To increase narrative tension avoid the sense of “limbo” in your fiction, give your characters a sense of their past, present, and future. You want to spend most of your time in the present, sure, but if you don’t weave in the past and future of your character eventually … the present will start to feel like limbo. And readers will not want to be in limbo for long.
Start in Action
One of the notes I give the most in my editing work is to start in action, whether it’s a simple picture book or complex young adult novel. If you cannot choose a scene or moment that is sustainable for a page or two (this applies to novel or picture book), then it’s not the right place to start.
Most common is zooming away to fill in backstory. For example, “I sit in the assembly, looking around. There’s Phoebe, my best friend since kindergarten. The day we met …” and then we’re off to kindergarten.
Readers need a reason, like narrative tension, to keep reading your work, especially when you launch a new story. A scene that you sustain allows them to truly sink in. Ideally, there’s enough action to get them invested. Something is happening. The character is allowed to be active and proactive (readers love a proactive character).
And while some of us are trying to achieve a “be here now” mindset in our personal lives, this can actually backfire in your creative writing. Sooner or later, the character’s past and future need to come to the party to create narrative tension.
What is Narrative Tension?
To quickly define it, narrative tension means something in the story that keeps a reader invested in reading. My favorite thing to talk about (well, one of like 5,000) is loops. Humans hate an open loop—something unresolved. That’s why writers need to open loops as they go. Usually, the loop asks the question, “What will happen here?” Or, “Will the character get what they want?” Or, “Will this thing from the past ever be resolved?”
If our characters exist only in the present moment, going from scene to scene, we risk our power to create narrative tension, or open and close the maximum number of loops.
Weave in Narrative Tension and Context
Think of how your own mind operates. In a normal span of fifteen minutes, I spend woefully little time in the present. I’m usually “time traveling,” as I call it. My mind is either dwelling on something in the past, or worrying about something in the future. (Looking for meditation app recommendations, plz!)
Characters should spend a bit more time in the present than I do in my personal life, but you can use this tendency of the human brain to “time travel” to add narrative tension and open loops.
As for the past, think of your character’s wound and need. They have probably experienced something in the past that shaped them and needs resolving in the present or future. They may think about it once in a while to plant seeds and drive up tension.
As for the future, think of your character’s objective and motivation. What they want and why they want it. Maybe the wound/need (past) and the resulting objective/motivation (future) tie together into something the character can pursue in the present. (Hint hint: They should!)
Bringing It All Together
Think about your chapter endings. Ideally, this is where you’re really reminding your readers of the loops open in your story. I like to have characters either learn something new in the present, or set themselves to really pursue their future goals. This adds instant narrative tension.
Have you developed your character’s wound, need, objective, and motivation? If not, drop everything and start daydreaming.
Are you struggling with narrative tension in your picture book or novel? Let me be your freelance editor and we can find it together.
Today’s middle grade workshop critique comes courtesy of writer E.M. volunteering a novel opening.
The Workshop Text
Avery Lawson had nine hundred ninety-nine cats. Too bad none of them were real.
Love, love, love this grabby opening! It raises a lot of questions and the cheeky voice is immediately interesting. Try to start your novel with some tension or mystery. Here’s a previous post on novel opening pages.
Her parents had told her she couldn’t get a live, breathing cat until it didn’t rain in their town of Mount Crescent, Oregon, for a year. Or when she became responsible. Whichever came first.
The first sentence of this paragraph “buries the lede.” Their rain stipulation is absurd but we don’t learn about it until the end of a longer sentence. Break it up. Love the rest of the paragraph. Super fun voice here right away, and we learn that the character is likely somewhat irresponsible. That is certainly telling, but the voice helps it feel less heavy-handed.
Avery scowled out the window at the soggy schoolyard. It always rained, and no matter how hard she tried, nobody ever called her responsible—even though another word for responsible was dependable. Her mom and dad said they could always depend on her to add to her cat collection, which included stickers, pencils, posters, and a bedroom wall painted with cat faces.
