Starting In the Middle

Starting your story means balancing audience demands for information with moving the story along.
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Don’t start your story too early. That’s the advice most of us have heard. Start your story in the middle of things. Another name for this is starting your story in media res.

Most of us interpret this to mean that we need to start with some piece of action. The reader needs to meet our character in the middle of some tense situation. Sometimes this works better than others.

Last weekend, my husband and I got around to starting the Marvel series, “Moon Knight.” In episode one you meet Steven who wanders about in his sleep. To avoid this, he wears a leg restraint to bed. He scatters sand around the bed so he can tell if he’s tried to wander away. He also hears voices and finds a phone he doesn’t recognize hidden in his apartment. By the end of episode one, we were thoroughly confused.

We didn’t have a firm grasp on who this character was or what was going on his life. We knew that he just wanted to live a normal, torment free life. But that was about it.

And we are serious Marvel fans. I love the movies. He loves the comics. And we still felt lost. That’s a serious problem. There’s a big different between enticing your audience and confusing your audience.

As with so many things in writing, starting in the middle is a bit of a balancing act. You have to give your reader enough information to have a footing. You can tease, but you have to give them something.

In my class with Madeline Dyer, she explains that you have to answer at least some of your readers questions. I think Madeline said at least one out of every three. To answer the questions, you have to anticipate what these questions will be. But if you give too much information, you slow the story down.

And that’s why starting in the “middle” is a balancing act. Decide where you want to start. Then figure out what your audience needs to know at a minimum to understand what is happening. Otherwise, they might decide to read, or watch, something else.

Incidentally, episode 2 gave us the information we needed to keep watching.


Pitching Your Work in an E-mail

Perhaps you could pitch a piece on camping.
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Twitter events and conferences aren’t the only opportunities for you to pitch your work to an editor. Magazines in the Carus publishing group put out theme lists inviting authors to pitch. You can also pitch to any publication or site that is open to queries. When you do, remember to include the following four things.

Specifics about Your Idea

Don’t just tell the editor that you want to write about horses. Tell them that you want to write about the recently discovered genetic connection between Spanish horses and the ponies of Chincoteague. Explain how long your piece will be and where it will fit into the publication or site. Also reveal something about your research. This is a great place to include the fact that you have already arranged an interview with the lead scientist or another primary source.

Why Now

Not only do you want to intrigue the editor, you want them to see why they need to publish this now. Is there an anniversary event coming up? Maybe it has a STEM tie in or somehow links to something that is currently trending. This can be especially pertinent when pitching to a web site. When I wrote up activities for an educational web site, I often mined home decorating and wedding sites for trending ideas. Why? These things clearly interested adults and the site was used by adults who worked with children.

Reader Benefit

Include how the readers will benefit from your piece. An educational activity is fun while also allowing participants to experience imaginative play, develop basic math skills, and small motor skills. It almost sounds like this is overselling it but fun is important. Fun with a purpose is even better. What problem will your piece solve for your reader?

Why You

Last but not least, be sure the editor knows why you are the one and only person to write this particular piece. It might be your employment background (teacher, librarian or scientist). It might be that you have access to source material that is in an archive in your city. Perhaps you have experience conducting interviews or you’ve written previous STEAM material. Don’t hold back but be realistic.

My favorite pitches were the ones where I could pitch multiple activities in a single e-mail. That greatly increased my opportunity to make a sale. Can you fit two or three pitches into one e-mail? It will depend how tight you write. Are you up for the challenge?


National Book Lovers Day

Today, August 9, is National Book Lovers Day. I suspect that many writers live as I do, nestled among books. The only rooms with no books in them are the kitchen and the bathroom. That said, I don’t count the kitchen. While not a great room, the kitchen and family room open into each other and my cook books and many other books are in the family room.

But even where I don’t have space for a bookcase, I have books. The photo above is my living room. The real estate agent called this room the dining room and it is how we used it for years. Then one Saturday my son had 12 friends over to game. We swapped the dining room table for the sofa in the front room and we have never moved it back. This is actually my favorite reading spot in the whole house and not just because the cat likes to occupy the arm of the sofa, a massive, comfortable piece of furniture.

When I have a moment, I sprawl here and read. Other times I listen to audio books and knit. In the winter, the birdfeeder is right outside this window and I get to watch the cardinals. Definitely my favorite spot.

I don’t write here although I do sometimes rewrite about 15 feet away at the dining room table. After I do several revisions on-screen, I do one on paper. I’ve discovered that this is the best way to spot duplicate phrases or duplicate information. Why does this information escape my notice on screen? I have no idea but it very often does.

I am most definitely fortunate to get to make books for a living. Speaking of which, I better hop to it. I’ve got a deadline next week.

Happy National Book Lovers Day! Take the time to pick up a book and read.


Retain the Spark

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You come up with a great idea and you draft a new picture book manuscript. You revise and polish and take it to your critique group.

