Picture Book Writing Style

Many writers get tripped up on picture book writing style: What kind of syntax should you aim for? What type of words to use? Should you worry about reading levels? What the heck is a Lexile score?

picture book writing style, picture book voice, writing picture books
I wish for a simpler, clearer picture book voice.

Why Writing Style Matters for Picture Books

Children’s books are a unique subset of publishing because you’re dealing with many different age groups and reading levels. When you write a novel for adult readers, you don’t really have to think about this stuff. It’s presumed that most people will be pretty proficient readers, otherwise they’re probably not seeking out your average literary fiction novel.

When you write for young readers, you do have to take reading level into consideration. Not so much when you’re writing young adult, because those readers are already well-developed, but it’s something to think about in every category leading up to YA.

Embracing the Picture Book Writing Style

Unfortunately, I’m not a big proponent for strictly writing to Lexile scores, nor will I provide you with a vocabulary “green light” list for picture books. I’m the wrong resource for that sort of thing. I believe in teaching more open-ended concepts that allow writers to make their own decision.

So to me, this is the heart of the matter: The biggest consideration when it comes to picture book writing style is that your language and syntax are accessible to the audience.

Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Well, most picture book writers could use a reminder of who your audience actually is for the 0-5 age group that typically reads picture books. This is perhaps a misleading question. Because here, your readers are:

  1. Adults who are reading the book aloud to a very antsy toddler-aged child with limited attention span, or, far behind them, in second place,
  2. Kids who are only just beginning to read independently.

Write for Your Audience, or Your Audience’s Audience

“Well, you’ve confirmed it. I’m writing for adults when I write picture books,” you might be thinking. “So what’s the problem with my clunky syntax and advanced word choice and sentences that stretch on for entire paragraphs? Adults can take it.”

Adults might be able to take it. But their antsy audience (with limited attention span) won’t. And even if an adult could take it the first three times, by the seventh reading of the night, they might tire of flat, complicated prose as well.

The biggest sins I see when it comes to picture book writing style are these long, convoluted sentences. Those do not belong in writing for the youngest listeners and readers. Believe me when I say that your adult readers, child listeners, or first-time independent readers want short, energetic, snappy prose.

It’s not that young readers/listeners aren’t capable of understanding great complexity. They are. But there’s a difference between complexity of idea or story or emotion, and complexity of sentence. You want the former, not the latter.

How to Address Picture Book Writing Style Issues

In almost all cases, the solution is simple: Read your work aloud. I don’t care if you feel silly doing it. Print out your manuscript and pace around the room and read. Or, better yet, ask someone to read it to you.

Mark where they stumble. (You know your work well, so you’re unlikely to falter. Someone who hasn’t read the actual sentences will be a much better test of rhythm and flow.) Mark where they run out of breath in the middle of a sentence.

Remember that picture books are read aloud more often than not over their target audience’s life cycle. Do not pass “go,” do not dare submit, do not dare go one more day without reading all of your picture book manuscripts out loud for real.

And if you find long-winded, clunky, dry, or otherwise uninspiring syntax? Chop it up. Swap out your business memo words like “caused” and “exited” and “vehicle.” Then read the draft aloud again.

You’re writing for young readers. You’re allowed to be a little more hands on!

Take some of the guesswork out of the writing and revision process. I can be your picture book editor on one or multiple manuscripts!

Children’s Book Manuscript Chapter Length

Hi, this is Mary Kole and kidlit.com, and you are watching a video response to a question that I received on the blog from Tom. Tom recently asked a wonderful question about read aloud potential in picture books, which I was happy to answer. He had another great question in the same comment. So he was just coming up with good stuff. I am more than happy to answer in this video format. I think it’s so much fun. Tom’s question, actually the answer to Tom’s question is hidden inside of Tom’s question, but the gist of it is, Tom says, “When I’m reading with my kids, I notice that the manuscripts,” or the books in his case, “that have consistent chapter length flow more smoothly. They are more of a joy to read. Can you comment on that?” You know, and as I am reading this, I’m thinking, “You just answered your own question, buddy.” But whatever, I’ll speak to it because I think it’s a very important point.

So chapter length is a big question that I received many times about all sorts of children’s books that have chapters. So that usually includes everything from chapter books, to middle grade, to young adult novels. And in that case, people always ask, you know, “How long should my chapters be?” That’s the most common question. Nobody really talks about consistency. So I think this is a really great point to drill into. Now, I am less concerned with how long your chapter needs to be. I’m not a big fan of handing out absolute dictums and saying, you know, “For middle grade, your chapters need to be 2,000 words max and always longer than 1,200 words, and…” you know.