Good instinct to start in a present moment and action. Maybe put this setting detail earlier? I’d put the words when they’re defined in quotation marks, eg: … was “dependable.” The transition between the dependable comment and “depend on her to addd to her cat collection” is a bit thin, though.
That meant she was responsible.
Too bad her parents didn’t see it that way.
Getting into some more telling here. Maybe we can have a scene with Mom and Dad here instead, them arguing about this, so it’s more active. (As the rain comes down outside, of course.)
So, she uncapped her black dry-erase marker and prepared to draw her one-thousandth cat.
Really establish why she wants a cat. Most kids want pets, yes, so it’s universal, but why does THIS CHARACTER want a cat? That’ll help readers get to know her. And if she wants a cat, why does a drawn cat fill the void? Or does it?
With a tiny sigh, she slid the marker across her paper. The pleasant squeak drowned out the annoying scritch-scratch of pencils as the other fifth-graders copied spelling words. Boring words like peaceful and business and vulture.
Format the onomatopoeia in italics. Use quotation marks for the words. So many stories start in a school settings that don’t have to. If you can at all avoid it, do so. That will help you stand out with your opening scene, especially in MG.
The squeaking filled her ears as she drew a fluffy tail right over the word cabbage. She added whiskers, but one got so long it wouldn’t fit on the paper. She stopped the marker at the edge of her worksheet. She shouldn’t draw on her desk. Only kindergartners did that.
Some nice voice, but nothing is really happening in the moment. She’s drawing. I’m looking for more tension and action for a first scene.
But the whisker wanted—no, it demanded—to be longer. Clutching the marker, Avery stretched the line to the end of her desk.
GREAT personality here!
A familiar (school) setting and slightly slow pacing could be opportunities for growth with this piece. As could character objective (what she wants) and motivation (why she wants it). But I would’ve happily kept reading.
Thank you so much for your participation in these critiques. This is the third submission, a middle grade from D.M. Please go ahead and participate with your own feedback in the comments!
Let’s Begin the Workshop Critique!
It was a mild morning at the end of winter when the shrunken human head arrived at three Grange Drive, where, far from being considered a shock or provoking an outrage, it created less of a stir than a fly landing in Mrs McCormack’s latte.
I love a lot about this! It’s funny, it’s jarring, it creates tension. But this is your all-important first sentence and it has too much going on. The focus should be “shrunken human head” and yet we learn the weather, the season, the address, the reaction, and a character name. Too much. Especially for MG. I’d suggest you chop it up and don’t “bury the lede” (or the shrunken human head) in the middle of a paragraph-long sentence.
Amongst all the other curiosities delivered in recent months the head seemed to fit right in. But Angus McCormack should have realised it was different. He, of all people, should have considered it bizarre. Out-of-the-ordinary. Weird. Like last night at dinner, when he’d thought he’d glimpsed a chilli-pepper in his minestrone soup, he should have seen the shrunken head for what it was…a warning.
I’d recommend a comma after “months” in the first sentence. Use contractions for more colloquial voice, for example, “should’ve” instead of “should have.” We don’t need three different versions of “bizarre” (“out-of-the-ordinary” and “weird” do the same work). I get that this provides emphasis, but you don’t need it. The soup mention is … strange. It pulls focus and is distracting. Instead, set the scene for this head’s arrival. What’s he doing when he sees it? The first paragraph also tells us that this head wasn’t a big deal. And in this paragraph, it seems you’re saying the opposite–that it is a big deal. Which is it? You’re doing a lot of description, but keep an eye on what that description is actually saying.
But Angus didn’t always believe his own eyes. The stomach-churning effects of swallowing a red hot chilli pepper were gurgling proof of that. Simply put, Angus wasn’t ready to spot warnings for what they were. He should have been, but he wasn’t.
You repeat a lot of the same information here. I still don’t really see what the pepper has to do with it. Instead of talking about what he didn’t pay attention to last night, TALK ABOUT THE HEAD. That’s what you’re writing about, so take a more direct route. This pepper business seems distracting to me.
