One Writer’s Journey

September 11, 2017

Books with Chapters: Where Does Middle Grade Fit In?

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:00 am
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While I work on my latest nonfiction manuscript, I’ve been pounding out a new fiction draft.  Initially I thought it was a chapter book.  Because of this, when I needed a mentor book, I pulled out a Magic Tree House.  Those are fantasy.  Mine is fantasy.  Those have two main characters.  Mine has two main characters.

I read through the Magic Tree House book.  Once I had a good feel for the characters and the pacing, I got to work. But as I drafted my manuscript, I found myself holding back.  “No, that doesn’t sound like an eight year-old. That sounds like a ten year-old.”  I haven’t been 100% comfortable having to do this.

Finally I started to wonder if maybe this really isn’t a chapter book.  It doesn’t feel like an older middle grade (a large part of my reading) but maybe it is a younger middle grade.  I realized that I need to do some more research, so I posted a question on Facebook asking my writer, teacher and librarian friends to make recommendations.

Wow.  The book titles have been pouring in and, although some of them are definitely older middle grade, some of them are in the younger part of the middle grade spectrum.  That’s part of what makes middle grade so tough as a “target book type.”  Middle grade isn’t one level as much as it is two.

Emma Dryden firmed up this thought when she commented on my post.  She reminded me that a younger MG character should be 10-12.  An older character, 12-14.  The plot, themes, emotion, psych and more has to fit within those age ranges.  This will, she pointed out, also impact the voice and POV.  Voice. That is definitely what tipped me off that I had a problem.  My character sounded too old.

My story is definitely younger middle grade with a character who is 10.  Fourth grade.  Not a second grader which is the age/level I tried to force.  Yes, this means I need to tinker with the first five chapters but that’s okay.  Now I can quit trying to hold my slightly sassy character back and just write.


For additional posts on writing for the middle grade market, see Middle Grade vs Young Adult and Writing Middle Grade Nonfiction.



May 15, 2017

Characters: Creating People that Live and Breathe and Can Walk Off the Page

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:46 am
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Recently I read a really interesting post at Heather Alexander’s blog, Interrobangs.  Titled “Antagonists Need Love Too,” Alexander wrote about being as nurturing and in-depth in the creation of your antagonist as you are with your protagonist.  The reason for this is that she sees to many ho-hum flat antagonists in middle grade fiction.  They are bullies who bully for the sake of bullying.  They have no back story.  They have no justification for their actions.

The techniques she recommends will help you create not only viable antagonists but also living, breating secondary characters.  Alexander asks writers to create back stories, to give non-human characters human trains, to show what they like, show where “bad” characters went bad, and show how the character is similar to your protagonist, give the history of their connection.

But there is one more thing I’d like to challenge you to do.  Develop the connection between yourself and the character.  In short, how is this character like you?  What does she feel that you feel? Want that you want?  Believe that you believe?  Develop these connections because these quantities, known to you, will help the character feel genuine.

Personally, this can be a lot of fun because it gives you the opportunity to act out through your characters in ways that you, as a human being, would not normally do.  In one fantasy that I wrote, I wrote a protagonist who is a misunderstood youngest child.  I’ve never been the youngest child.  In fact, I’m the oldest.  But I know what its like to be misunderstood.

It was easy enough, in writing the antagonist, to write from the perspective of an oldest child.  After all, I know what that feels like.

In creating this character relatioship, I drew on what I knew for both characters.  After reading my first several chapters, several people commented that I had very clearly shown how I felt as a youngest child.  I didn’t correct them.  I just took the compliment and smiled.  I had created a character the reader could believe.



April 5, 2017

Anti-Hero vs Flawed Main Character

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 4:08 am
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“Only villains are evil — antiheros are deluded, damaged individuals.” –David Weisberg

I read this quote today in a Writer’s Digest article and it definitely made me think.  I can’t say that I necessarily agree at least with the part about villains, but that’s largely because we don’t see many true villains any more (Voldemort being an exception).

What is it that makes an anti-hero?  Anti-heroes are flawed protagonists.

I know, I know.  In children’s literature, we put a great deal of emphasis on flawed protagonists.  After all, real people are flawed and we want to create characters that real kids can identify with.  As a result, we have to make sure our main characters are flawed and it is definitely true of some of my favorite protagonists.

Amani in Rebel of the Sands is self-deluded to the point that she misses a very important fact about herself.  I’m not going to even hint at what it is because it is that important to the next book.