Yeah sure, if pressed, I could come up with some harder numbers, but I don’t like to do that because I believe that every book sort of has its own style. Now, I will say that yeah, a chapter that’s 10,000 words for any category of children’s book is probably crazy. It’s gonna be tedious to read. It’s a lot. So there definitely are ways to answer that question in a more specific way, but I’ll keep being cagey, and I will say consistency, as Tom identified in his comment, is key in any category that you’re writing, middle grade, chapter book, YA. Consistency is what sort of keeps the engine of your pacing going. And when I’m reading, I definitely notice, you know, with my editorial clients, I have manuscripts in front of me all the time. I definitely notice when a chapter is a lot shorter or a lot longer than sort of what has been established. And one of my favorite things to say to people is a book teaches us how to read it, which is true. So if you start out writing really short chapters which is a great way to sort of keep pacing lively, you’ve sort of set a standard for yourself. And so if you really start in the middle maybe, writing really long chapters, whoa, your pacing is gonna tank and readers are gonna wonder…they may not be able to put their finger on what’s going on, but they may start to wonder why your chapters suddenly feel longer, or slower, or bulkier. So chapter length can definitely be used to affect pacing and the reader’s perception of how quickly the story is moving which is the definition of pacing.

If you have a lot of long chapters, you really wanna make sure that action flows freely inside those chapters because otherwise they’re just gonna big blocks of information one after the other, and that’s gonna have an exhausting effect on the reader. But the key is that whatever you start doing, keep doing it. You’ve sort of gotten yourself into that place, and if you notice that all of your chapters are really long, you’re gonna have more of a job ahead of you, maybe chopping some of those chapters in half or reorganizing information. Another thing that I see a lot is that a person will basically have chapter consistency down for the most part, but then they will have a few outliers. And the more consistent your chapters are, of course, the more those outliers are going to call attention to themselves. So when you’re revising, one very easy thing to look for, especially if you use a software like Scrivener where each chapter is an individual file, which I highly recommend, is seeing, “Okay, which chapters are abnormally short or abnormally long compared to kinda where I come in.” You know, if I’m coming at 1,500 words for a YA novel chapter and I have a chapter that’s 2,500 words, and then another one that follows it that’s 500, I might wanna think about combining them and then chopping that resulting chapter kind of in half, for example. So what’s…what are your outliers? That would be a great place to start in terms of kinda restructuring your chapters.

Another thing to do is to make sure that each chapter earns its keep. This is a huge note that I give to a lotta my editorial clients. This chapter doesn’t earn its keep. And for me, for a chapter to earn its place in a novel, you have to do one of several things. Ideally you’re doing many of these things all at once. The chapter has to pull its weight. Now, it should introduce character, or introduce something about character, or change something about character relationship, so you’re moving something forward in the character department or…ideally. And a chapter has to move plot forward. So something has to happen.

Now this brings us back to the definition of action in a plot sense. If two characters just bicker for a whole chapter, yeah there’s conflict technically, but nothing has actually happened if two characters just sit there going like this. So something needs to happen to move the plot forward. There needs to be action, there needs to be forward momentum in terms of things happening in the physical world that ideally drag your story forward. So we should learn something about character, something should happen in terms of plot, character relationship can change. There’s gotta be meat in each chapter. And a lotta the time, I see short chapters that are just transitions, for example, you have two big scenes and then a little valley in between that’s like 500 words. That’s something I see a lot. Or a chapter where it’s just characters talking, talking heads. Sometimes those really seem to tank pacing. So yeah, I would say that chapter consistency above all is key. Make sure your chapters are a consistent length, look for outliers, so chapters that are too long or too short based on the length that you set for yourself where you fall most of the time when you’re writing. And then you need to do a test of each chapter to see, does this really have a reason to be in this manuscript? And that’s kind of the trickier revision tactic to do because you’ve written it, of course you don’t wanna kill your babies. Each chapter absolutely belongs in there. But when you really get down to it, is there enough forward momentum in that chapter on the character front, on the plot front to really keep it in there? And if not, you may wanna do away with the chapter or you may want to shorten the chapter and tack it on to one of the two chapters either before it or after it. That’s one way to handle kind of a shorter chapter where you wanna keep some of the information but maybe not make it its standalone chapter. Or is it something that can be expanded into a full-fledged chapter in its own right, maybe with some character development or some plot development?

So, hopefully I’ve given you some ideas for why consistency is important when it comes to chapter length, and then if you do have chapters that are inconsistent with your novel and kind of your goals for each chapter in your novel, what to do with those. So I love this question. Thank you so much, Tom, for asking, and thank you for watching.

When Imagery in Description Is Useful, and When It’s Overkill

Recently, I’ve walked a few full novel editing clients through the use of imagery in description. I decided to write a post about it because there seems to be some confusion about what imagery is, when to use it, and why you’d want to in the first place. Read on!

imagery in description, imagery in writing, how to use imagery, what is imagery, imagery description
Imagery is what connects the thing you’re describing to the reader’s emotions.

What is Imagery in Writing?

I have an MFA in Creative Writing, and as you can imagine, us Creative Writing MFAs spend a lot of time sitting around in coffee houses, thinking about the building blocks of the fiction craft. (Just kidding! Sort of!) Well, one of those important building blocks is imagery.

An image is a description that is meant to evoke emotion. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. Because we all know that the number one thing a fiction writer must do is make the reader care.

So an image serves to deepen the reader’s understanding of what’s going on and how to feel about it. The image is a tool. It adds something. It enhances.