Luckily, there was a girl who was ready. A girl Angus had never met. A girl he didn’t even know existed. And today, as Angus sat on the down-stair’s toilet feeling sorry for himself, she was sitting calmly on a plane, cruising east at thirty-one thousand feet, far above the lightening-stuffed clouds that rolled over the vast Atlantic Ocean.
Love “lightening-stuffed clouds,” that’s great description. I worry that you are establishing one scene (with Angus and his … troubles and the shrunken head) but then zooming away from everything you’ve created to this girl in a completely different place. Sure, it creates tension, but my preference would be for you to stay in your opening scene for longer, three or so pages at least, before you flash elsewhere. Is this going to be multiple POV? Omniscient? The beginning, as is, raises some questions in that direction.
With a sizeable wicker basket nestled on her lap, the girl gazed out the plane’s window, watching other planes crisscross the sky. The vapour trails they etched across the atmosphere were tinged pinkish-red by the rising sun. They reminded her of rumpled scars on a thin blue skin.
Awesome descriptions here! This is very immersive and allows me to sink into her experience. I wonder where she’s going, and the image of scars provides some nice tension. Other than the quick hopping around and some of the wordiness and unfocused description in Angus’s portion of the beginning, I’d say this is a strong opening with good potential.
Thanks so much for playing along, and I hope to see you for next week’s workshop installment!
Want custom critique on your work work? Hire me as your book editor and we’ll dive in together.
A few months ago, I asked for some submissions of the first 250 words of novels for the purpose of educational critique. Let’s do it! I’m teeing up some blog posts, and I will try to make it a weekly thing. Please feel free to jump in with thoughts in the comments, too!
Thank you to P. C., who submitted this sample of a middle grade novel.
Let’s Start the Workshop Critique!
Whatever it was gripped him tighter than a hungry gorilla protecting its last banana in a jungle food fight.
The squeeze made him feel like a human toothpaste tube about to pop its cap. But the thing that torqued his shorts, was that it was creasing his trousers.
This writer really takes the advice to start in action to heart. Good work! However, there may be too much action. Readers don’t yet know the character, nor do they know the situation. I recommend grounding the reader in location. We get a location mentioned here (jungle) but no sense of the actual setting. Also, the true nugget of information here is that the character is in danger but concentrating on his creased trousers. Funny! But by the time we get to it, that data is lost in a lot of imagery.
It’s also difficult to care about a character in danger if we don’t know the character, the setting, the situation, the danger, who he’s running to or from, and why. I’d maybe slow down, actually, and this is advice I never get to give!
It swept up from behind and startled him with a muffled hissing pop like a fizzling firecracker. He spun to face it fully and was blinded by its sputtering glow. Pulses of blue and orange light flowed along its mantis-like body.
It scooped him up and away like a child playing jacks. He was powerless against it.
By now, I’m really starting to see a lot of images. Almost every sentence has a simile or metaphor. Here, we have the fizzing firecracker, and the mantis image. Before, we had the gorilla banana and the toothpaste. Here, the images are quite distracting because they pull focus. This writer could easily pull back and maybe use one or two per page to combat this tendency. I’m not saying to get rid of imagery altogether, but I worry that this writer relies too much on comparisons.
His legs dangled like a rag doll so that the stones at the edge of the frozen stream scuffed his freshly polished shoes. This really put him out of sorts.
More images. Unfortunately, a rag doll limply dangling is a cliché image. You also want to watch out. You are comparing his leg’s to a rag doll’s legs, not the entire rag doll, so it should be: “His legs dangled like a rag doll’s…”
“For the sake of Sir Isaac, watch the wingtips!” he yelled.
After all, the Tall Man was a sharp dresser and proud of it.
His heart pumped so hard that he swore he heard each blood cell swoosh past his inner ears, until another noise drew his attention—a deep droning thrum. It pulsed along in low frequency waves that streamed into the night, slowing only as they surged through his chest wall. The noise came from his abductor.
