it including these three:

  1. Start with a scene of the person as a famous adult.

2. Start with their birth in a setting that supports the theme.

3. Start with a scene that demonstrates a trait that was vital in them reaching where they are today.

Often the key to knowing how to start the book is knowing exactly what story you want to tell, what you want to emphasize. If your focus is showing how Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up as a pioneer and then portrayed this life in her books, open with a scene that shows her as a pioneer.

Sharon is writing about an author. She could start with a scene that shows this person recieving an award. She could start with a scene showing this person telling a story to their friends. Or she could do something completely different that reveals something special about her subject.

How you start your nonfiction book will largely depend on what story you want to tell.


3 Tips on How to Start Your Nonfiction Manuscript

It may have been a dark and stormy night but that doesn’t mean you need to start your manuscript with that line.
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I love writing nonfiction. I’ve written about archaeology (The Ancient Maya), American history (Hidden Computers and The Assassination of John F. Kennedy), science (Evolution of Reptiles and Evolution of Mammals), and even current events (The Dakota Access Pipeline and The Impeachment of Donald Trump).

No matter what type of nonfiction book I am given to write, I need to find an interesting way to hook my reader. Here are five tipes on how to start your nonfiction manuscript.

Create a Scene

Every one of the books listed above starts with a narrative nonfiction scene. This means that I create a scene nonfiction scene complete with a setting, tension and characters. Because this is nonfiction, every detail in my scene has to be based on research and fact.

Choose the right scene and you not only hook your reader but you also leave them wanting to know more. They turn the page and read on.

Beware the Question

Do you know something? It can be tempting to start with a question as I did in this paragraph. But that sort of start is hard to pull off. If your reader can answer “no,” they may very well stop reading. In this care, the risk is that the reader will simply think “I know lots of things” and that is the end of their reading experience at least with this paragraph.

Did you know . . . what about . . . and have you considered are other ill-advised story-starts.

You have to make your reader think or surprise them in some way to make a question work.

Beware Time and Temperature

It was a sunny 4th of July.

That’s nice, but it isn’t a very effective begining. Unless the time and weather are unique or surprising or set up a contrast, you can probably come up with a more effective beginning. What do I mean by contrast? Keep in mind that I’m making all of these examples up, but . . .

“In spite of the frigid temperatures, sweat ran down the faces of the crew . . .”

“The birds chirped and the sun shone on this beautiful spring day as the workers put the finishing touches on the gallow that was to be used later that day.”

“The streets were dark although it was dawn as everyone headed to work . . .”

You may discover several different ways to start your manuscript. The one that you ultimately select may depend on your themes, what you choose to emphasize, or how the story ends. This isn’t the first thing you need to figure out but it is something you need to consider before submitting your work to an agent or an editor.


How to Publish Multiple Books in One Year

Last week, I read Rajani LaRocca’s Writer’s Digest Post “How I Managed to Get Six Books Published in 2021.” What an inspiration! My year for six books was 2018 when Meth (Abdo, 2018), Steroids (Abdo, 2018), The Debate about the Electoral College (Focus Readers, 2018), Advertising Overload (Abdo, 2018) which was co-authored with Duchess Harris, The Dakota Access Pipeline (Abdo, 2018), and What Are Race and Racism?  (Abdo, 2018) all came into print.

Unless you self-publish all of your work, you aren’t going to be able to entirely control when things come out. Still, there are things that you can do to set yourself up for success.

Look for Reasons to Write

So many people put off writing. The kids are off school. There’s a wedding this year. Or a pandemic. Granted, there will be times that you simply can not write. But what you need to look for are those times that you can write. Because if you don’t write it, you can’t publish it.

# of Manuscripts

You can’t work on just one manuscript either. I say this because I know writers who have been writing and rewriting the same manuscript, or the same 4 manuscripts, for years. You need to have numerous projects and . . .

You Need to Submit Your Work

If you have an agent, you’ll need to find an agent who is willing to send out your work. No kidding? Isn’t that what agents do? Yes, but a lot of agents want to market one or two things at a time. If they have a high success rate with your work, this can still work for you because when they sell one thing they can start marketing another.

If you don’t have an agent, you need to get your own work out there in front of the editors or . . .

Write for a Packager

I wrote all of the above books through Red Line Editorial. Publishers approach them with a series idea, including a list of titles. Red Line finds writers to take on the various titles. You can get a lot of work this way. If you want to write your own nonfiction, you can still . . .

Write Series Nonfiction

When publishers, especially publishers who sell to the school library market, put out a nonfiction series, they don’t generally want to put out one book at a time. They publish four or more books at once. This can add up quickly but that means you also need to be able to write quickly.

Answer “Yes”

When a publisher, packager, or editor says, “Can you write…?” If it is at all possibly, you need to answer YES! I’m not saying that you need to say yes to everything, after all, I don’t. But more often than not, my answer is “Yes, I’d be happy to write that book and thank you.”

It’s how I had 6 books come out in 2018.