Colin in John Green’s An Abundance of Katherine’s is spectacularly socially inept.

Elisa in Girl of Fire and Thorns waffles with a capital W.  In fact, she’s not good at anything but eating even if she is a princess.  This all changes in a rather spectacular fashion but she is definitely flawed as are all three of these characters.  And, annoying though they may sometimes be, the are also obviously good.

In my mind at least that makes them flawed but still fairly standard protagonists.  Anti-heros are something more.  They may not be evil but they also aren’t obviously good people.

Ronan in Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle’s Trilogy isn’t the main character but wow.  He is definitely an anti=hero.  There is no rule this boy has not broken. He’s loud, he’s abrasive and to see him in most situations you have no proof that he’s anything but rotten.  At least at first.  Get into the books and you’ll start picking up on a few things but he is definitely anti-hero material.  He is flawed and it is for these flaws that we love him.  Still, you will sometimes hesitate to call him good.  It just seems too extreme somehow.  All of that said, he is one of my all time favorite characters.

Another anti-hero, this one funny, is Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl.  He is a boy genius who is also bound and determined to be an evil genius.  These books are more funny than scary because it is solidly middle grade but he is so obviously bad.  Funny, but bad.

I’d have to say that Nick in The Demon’s Lexicon is also an anti-hero.  He’s cold and calculating and scares the holy you-know-what out of his mum.  But he’s devoted to his brother and a man of his word.  Still, as things unfold you are increasingly certain that he is not good.  He’s not even capable.


In children’s and young adult’s books, I think there is a very fine line between a flawed protagonist and a flawed anti-hero that it can be a rather ragged boundary running between.


November 28, 2016

Creating Spot-on Characters

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 4:29 am
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teens-629046_1920As I do the various bits of prewriting necessary before I start writing Iron Mountain, I’m spending a lot of time noodling over my characters. My story is science fiction but I want me characters to seem real to my young readers.  Here are some tips on how I plan to accomplish this.

Abandon Being Mom.  Most of us who write for teens are not teens ourselves.  I’m actually the Mom of a teen.  Ours is the house where anywhere from 3 to 13 kids may gather on a Saturday.  Suffice it to say that because I’m the Mom on duty, I get in a lot of Mom hours. “Don’t do that, do this and seriously? When did that seem like a good idea?” When I write for teens, I cannot be even a cool mom.  If I can’t put that aside, I’ll sound like a mom.  According to my son, we moms have a distinctive voice.  Hey, he’s the son of a writer.  He also comments on my motive and on subtext.  For my characters to sound like real teens, I have to give them free rein.

Listen In.  I also have to listen to how real teens talk.  Teens today sound different from teens sounded even ten years ago.  They use different phrases.  Not that I want to load my dialogue down with authentic jargon, but I want them to sound real.  The teens in my living room use terms that originated in texts.  I may know what they mean when I see them but hearing them sometimes throws me.

Know How They Differ.  Some things are very different from when I was a teen.  Where we worried about AIDS, that’s a non-issue today.  Yes, it still exists but it isn’t the death sentence it was way back when.  They grew up with high levels of technology.  A microwave oven and VCR were a huge deal when I was a teen.  I helped my father program our first computer.  Now everyone carries their own phones which are essentially mini-computers.  There are sports leagues that don’t involve any kind of ball but instead center on online gaming.

These are some of the things that I have to keep in mind as I create my teen characters.  I’m sure I’ll discover more, but this is where I am today.


November 15, 2016

Details: Keeping in Character

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:37 am
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square-peg-855294_1920This morning I started a new audio book.  No, I’m not going to tell you the name because, as much as I love it, I’m pointing out a detail that pulled me out of the story.  The main character is teenage girl from “upstairs.”  Her family is old money and she attends finishing school for the lone purpose of landing a suitable husband.

At one point in the book, she meets a young man who worked for her father.  In describing him, the young man, not the father, she notes that he has a bump on the bridge of his nose, like a boxer.  I washing dishes when I heard this passage and actually gave the speaker a hard look.  “Like a boxer?  How would she know a boxer’s nose from beans?”

The description was solid enough, I knew what the author meant. But unless I am gravely mistaken the the point-of-view character would not have seen a boxer’s nose.