A lot of writers believe that an image is necessary for every situation. It isn’t. My preference would be that you use imagery more sparingly. That way, your figurative language will mean more.

When to Use Imagery in Description

So that brings up the question of when to use imagery. A big mistake I see in manuscripts is that writers use imagery when it really isn’t necessary.

Here’s a good example of imagery used incorrectly:

He was so hungry that he felt like a swarm of ravenous bees were buzzing around in his stomach.

There’s figurative language in this sentence (the bees). But what does it add? The information is: He was hungry. Does the image of “ravenous bees” and all of this activity in his stomach add anything to our understanding that he’s hungry? No. It’s restating the information and there’s no sense of depth or enhancement.

I’d argue that, here, there is no need for an image. A lot of writers are terrified of doing any kind of telling, and I understand why. And that’s where this overuse of imagery comes into play. But sometimes it’s better to just include information (our friend is hungry) and move on, rather than trying to make it into a Writing With a Capital “W” moment.

Here’s a good example of a situation where imagery works:

He watched her accept Jake’s promposal. Regret gnawed at him like a hungry tiger, and he stormed off, slamming three dozen red roses into the trash. Why hadn’t he made his move yesterday?

This is a bit of a melodramatic description, but the image here serves a purpose. It introduces the idea of a specific emotion that’s playing out inside him, and adds the layer of how deeply it affects him. Regret is like a predator, and he feels like prey–vulnerable, exposed.

This is an emotional moment, and the image spins it in a more visceral direction. The alternative would be:

He watched her accept Jake’s promposal, feeling regret. He stormed off, slamming three dozen red roses into the trash. Why hadn’t he made his move yesterday?

This has a lot of the same information, but it might be a little dry. Does it have the same resonance? That’s up to you as a writer. But it’s a good example of where an image might be desirable, if you’re the type to add embellishments to your significant and emotional moments.

Using Focused Imagery in Description

Another thing to consider is how much imagery to use. A reasonable description of regret, per the example above, instantly becomes overkill in an instance like this:

He watched her accept Jake’s promposal. Regret gnawed at him like a tiger, lashing into him like a thrashing shark, dripping into his veins like acid. He stormed off…

This might look like obvious redundancy to you, but it’s something I see all the time. Once a writer has decided that an occasional calls for imagery, they might decide that “more is more!” That’s actually not true.

Picking one specific and powerful image is going to focus your reader’s attention. Picking multiple related images to try and evoke the same emotional response will actually be counterproductive. Once you’ve identified an occasion that would benefit from imagery in description, pick one image and stick to it.

If you’ve gotten the feedback that your writing can sometimes slant toward cliché, really think about it and maybe pick the third or fourth image that comes to mind. You want to make sure you’re being evocative and fresh. That’s how you’re going to develop your writer’s voice.

On a lighter note, I hope that I never have to write the ridiculous word “promposal” ever again! 🙂

Struggling with voice, description, and imagery? I’m happy to help troubleshoot your manuscript in regards to these important concepts. Hire me as your novel editor, and we’ll dive in together!

Politics in Children’s Books

How do you include politics in children’s books? I received an interesting inquiry today from a potential editorial client. (Just as I was casting around for blog ideas! Hooray!) The writer has written a book for young children and, before sending me the manuscript, warned me that it had a specific political bent about Donald Trump. This writer wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t be offended. While this is considerate of the client, it’s not my job, as an editor, to bring my own political biases into the editorial process.

politics in children's books, politics in fiction, politics in ya, politics in picture books, politics in middle grade
Something we can all get behind, right? Maybe that and “Snacks are awesome!”

But the question did get me thinking: What place, if any, does politics have in children’s books? Especially books for younger readers? Here’s what I came up with.

The Role of Politics in Children’s Books

When I come across books that have any kind of bias, whether it’s political, religious, philosophical, etc. it’s never my job to comment on the actual content.

My concerns, instead, are the following:

  1. Does the political element work in the context of the story? Is it necessary or is it gratuitous?
  2. Is the message and its packaging appropriate for the intended audience?
  3. How might this political element affect pitch and marketability?

This is the same way in which I would treat an “issue book.” For example, if there is a book where the character happens to be a certain sexual orientation, I’m always asking, “Is there more to the story than this element, or is this the central focus?” I ask this because I doubt that a book where politics is at the very center, or sexual orientation is at the very center, and nothing else is going on, is going to be very marketable. Readers expect multiple layers from a story, so if it’s just “a political book” or just “an LGBT book” with no other significant plot or character arcs, then I worry that it’ll fall flat. A story cannot stand on one element alone.

Another way of thinking about it is this: If I remove the political element, what’s left? If the answer is, “Nothing,” then you may have written a rant or an opinion piece or a manifesto. But a story? Maybe not.

Depending on what role the element plays, and the writer’s execution in including it, a political element in fiction could be either an asset or a liability.

The Marketability of Politics in Children’s Fiction

The other issue to consider is that of marketability. This consists of two parts:

  1. The audience
  2. The publisher

In children’s fiction, you have the additional element of your audience’s age to consider. Sometimes, politics plays well in children’s fiction. Consider dystopian YA novels. All of those authoritarian governments have a political message, and most of those stories have something to say about ideas of human rights and individual freedom. Plus, the YA audience is going to be more aware of current events, and more receptive to themes that lend themselves to the dystopian genre.