They give you feedback and you rewrite. Then you have someone else critique it. They too give you feedback and you rewrite again.

Many of us will keep up this critique and rewrite process for months or even years on a given manuscript. We tinker with the vocabulary. Don’t make it too hard! Four year-olds won’t know that word. We add descriptions and strengthen verbs and . . .

We revise the heart right of our manuscripts.

Last week, I viewed a webinar with Frances Gilbert, the Editor-in-Chief of Doubleday Books for Young Readers. The webinar was about the rules that aren’t really rules that so many writers try to abide by. But she also spoke about the angst and anxiety that comes with multiple revisions. She’s had writers tell her that they feel stressed and just aren’t having fun with the picture book manuscripts. And, according to Gilbert, it shows. Their work lacks the spark found in early drafts.

The reality is that our critique groups want to help us write better manuscripts. But many of us focus on minor details. When we critique picture book manuscripts, we should be looking at pacing. Does it move along well or does it drag? Is there something for the adult and the child? What about the illustrator? Is this a manuscript that will give the illustrator something to do or is it all in the text? I’ve also come to suspect that our critique groups believe that it is their sworn duty to help us find something to fix.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t revise and I absolutely adore my critique group. But you need to keep your goal in sight. Why did you want to write a particular manuscript? What is it that you want to accomplish?

Me? I always strive to remember my child reader. What is it that this child wants from this book? What will they discover? And what will bring them back?

It is my job to make certain that that spark remains.


How to Avoid Writing a Preachy Picture Book

Name a problem that a kindergartner might face, and there is a right way and a wrong way to tell a story about how to deal with it. Take, for example, the difficulties that a child might have if they have an unusual first name.

Possible solutions include:

  • Going along and answering to the wrong name.
  • Correcting fellow students but not teachers.
  • Shouting “that’s not my name!”

It isn’t just coming up with a good solution that is tricky but also weaving it all into a good picture book manuscript. Do it wrong and you end up preaching a sermon. I see this a lot when a writer wants to teach young readers about manners, hard work, or being good to the Earth.

It isn’t that what they want to share is bad or wrong. But the way that they do it doesn’t draw young readers in.

The best way to deal with these kinds of themes is to create a character with a problem that they need to solve. That’s what Anoosha Syed does in That’s Not My Name! When Mirha goes to the first day of kindergarten, she can’t believe how much trouble her classmates and teachers have with her name. She’s a kind person and doesn’t want to get in trouble with the teachers so she keeps quiet but is frustrated and sad by the time she gets home. Mirha doesn’t solve this problem on her own. Her mother explains the meaning and importance of Mirha’s name and helps her devise a way of dealing with everyone.

This works because young readers are going to sympathize with Mirha. Even if they don’t have an unusual name, there isn’t a child on this planet who hasn’t been called the name of another child or the cat. Mirha is realistic and interesting and someone that readers young and old can empathize with.

And that, my friends, is how to craft a picture book without preaching.


Loosing their temper and yelling at the person who calls them something other than their name.

Researching a Nonfiction Book

One of the questions I get most often from my students is how much research you need to do to write a nonfiction book. The first thing you need to know is that you don’t do a lot less research for a short book.

I just signed contracts for 4 new books. Two are for tweens and teens with a wordcount of 15,000 words each. The other two are hi-lo books. These are for tweens with a low reading level. Each of these books is 3,300 words. While I will do less research for the shorter books, I won’t know how much less until I get all four projects done. This is because it depends more on the project topic than it does the length of the book.

Each of the longer books will take about 6 weeks to complete. The shorter will take 2 to 3. But the process is much the same.

First I read through the series specs that the editor sent me. This will tell me more or less what they want for the book. Then I read several general pieces on the topic. Then I list out my chapter titles.

The next step is to dive into each chapter. I need four subheadings and three or four sidebars per chapter. As I outline, I add footnotes. I didn’t used to do this because I was afraid that it might clutter up the outline for my editor. But then I noticed that my editors had a tendency to ask questions about sources. Footnoting the outline makes it easier for both of us.

I turn in the outline with the first chapter. Once this is approved, I go back and write the whole thing. The information that I referenced in completing the outline is never enough to write the whole book. So I do more research as I go, adding even more footnotes and more sources.

By the time I finish, I may have as many as 60 sources for one of the shorter books and 200 for one of the longer. But, again, it depends on the topic. When I wrote about cancel culture, my editor actually recommended a book on surviving public humiliation. I read several psychological studies and sociological material and dozens of magazines and newspaper articles. But when I wrote on the Who, I was writing about a band that was and still is a big deal. There were books written about the band members and books written by the band members. That made the whole research process much easier.

So, how much research do you need to do? Enough to get the job done.


Manipulating Who Knows What to Create Tension

Who knows more? Your character or your reader?
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I am learning so much from Madeline Dyer’s class on narrative structure. If you write fiction or memoir, this is definitely a class you should consider taking.