This can be hard to remember when writing a character that is notably different than yourself, but you have to keep comparisons and descriptions in line with what this person would know, not what you would know.  Thus I might compare a texture to silk or mohair but I’m a knitter.  My main character who works on her parent’s dairy farm and his an excellent mechanic would come up with a different comparison — unless she was drawing a parallel to her mother’s softest sweater.

How might the author have described the young man?  This is a tough one because most of us immediately know what the author meant. A different description would have to be much more round-about and, because of this, runs the risk of being less satisfying.  Still, she could compare him to one of the servents who was nearly dismissed for fighting or whose nose was broken defending a family member or in an accident.  She could compare him to someone her father considered rowdy and a bad influence.

It isn’t easy to spot these slips.  Remember to look at your story world through the lens of your character’s experiences and interests.


November 2, 2016

Character Diversity: Don’t Create a Character Checklist

Ithe_hammer_of_thor‘m almost finished with Rick Riordan’s The Hammer of Thor, the second book in the Magnus Chase series.  This book was just what I needed.  I’m really appreciating Riordan’s relentlessly cheeky sense of humor.  That said, I had reservations early in the book.

The two main characters in the book are Magnus Chase, formerly homeless hero, and Sam, a Muslim Valkyrie.  For some reason, that character didn’t bother me.  Like Magnus Chase, she is the child of a Norse god but unlike Chase Sam does not consider her father a god.  He may be really powerful, but as far as Sam is concerned there is only one God.

Both of these characters are from book #1 in the series but when Riordan introduced a new character, I felt like he might have a checklist going.  Person of Color, preferably Muslim — Check/Sam.  LGBQT or Gender Fluid character — Check/Alex.  Like Magnus, Alex is also a demigod but Alex is also transgender and gender fluid.  I briefly felt like Riordan was just trying too hard to hit all the diversity high points.

But I was so appreciating the humor that I kept going and I have to say that I’m glad I did.   Why?  Because I feel like I came to a hasty judgement.

In part, this is because I really like the character. Like my brother-in-law, Alex is a potter.  Alex is also more than a little cheeky with personality to spare.  Riordan didn’t just slap the label transgender on a character.  This is truly a part of who Alex is and that is reflected in choice of art form, tattoo/symbol and more.  It also explains the total melt down the character has upon becoming a resident of Valhalla.

When you create a “diverse” character, you have to make them completely 3 dimensional and believable.  You have to make whatever trait it is that makes them diverse truly a part of them.  In short, you have to make them a strong character just like you would with any other character in your story.

I’m guessing that Riordan didn’t need me to tell him that.


October 18, 2016

Characterization: Prewriting to the Extreme

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:18 am
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When author K.M. Weiland interviews her characters, she asks them a wide variety of questions including the name of their favorite book. As I started doing this for my main character, Clem, my first thought was that she wouldn’t have a favorite book.  She is definitely working class and poor.  She doesn’t have much time for things like books.

Then I started to wonder if I was taking the easy way out.  My grandfather graduated with a degree in Mining Engineering just as many of the mines in the US were playing out.  Because of this, he took any job he could find.  Sometimes he was head mining engineer for the mercury mines in Terlingua, Texas.  Other times he ran a filling station.  My grandmother used chicken feed sacks to make clothing.  Pretty sacks became dresses focrisscrossing-the-galaxyr the girls.  Ugly sacks were destined to be underwear.  They were definitely foundation-stonesworking class and poor but they had books.

So what kind of books would kids on a mining planet have access to?  Especially working class kids? What would there be and what would they want?

Fortunately, I collect old books, snatching them up whenever I see them at a yard sale, rummage sale or book sale.  I was able to base these two books on actual texts in my collection.  One is my character’s favorite book because her older brother read it to her.  The other is the kind of book her step father wants her to read.  It should be pretty obvious which is which.

I’m not going to be able to put this much effort into every crumb of material culture but having put the effort into creating these “books,” even if I really only made the covers, I feel like I know my characters a bit better.

I better hustle though so that I’ll be ready to start working on the novel in two weeks.  Fingers crossed!






October 10, 2016

Characters: Getting to know them inside and out

fiddleAs part of the pre-writing that I need to get done for NaNoWriMo, I spent some time last week scrapbooking my characters.  This is definitely an exercise that I’d recommend if you’ve never done it before.

Before I did this exercise, I’d given some thought to my characters.  For my main character and three main secondary characters, I knew what they liked and what they valued but I hadn’t nailed down their appearances.  Now I have coloring, general height and  build for each of them.  I even have a pretty good idea what one character’s tatoo looks like.  The funny thing?  Before I did this, I didn’t know he had a tatoo.