But a picture book about federal regulation shutting down a lemonade stand, bolstered by a discussion of big government? I just don’t know if a typical picture book reader (3-5 years old) would find that very relevant. You might be speaking to the adult reading the book, but that disenfranchises the core audience (the kid) and I doubt you’ll get very far.

You also have to think about the potential publisher. Most major houses like to make money. If they publish polarizing fiction, they may alienate potential customers. Sure, there are a lot of left- or right-leaning houses, editors, or imprints, but you should at least recognize that your opportunities to place the manuscript are going to be limited if it has an overt stance.

So How Do You Include Politics Successfully?

All this being said, you still have a message for young readers. These are, after all, political days, and your idea probably feels very relevant and timely to you.

Go ahead and include your political message. Just don’t preach it outright. You might want to go Wizard of Oz with allegory, or disguise the political force (an oppressive student government at school, for example). Make sure there’s more to the story than the message. There should be a compelling character and a high-stakes plot.

Make sure it’s appropriate and relevant to your audience. Is a three-year-old really going to be fired up about Grandpa Joe’s long discussion of tax reform? Will a nine-year-old understand the intricacies of your Cold War references?

In the same vein, search for like-minded or at least politics-friendly agents, editors, and imprints. An agent who has a few books about social justice on their list might be much more willing to “go there” with you, for example.

Finally, check your motives. Story must come first. If your main interest is in preaching or converting or soapboxing, you’re likely not coming to the page with the right intentions. No matter which side of the aisle you’re sitting on, save the grandstanding for your Twitter. Political element aside, you still need to practice the storytelling craft.

Writing Children’s Books With Readaloud Potential

Hi, this is Mary Kole and welcome to kidlit.com. Today I have a question from Tom, and it is all about read aloud potential and work for younger readers. So here we’re talking about picture books, we’re talking about chapter books, early readers, those sorts of categories. Some parents do read middle grade with their kids, but since you’re getting kind of into independent reader territory there, I’m just gonna talk about these younger categories. So Tom wrote into the blog and he said, “You know, I noticed that some works really, really have great read aloud functionality. If you wanna call it that. Some works are just great to read aloud, I read ’em to my kids, everybody enjoys it, it’s this great kind of family moment,” which is what we’re hoping to create when we write for kids, right, “and some works just don’t. They fall flat, the language doesn’t flow.” So he is asking, you know, how do you create more of the good stuff and less of the clunky dry voice that doesn’t lend itself well to read aloud potential.

Now, read aloud the potential is a phrase that I’m using very deliberately because when I used to look at query letters as a literary agent, one of the sales hooks for a picture book that would get my attention is if the writer had to written “This book has great read aloud potential”. And then when I would turn around and pitch that book to an editor, that would also be a sales hook that I used all the time. Because when you’re pitching, you really want things to have hooks, you want to be able to say something, encapsulate a benefit of that particular project. Now if you’re thinking of writing a query letter, you should also be thinking along these lines of what are my benefits here for this project, other than it’s a great manuscript, right? We also want to try and find these little benefits, and read aloud potential is actually a great benefit. If you’re writing picture books, definitely put it in your cap and remember that saying something has great read aloud potential is something that sends a positive flag up in a query letter.

Now, the question becomes, how do you build that read aloud potential into a story? And that is where I think Tom’s question lies. So what makes for great read aloud of potential? I have one tip that seems so incredibly obvious that I almost feel dumb saying it here, but I know that a lot of readers don’t think of it. I work as a freelance editor now with clients and writers all over the globe, and it is so much fun. But when I give this note, I’ve noticed that a lotta my clients sort of have a light bulb moment, and it’s like they hadn’t really thought of it before. So when I say this, you might be like, “Duh,” which is why I’m here, I hand out duh moments, read your work loud as you write it, as you revise it, read that work aloud. Only then will you know exactly what it’s read aloud potential is.

Here’s the thing that happens. We are…we train ourselves when we write in the flow and cadence of our own voice, if that makes sense. We know what our voice is about, we’re used to it, and that’s natural, right? It’s our voice, it’s coming from how we talk, how we write, we’ve had our entire lives to get used to this voice, and then that’s what’s most natural for us to use when we’re writing fiction. The thing is, you’re used to your voice, but what about anybody else? And this is where people tend to get tripped up because if you’re only writing in your head, your head is used to your own voice. And when you write something on the page and then read it back to yourself, again in your head, not by speaking, you gloss over things that tend to be clunky in the writing because you’re used to your own writing style.