Today’s lecture was about non-linear manuscripts. In a linear manuscript, the story is told chronologically. In a non-linear manuscript, it is not. Me? For the most part, my work is linear, but today Madeline made a great case for making it non-linear. There are times, she said (I’m paraphrasing), that you want the character to know more than the reader, and times you want the reader to know more than the character.

It took me several minutes to puzzle out what she meant but finally — AHA! Let’s say that you have a story with 7 scenes. Yes, that’s a small number but you’ll see why I chose seven. One scene happens on each day of the week.

If your story is chronological, the scenes will be presented to the reader in the order that they occur – Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Your reader and your character are equally well informed. Why? Because the reader is taking in the story as the character experiences it.

Now let’s move one of those scenes. Let’s say that the scene that takes place on Thursday is presented first. That means that the order would be Thursday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

As the reader experiences the Thursday scene, they know less than the main character. Why? Because the character has already experiences Sunday through Wednesday. But after the Thursday scene is the Sunday scene. Now the reader knows more than the character.

Let me give you an example. In the Thursday scene, the main character, Brett, is betrayed by his new best friend, Curtis. Next comes the Sunday scene. The betrayal has yet to occur. In the Sunday scene, Brett meets the new student, Curtis, and is excited to have a new classmate who likes so many of the things that he does. “Wait! No!,” says the reader. “It’s an act and he’s going to betray you!” But Brett doesn’t know this so there and this lack of knowledge increases the tension in the story.

Fascinating! I don’t think this is something I can use in my middle grade project but it is definitely something I’m going to look for in my reading. I’m sure I’ll be able to use this technique in a future story.


Nontraditional Patterns

A while ago I was watching a webinar when an agent asked writers, especially picture book writers, to learn about something other than the three act structure. The problem with this particular pattern is that it is used so frequently that it has become somewhat predictable. Fortunately there are a number of other patterns you can use.

Four or Five Act

Slightly different from the familiar three act structure are the four and five act structures. At first, it might seem like these patterns simply add more beats to the story but remember that when your character goes into a new act, they face a story beat that is irreversible. There is absolutely no way that your character can move backwards. They have either changed too much emotionally or mentally or something else has changed so that home is no longer an option.

Freytag’s Pyramid

In this older pattern, the climax to the story comes in the middle of the story. The climax may not be a big epic battle but it is the point where the conflict peaks and we know what is going to happen, more or less, to the main character. When a Shakespearean character chooses a bad path, it becomes obvious at the climax and then for the rest of the play we watch the character spiral downward.

In the first half of the play we watch the character struggle to reach a goal. The climax is where the character gets what he wants. Afterwards, the falling action is when the character meets his fate. This pattern is frequently used in tragedies.

Cell Structure

I just wrote an interactive piece with a cell structure pattern. That sounds a bit high brow, doesn’t it? What I wrote was a choose your own piece where each numbered section is a separate vignette.

Each piece generally reflects a set theme.

You can read a lot more about unconventional story patterns, including the spiral, the fractal, and the meander in Jane Alison’s Meander Spiral Explode. I’m definitely going to have to reread this book several times while also picking through the examples she uses. After focusing so much on three act structure, it can be difficult to even see the others, let alone to understand how they function.


Danger, Danger! Scammer Impersonating an Agent

Over the last several weeks, a scam e-mail has been going around. The scammer claims to be Jenny Bent, head of the Bent Agency. The e-mail says that because of so many changes in the industry, specifically advances in technology, the biggest publishers find it hard to scout for books that will translate well across electronic media. But, the recipient is told, “we believe your book has great potential to be picked up (a list of big name publishers).”

Hopefully writers, especially those that have not recently queried the Bent Agency, will quickly realize that this e-mail is a hoax.

  • The first half of the letter works so hard to sound pretentious. As a result, it doesn’t entirely make sense.
  • There are also grammar errors.
  • The second half of the letter is copies from the agency web site.
  • Although the letter links to the agency site, the e-mail addy does not match the addresses on the site.
  • Agents, especially agents from prestigious houses, do not reach out to authors with whom they have no relationship.
  • The letter has no stated purpose. It doesn’t say, “please contact me.” It doesn’t say, “I want to do X for you.”

How does the scammer benefit from the naïve author? As explained on Writer’s Beware, writers are asked to pay for copy right registration, developmental editing, a book trailer video, work on their web site, book copies to be sent to book stores, and more.

If you are looking for an agent, as many writers are, it can be tempting to reach out if you receive this type of e-mail. Then the agent offers to provide various services, or refers the writer to someone who will provide them, for a fee. Payment is to be made via Venmo, Zelle, or a wire transfer because eventually it is expected that the author will realize they have been cheated and it is very hard to get money back that has been paid out through one of these methods.

Not content to simply use Jenny Bent’s name, the same scammer is also impersonating David Dunton of the Harvey Klinger Literary Agency.

My advice to you is to familiarize yourself with Writer’s Beware. Scams are not new and you don’t want to fall for something that will distract and discourage you.