I knew some of the baggage that he brought with him into the story.  It’s the baggage that makes him such a mystery, but I didn’t know about the ink.  As I was doing a variety of searches in Google Image, up popped a full back tattoo of a fallen angel.  Oh.  Wow.  Absolute perfection.

This isn’t the only character that I learned about.  My main character has a surprising hobby.  Yes, it is something a lot of girls do but it isn’t something you usually associate with a tom boy.

The surprise that’s going to make the most work for me came in the form of a pair of fiddles.  Two of my characters saw fit to let me in on the fact that they both play the fiddle.  That’s awesome for the story but what I know about fiddles would fit in the case alongside the bow and the fiddle itself.

But the character that I learned the most about is my villain.  All this time, I didn’t realize that I had never named him.  I just called him Stepfather.  Yes, it may be a bit cliché that the stepfather is the villain and because of that I’d let this character slide.  But now that he has a name and a face and even a motivation . . . I can’t say that I like him any better than I did before but now I know why he does the jerky things that he does.

This was definitely a worthwhile exercise.  This week I’ll be scrapbooking my settings.  I’m sure I’ll learn a few things in the process.


September 21, 2016

Your Main Character: What Do Your Readers Need to Know?

cat-as-lionUp until about a week ago, I had a fast and firm list of things that the reader needs to know about the main character.  That list included:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Name
  • Story goal

Leave any one of those out and I’d have something to say about it.  But then I read a piece of flash fiction, Fear of the Sentry by Tracy Maxwell, that made me question all of this.


The entire story is 5 paragraphs long.  For the first three, you follow the main character who is seeking out the enemy sentry.  And then if paragraph #4 you discover that this is a child sneaking up on fighting parents. The goal, the only thing that you thought you knew was figurative.

That’s right.  You don’t know the character’s gender, age, or name.  You think you know the story goal only to discover that you really don’t.

Yet, the story works and works to great effect.

Wow.  That’s all I can say is WOW.

Now I’m wondering, how would an editor react if you didn’t divulge your child character’s age?  Or name?  I’m guessing that if it works, no questions will be asked, no comments will be made.  But the story still needs to work.

In this case, Maxwell knew the writing rules and set out very deliberately to break them.  Age, name and gender are traits that serve to orient the reader in relation to the character.  If you leave one or more of these things out, you still need to orient your reader but you need to do it in a way that reveals something even more important.  In this case, we discover what the reader fears.  We learn that in spite of this fear, there is no choice but to move forward.  And we aren’t told these things.  They are shown to us.

For every support that you cut, you need to provide another.  Anyone else up for the challenge?


September 20, 2016

Characters: Make them interesting

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:25 am
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runner-1544448_1920Recently I was reading a fantasy tale and just could not connect with the character.  I tried.  After all, I love fantasy.  But there just wasn’t any attraction.  About four chapters in it hit me.  The character wasn’t specifically unlikable.  The problem was that he wasn’t interesting.  Here are three tips to create interesting characters.

Interesting Characters Have to Do Something
Whether or not your character is good or bad, to be really and truly interesting they have to be active.  This generally isn’t a problem when a story is plot driven but it is a different story when a piece is character driven.  All to often the character spends a great deal of time in her head or talking to someone.  SNORE.  To hold your reader’s attention, your character needs to do, working toward a goal whether that goal is figuring out an unsolvable puzzle or winning a race.

Interesting Characters Have Pasts
To be really and truly interesting, your character needs to have a past. Their past is what drives them and fuels their need to meet that goal.  This doesn’t mean that you have to reveal it all to the reader in a great-big info dump, but you need to know what it is because the past shapes the present.  As choices and actions are driven forward by what went before, you can reveal bits and pieces of it as needed.

Interesting Characters Aren’t All Good or All Bad
Another way to lose reader interest is to create a character who is always good.  No matter what the antagonist throws in her path, she is good and kind and sweet and . . . ugh.  saccharine.  The same is true of a character who is unrelentingly evil.  These kinds of characters just aren’t realistic so they don’t hold the reader’s attention.  Instead you need to create a good person who has a flaw or a bad person who has a redeeming quality.  These characters will then by more like real people and better able to hold the reader’s attention.

Runner, robber, regent, or robber, the biggest crime your character can commit is to bore your reader.


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