It’s… One of my favorite parts of my MFA experience was the workshop part, where we would take our manuscript, pass it to the person next to us, or across the room, or whatever, and have them read it to us. It was most, most often an enlightening experience and embarrassing experience because they’re not used to our writing style, they’re not used to our voice. So when they read a piece of writing that they did not write, they’re coming to it for the first time and they start to struggle. You know, this sentence is really clunky, they trip over it because they’re not expecting the words to be in a certain order. When we’re reading that sentence in our heads during the revision process, we probably gloss right over it because we’ve read that sentence before, we know our own writing style, it just sort of we don’t notice where the bumps are. But if you have a writer reading it back to you, you’ll start to see that’s a speed bump, that’s a little hiccup, they tripped over that sentence, you’ll really start to sort of hear it in a way that you haven’t heard it before. And having somebody read your work is the ideal application of this advice, but not everybody has a person sitting there ready and waiting to read your manuscript to you. And if it’s a novel, nobody’s gonna read 80,000 words of your stuff without a whole heck of a lot of a bribery.

So the most common and useful application of this advice is to actually read your own work to yourself. This is more approachable, this is what most writers can actually do. And it’s different from reading something to yourself silently because it forces you to pay more careful attention to the page. It is my number one piece of voice advice, it’s my number one piece of read aloud potential advice, and if you’re writing picture books, early readers, and chapter books especially, you have no excuse, those manuscripts are short at the end of the day. So if you’re just sitting there and revising, open your mouth. Open your mouth and say the words, it’ll help you focus on the page in a different way, it’ll help you see what’s on the page in a different way, and you’ll be able to actually experience what it’s like to read that work aloud because a lot of these younger manuscripts are meant to be read aloud by parent to child. And it’ll really help you kind of see what you’re doing in a different way. And as you’re doing it, I wouldn’t even try to edit, like, right there on the page. I would actually have a pen in my hand, have the physical manuscript, have your voice ready to go, start reading, and then every time you stumble, every time you have to start over, every time something comes out in a way that maybe you didn’t intend, and without realizing, you’ve sort of put something clunky on the page, just mark it. Just mark it, circle it, put a check mark next to it, do whatever you have to do, come back to it later. And then as you’re trying to fix it, speak. You know, storytelling is a verbal art form. We started out storytelling around the campfire with our voices and our bodies, it’s a physical thing. And when we tend to, you know, just sit on the screen typing, we get disconnected from that very physical, very vocal art of storytelling.

So I’m sort of inviting you to bring that practice back into your writing life. Ideally, you would be doing this from the very beginning of writing your manuscript, but a lot of us have manuscripts already where we didn’t do it, so the next best thing is to revise aloud. And then when you’re coming across a section that you marked as clunky, when you edit that, speak several options aloud, see which one flows the best. Especially for these… My dogs are killing me, they are just snoring right there. Sorry about that. So especially for these younger readers, the shorter the manuscript, the more you want to speak what you’ve written, the more you want to revise with that in mind because those words really will be spoken. They’re not just gonna lie on the page like they do in a novel. So the best way to know if you have a voice with read aloud potential, is to read aloud the voice. Tom, I hope this helps. Thank you for your excellent question and I look forward to answering more. Thanks for watching.

Using Compressed Narration in Fiction to Speed Up Plot

When thinking of how to convey the events of your plot, you may be considering using compressed narration in fiction. Compressed narration is a quick description of what happens. Its opposite is narrating the entire scene.

compressed narration in fiction
There are two ways of rendering action in fiction.

Example of Compressed Narration in Fiction

It may be difficult to visualize compressed narration if you’re not familiar with it, so here is an example:

I hung out after school, picked Stella up from her swim practice, and we got ice cream. The entire time, I meant to talk to her about what Dad told me, but I couldn’t find the nerve. It was still hanging over me by dinner.

As you can see, we aren’t privy to the entirety of this scene. It’s described quickly and then the present action of the story, presumably, resumes. We don’t see the scene with Stella and the narrator eating ice cream. If the action was a movie in a VCR (remember those?!), it’d be squiggling by on fast forward.

So is compressed narration in fiction a good way of conveying plot? It sure is, when used appropriately. You don’t want to rely on it too much, but it can certainly help keep your narrative moving.

Three Times to Use Compressed Narration

One great use for compressed narration is to skip over scenes that aren’t necessary to render, but important to mention. I doubt anything exciting happened over ice cream. The point of that example paragraph wasn’t even the ice cream, it was the narrator keeping a secret. So compressed narration was used to move the action forward a little and put even more pressure on the narrator to spill the secret.

This is a nice use of this technique. Remember, readers don’t need to read about every single little thing that happens in great detail. Sometimes a mention of it is enough.

A second use for compressed narration in fiction is to bring characters up to speed on information the reader already knows. If Bob just went through an ordeal, and wants to tell Sue about it, the ordeal is new to Sue, but not the reader. So handle it with compressed narration.

For example:

I told Sue all about what happened. She asked a bunch of questions and, when she was satisfied, we gaped at one another. “What do we do now?” I asked.

The third use of compressed narration is when providing context. For example, it’s good in flashback, when you need to insert a little information, without going into full detail.

For example:

That summer the possum got stuck in our toilet and Mama finally put her foot down about moving, we ate rice six nights a week so Dad could save up all his tips.

This doesn’t necessarily need to be a long and drawn-out memory. The mention of it is enough to communicate the more important point: The family had to make ends meet, even if a toilet possum was what touched the whole thing off.