I’d reconsider the heart imagery, as it’s a bit of a physical cliché. We also know that the character cares about his clothes, so mentioning the crease in the trousers and “Watch the wingtips!” in the same 250 words gives readers the same data twice. Maybe use this to establish something else about the character?
Good mystery about the pulsing from the abductor. Still, I’d love to get some context here about what’s happening, who the abductor is, and what’s at stake. A bit of specific data doesn’t hurt at the beginning to get readers engaged.
This thing sounds like my percolator, he thought, referring to his trusty silver coffee pot, its bottom blackened by so many years on the stove.
“Hey! Can you hear me? Unhand me! Let me go!”
There’s a typo here, with “Hey” preceded by a single quote, not a double quote. The image of the percolator is well-written but I’m not sure that readers want to be thinking about such a detailed coffee pot when the character is abducted. These images continue to pull focus and downplay the danger of the situation—if there is any.
My biggest pieces of advice to this writer? Work less hard on images. The writing is solid, trust it. Give some context for the actual situation (where the tension will be generated) so that readers can care about more than gorillas and coffee pots.
Please feel free to chime in via the comments and thanks to P.C. for submitting!
If you want personalized manuscript critique on your own work, reach out to me for editorial services.
When I first started this blog in 2009, I did a few critique contests and had a lot of fun providing feedback on small snippets of writing. I did another critique series in 2011. My wonderful social media assistant, Amy, pointed me to another blog currently doing this for thriller and mystery writers, and I thought, why the heck not do some critiques again?
I’d love to be able to feature content more regularly. My articles are usually quite long and take a while to write, and critiques will be a fun break in the routine. So here we go!
What I’m Looking For
This current opportunity is for MG and YA novel openings only. I am seeking the first 250 words of your fiction as a submission. The submission will then be critiqued on the blog as a learning exercise for the person submitting as well as the reading audience.
Not everyone who submits will be guaranteed a critique. The last time I did this I had to close submissions after 100+ people sent their projects. I’m aiming here for a series of 10 or so critiques, and I will choose samples based on their potential to teach the writer and my readers something interesting about the craft or the marketplace.
If this is fun and works out well and you learn a lot and like it, I’ll do the same thing for picture book openings in the winter.
What To Expect
I’ve done a series of “workshops” on the blog before. You are welcome to search the blog for other workshops I’ve done in the past (not all of these results will be relevant). This post is a good example, though the sample is quite a bit longer than what I’m looking for here.
I will reproduce the 250 words that you send and weave some comments in with the text, as well as giving overview feedback. Hopefully readers will flock to the series and give additional feedback in the comments.
How to Submit
Please send the first 250 words of your MG or YA novel opening (only the first words of your novel, after any quotes you’re using) copied and pasted into an email message. I will not accept attachments for this opportunity (#ripinbox).
You are welcome to give me a few lines of context for the submission, like whether it’s MG or YA and whether it’s a WIP or has already been on submission, but keep this brief.
Only the submissions selected for the workshop series will receive critique. I regretfully do not have time to explain my reasoning for selecting or not selecting a particular piece. No private critiques will be given during this opportunity. All submissions will receive a response within eight weeks with an update about their selection status.
I anticipate a lot of responses, so writers not following these directions will be disregarded. I’ll then take a few weeks to sift through submissions and start the series in September or October.
The Potential Implications
The understanding is that if you submit, I may choose your excerpt and feature it on this blog. I will provide critique on the snippet and readers may contribute their thoughts in the comments. This is a learning exercise and the purpose is to teach and to learn, for the writer submitting, and the people reading. There will be no financial gain for either of us during this exercise. I am not paid for the critique and you will receive no immediate financial benefit. No rights are exchanged, and you retain the use of your creative work once this is done, as well as the ability to use any comments you receive to improve the work. I do not own the work.