Summarizing Compressed Narration

Basically, compressed narration is used for things you want to mention, but which aren’t important enough to warrant the spotlight of attention. If you have been told that your narrative drags or that your plot lacks momentum, consider using compressed narration to speed things up. Which events need a full render, and which can be compressed?

If you’re worried about your plotting and pacing, hire me as your novel editor. I can help you with many elements of your fiction craft, and help you tighten up your storytelling.

Starting a Novel With Setting Description

Today’s post is a video response, and it’s all about starting a novel with setting!

What follows here is a transcription of the video. You can watch for the advice, or read it below. I have a question today from Melissa who wrote in to ask, how do you open a novel? Is it wrong to start a novel by describing setting? What if the setting reveals something about character?

Novel Beginnings Are Incredibly Important

Writing a novel and starting a novel are two of the biggest question categories that I get. And a lot of writers have heard, yeah, maybe it’s not so great to start with setting because it’s static. It’s not active. There is really nothing going on.

There’s a concept called the objective correlative, which is a literary concept where you use something inanimate like the weather or setting to communicate emotion. So a really typical example is, starting a novel with setting like a storm, and that’s a literary device for conveying that there is something going on. There’s a big storm raging in the story.

And so I think Melissa is asking this question because maybe she’s been turned away from starting with setting. Maybe she has been told that starting with setting is not a really great thing. And my response to that would be when you’re starting a novel, you really want to ground the reader. And there are two components to grounding the reader.

One is the reader wants to know where they are, and then the reader wants to know when they are. And this applies to starting a new chapter as well. So when you’re starting a chapter after there has been a break, you really want the reader to catch up with where they are after you spit them out after the break and when they are relative to where they came from. The same concept applies for the very, very beginning of a novel which is excellent real estate.

Grounding the Reader But Giving Them Context, Too

So sure, you really want to ground the reader at the opening, and setting is a wonderful way of doing that because that takes care of the “Where are we?” question, right? But the other concern that you really have to have when you’re beginning a novel is action. There are way too many novels that begin in a completely static way. It’s the character in their room, and the room might tell the reader a lot about the character, you know. We’ll see kind of what kind of posters are on the wall. We’ll see the paint color is very, very dark which is meant to evoke something about character.

So the writer thinks , “I’m really doing my job here. I’m starting with this evocative setting. This setting tells the reader a lot about the character. My work here is done,” right? Well, that’s static. Nothing is actually happening, so I would say that the sweet spot would be, to answer Melissa’s question, a strong sense of setting which is essential for the beginning of a novel or a beginning of a chapter, but you can’t rest on your laurels with a really strong setting. You have to do a little bit more. You need to introduce the character, so the character does need to be on the scene, at least for me. That’s what I would recommend. It gives you a much stronger foot up in the beginning of your novel.

starting a novel with setting, beginning a novel, starting a novel, setting description
Starting a novel with setting or weather or a big event is just one piece of the puzzle.

Adding Character and Plot to Setting

The point is, setting can’t be the end-all and be-all. Character, you need to put the character in the setting, and the character should be interacting with the setting somehow, or something needs to be happening which brings me to the third component which would be action, which would be a sense of plot. Now, you don’t have to kick right into your main plot at the beginning of a novel.

I think doing so is problematic because if you start…you come out swinging with a giant plot, readers are not gonna be invested enough emotionally in what’s going on. So they’re gonna have a hard time caring about it right at the onset. So if you come to us with a huge, huge plot right away, you’re gonna be overcoming some obstacles because the reader will be like, “Wait a minute. What’s going on? Who is this person? I don’t care about them yet, so I’m not really getting invested.”

So you need to have something, and Donald Maass who wrote the wonderful book, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, calls it bridging action which is it is action, something is actually happening. It’s not just static at the beginning of your novel, but it can be a smaller conflict. So it’s something to get the reader a little invested, give them the come hither finger, but it doesn’t have to be, you know, high stakes, huge action right away because that could be a little alienating.

The Formula for Starting a Novel

So to recap the beginning formula for starting your novel, setting? Yes, Melissa, setting is very important, and you should be beginning with a strong sense of setting absolutely. But we also need character. We need a strong sense of who the character is. Ideally, they’re interacting with your setting. They’re existing in it but in an active way which brings me to three. Something needs to happen right away.

And when I hear writers asking about setting and why can’t I start with setting? It’s usually because they’ve created a setting, they’ve put the character in the setting, and they really wanna get away with the character sitting there and existing without anything happening on top of that. And that’s what I think a large pitfall could be with this question. If you have a setting, if you have the character and you’re hoping that that is enough magic for the start of a novel, what you really need to do is actually add plot.

Examples of Taking Setting to the Next Level

If we were to take the example that we started this video with a character sitting in their room, we have setting. We have character. We’re hoping that they are evocative and letting the reader into the character’s world. But something needs to start happening. For example, somebody comes home. Mom comes home and slams the door so hard that the whole house rattles, you know, so something literally happens to the setting. Something literally happens where the character’s emotions get involved because “Oh, no! What’s happening now?”

Or something, something…maybe the character is rearranging their room, for example. So they’re in their setting. We have the character, but there’s a lot of action. Maybe it’s like, you know, all of the pictures that the character has of them and their best friend, they’re ripping them down off the walls. And you know, throwing a picture frame and the glass breaks, you know, these examples are off the top of my head, so some of them might feel a little familiar. There could be some clichés, but they’re meant to illustrate a point.

So you don’t just have setting and character, you have plot as well. So something is happening between setting and character. So I would say that Melissa’s onto something, but the advice to not start in setting, there is a strong basis for that advice. So as long as you’re hitting these three points with the beginning of your novel, you can absolutely start in setting. It just has to be a little more dynamic than just straight-up setting description. I hope that helps, and thank you for asking.

Get actionable, personalized, one-on-one novel advice if you hire me as your developmental editor. We can work on your query, your novel beginning, or the entire manuscript.

Directing Reader Attention

Directing reader attention is an art. As the writer, it’s up to you where that precious resource goes. Are you doing a good job?

directing reader attention, description, narrative voice, creative writing
It’s your mission to show the reader what’s important.

As the writer, you know what’s important about your story. Your reader doesn’t. They’re brand new to the thing and eager to learn what matters about your character and plot. It would be terrible to just tell them. So instead you show them. But how?

You Are the Curator

You need to pick the elements that are important to the story, and leave everything else by the wayside. Act like an art curator when you sit down to write a novel. You need to pick the characters and events that are crucial to the telling of your tale. Then you need to layer in every other element that needs to be noticed.

How do you do this in a way that readers can interpret clearly? Think of the metaphor of a spotlight operator. They sit in the back of a darkened theater. Their objective is to direct the audience’s attention. If there’s a love scene going on downstage, they aren’t going to focus their spot on a big player dancing upstage. That doesn’t make any sense.

As you craft your manuscript, you don’t have a spotlight at your disposal. But you do have other tools. These are the amount of description, and the type of description.

Directing Reader Attention With Amount of Description

One consideration when directing reader attention to what’s important is the amount of writing that you’re going to lavish on the element in question. If an amulet is going to become very important in your fantasy novel, for example, you may not want to mention it in one sentence and move on. That will not be enough to pique the reader’s interest.

But it’s a balance. If you lavish too much attention on describing the amulet, the reader will think, “Ah ha! This writer is trying to tell me something. This isn’t the last we’ll see of this amulet.” So if you’re looking to draw attention without giving away any big reveals, keep your description notable but short.

The adverse is true, too. If something isn’t important, don’t spend time there. If you go into great detail describing the man at the bus stop, his five o’clock shadow, his wrinkled silk tie, and we never see him again, then you’ve wasted the reader’s time. The man was just set dressing. Interesting set dressing, sure, but there was no reason to treat him like the star of the show.

Directing Reader Attention With Type of Description

When you think about how to describe certain elements of your story, think of the emotion you’re attaching to your description. Important elements should have some kind of voice attached to them, they shouldn’t just lie neutrally on the page.

Look at these two examples:

The dog came over and sat on my lap.

The dog trundled over and lolled into my lap, letting his head rest heavily on my knee.

We may not know a lot about the dog yet, but the second description tells me, as a reader, that there’s probably more to know. The first description is so generic, there’s no emotional signature at all. The second uses interesting words and some sensory details. It paints more of a picture. If you want to be especially emotional, you could even do something like:

The little bastard pranced into my lap and nuzzled his homework-chewing chin into the palm of my hand. I couldn’t stay mad at him, but Mrs. Turner would have my neck for missing yet another assignment!

Here, there’s a clear emotional signature to the description. It’s also a good example of the concept of interiority. We can’t help but start forming a relationship with this dog because, clearly, the narrator already has one. I’m also getting some more context about the situation here, and how the dog fits into it.

Of all three descriptions, I’m going to remember that third dog the most, because it was described in an emotional way. It’s also the longest description, practically guaranteeing that my attention is drawn to it.

When you’re revising, think about directing reader attention like a spot operator and curator with your descriptions. Let them work for you, and guide the reader through your story.

Is your descriptive language hitting the mark? Hire me as your novel editor, and I’ll help you take your writing voice to the next level.

Starting a Novel With Aftermath

Starting a novel with aftermath (the reaction to a big event) is hugely temping. After all, writers are inundated with the advice to “show, don’t tell,” start with action, raise the stakes, etc. etc. etc. It puts a lot of pressure on starting a novel!

starting a novel with aftermath, starting a novel, starting a chapter, writing a novel, beginning a novel, prologue, tension, stakes
Whoa whoa whoa, what happened here? Let’s take a step back…

Starting a Novel With Aftermath Is Jarring

The other day, I was working on a an editorial project, and found myself not quite invested in the opening. I should’ve been. The novel beginning was a high-stakes trial. But there’s often a problem with stakes that are too high: it’s harder for the reader to get emotionally attached. When we’re screaming about the end of the world from page one, the reader is trying to muster up an insurmountable level of caring.

So when this client project opens with a trial, the real issue is that the conflict is already behind us. There’s no time to fill in context, let the reader discover who the character is, or foster emotional connection.

The interesting deed is done, the problem has happened, and now we’re knee-deep in aftermath.

How to Begin a Novel

Instead of taking this dramatic approach (or writing a prologue that’s high stakes right from the get-go), think about the balance of action and information. You want to present the reader with a compelling character who has a manageable problem. Donald Maass calls this “bridging conflict.” The problem is manageable enough that we’re not completely overwhelmed with high stakes. Nonetheless, the problem matters to the character. As a result, we start learning about the character and what their objectives, motivations, priorities, etc. are.

We see them in the middle of this problem, trying to work through it. This is much more compelling than seeing them after the problem has already happened. We see them getting invested or emotional or upset. Our attachment to them grows. Then the initial problem is either solved, or it grows into the larger problem that’s going to carry the entire plot.

By this point, the reader should have an emotional foothold not only in the problem, but in the character, and as a result, the story.

Start Your Novel With Action…But Not Too Much

Without introducing a smaller problem and the character first, you’re going to have a hard time selling the reader on the major plot points you’ve cooked up. So it’s important to start your novel with action, but maybe not too much action.

And as you layer in that action, make sure to layer in context about character. When we start with a trial, for example, I am much more interested in what happened, who did what, and most importantly, why the crime occurred. The dry legal procedural stuff? It’s near the bottom of my list. My curious reader mind wants all sorts of other fodder.

Go where you think your reader wants to be. Court rooms are inherently full of tension, sure, but when you start in one, you’re trying to harness tension you didn’t earn with plot and character first.

Are you nailing your novel beginning? Wondering how to start a novel? Let me be an expert pair of eyes on your first pages. I’ve read tens of thousands of novel openings, and bring that experience to my editing services.

Learn to Love the Revision Process for Writing a Book

The revision process for writing a book can be extremely intimidating. I completely understand. There are some really great points in the comments about why this situation arises, but that doesn’t change the fact that writers are still often too intimidated by revision to give it the time it deserves. Read on.

There’s More to Writing Than Query Letters

I have a harsh lesson for you today about the revision process, my dear readers. Hear me out.

In the spirit of retrofitting my website with all the latest gizmos and gadgets, I’ve also been doing work behind the scenes on SEO (search engine optimization). It’s the art and skill of making websites more friendly to search engines and, ideally, pulling potential readers in off of Google by using keywords that relate to the site’s content. That way, you reach people who are searching for what you have to offer, and they get relevant content. It’s a win-win!

The sweet spot happens if you find keywords that are searched for a lot, but that aren’t terribly competitive. That’s where you find your opportunities to rank high in search engine results. I read a book about it, so I’m basically a pro now. Deal with it. 😛

Revising Your Writing

In reviewing some keywords, I came across the perfect example of why so many writing efforts fail. I feel like the smug spinster aunt for pointing this out, but just look at these two keywords, and the associated search volume. JUST READ THEM AND WEEP (I know I did):

revision process, creative writing, creative writing revision, revision, editing, editorial
You should be ashamed of yourselves, Googlers!

What’s this you’re seeing? These are two search engine keywords and their monthly associated search volume. Up to 30,000 of y’all are searching about how to do creative writing every month, and only 100 brave souls (or even fewer) actually want to know what to do with all that beautiful creative writing once they’ve written it!

I apologize for this scolding post if you’re right there with me on the revision train. For the rest of you, the revision train is leaving the station, and you better be on it!

This reminds of me of all the times I spoke at conferences. 9 out of 10 writers would ask about fuh-reaking query letters. Rarely, rarely, and I mean every third or fourth weekend conference, would I get a craft question at a panel discussion. Or someone would approach me with an insightful writing concern.

Every other time, writers would be falling all over themselves to ask about queries. Queries! Those 300-word letters! Compared to your 70,000-word novels! This misdirected energy continues to surprise me.

Love the Revision Process

The revision process is where it’s at. Writing is actually in the rewriting. Once you’ve done the creative writing, there are so many wonderful things that happen during the revision process. Revision is where you find the shape of your writing, it’s where you tease out all of the rich thematic elements.

I can’t get enough of it. So this is a call to action and a plea from your dear friend MK. If your zest for writing ends as soon as you type The End on a manuscript, dig into this website and think about learning to love revision.

A literary agent’s slush pile is overflowing with manuscripts where the writer wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and rev–nah, let’s just send it in! In the overwhelming majority of cases, these are not the manuscripts that get offers of representation.

How to Revise

If you’re stuck or just getting started with your manuscript revision, take this tip: Put your manuscript away for a few weeks. (Ideally three months but nobody ever takes me up on this advice!) Once you’ve typed The End, your subconscious has gone into overdrive thinking of your story and all of its various elements. When you return to the page, you will actually be seeing it with new eyes.

It’s the easiest advice to give, but the hardest to follow. Are you up for taking the challenge and loving the revision process a little more with me this year?

If you really don’t know where to start with manuscript revision, hire me as your novel editor. I’ll give you a comprehensive, actionable, and inspiring map.