Some people may not want to submit their work for a public opportunity like this because they do not want to share their work online. Some people wonder if their odds of attracting agent or editor attention will increase or decrease as a result of this opportunity. I make no claims or guarantees in either direction. All I can say is that I fully believe your work will be stronger as a result of receiving critique. But the ultimate choice is up to you. If you are hesitant at all about participating, do not submit.
If you can’t wait for this opportunity and want to work on a private one-on-one basis, hire me as your book editor and we can dive in together.
Ladies and gentlemen, start your Scriveners for NaNoWriMo 2018! It’s officially that time of the year again, when thousands upon thousands of scribes spend the month of November pounding out 50,000 words of prose (or more) in the name of writing achievement, damn it!
Your NaNoWriMo 2018 Success Strategies
For all of this year’s National Novel Writing Month participants, here are three success strategies I’d like to plant in your heads on this, the heady first day of unbridled writing creation.
Don’t Sweat Your Novel Beginning
Edit Your Novel Later
Focus on Character
Let’s unpack these tips one by one.
Don’t Sweat Your Novel Beginning
As I mention in my novel first pages webinar, first pages are so tough to write. Starting a novel can be very intimidating because there’s so much pressure on a novel beginning. That’s why I’m able to speak for over an hour about it, and many books have been written on the topic. (If you missed the webinar, I’ll give it again. See my Webinars and Events page!)
For National Novel Writing Month purposes, don’t sweat your beginning. Besides, you won’t know what your novel opening truly needs to be until you reach the end of the manuscript (on approximately the 30th of this month!). So you can–and should–always go back to the start and revise.
So do your best today and lay some groundwork. Remember to start in action, a compelling scene that introduces the character and kicks things off without immediately sliding into an info-dump of backstory. The balance of action and information is crucial in a novel beginning.
Then leave it. Seriously. Leave it be. It’s going to change. You aren’t going to nail it on the first try. Nobody does. Move on. Because otherwise, you risk getting stuck on your opening, or obsessing about it, and then you may lose your NaNoWriMo 2018 momentum right out the gate.
Which brings me to my next point…
Edit Your Novel Later
Some writers go through an entire novel without looking back at their work once. Some writers hammer and edit and refine on a scene or chapter until it’s perfect, only then do they proceed. For National Novel Writing Month, you obviously want do more of the former and less of the latter, just in the interest of finishing your project.
Writing is writing. Revision is revision. Huh? What I mean to say is, they are two completely different skills. They live in the same neighborhood, but opposites sides of the street. Revision’s for December! (And January, February, March … honestly, it could be a while once the initial rush of creation wears off.)
Some participants psych themselves up for their writing day by reading the previous day’s work. Others barrel straight through. Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of going back further than that, at least for the time being. The first week of this exercise is the most important in terms of creating good writing habits.
If you start to read what you’ve written, you may be tempted to revise and, again, might stall out and being nitpicking or obsessing. Most of your success with this project will be created in the revision stages, and those are going to come later, using different parts of your brain and different skills.
You have my permission to step on the gas and ignore your blind spots. For November at least, don’t look back!
Focus on Character
The biggest job in front of you (other than, you know, writing 50,000 words in a single month!) is to get your character down on paper. The first chapter will change (weren’t you listening a minute ago?), the plot will change, individual scenes and descriptions will change. But once you’re able to “birth” a character during National Novel Writing Month, this really will be the anchoring element of your manuscript going forward.
Remember, readers read primarily to bond with character. A writer’s most important job is to make readers care. This comes from character. And it’s never too early to start fleshing out a strong and compelling character. As you write, you can forget the nit-picking and first chapter, but remember to add as much emotional substance to your protagonist as possible. This is where the quick work of creation can really pay off for later drafts.
Have you heard of my concept of interiority? If not, read up on it and keep it in mind on your adventures. The more you get down about your character now, the less you’ll have to develop later. If your manuscript reads like a giant character sketch at the end of the month? I wouldn’t be too upset. You can always shape the character and focus and give them stuff to do (plot) during the revision process.
What Happens After NaNoWriMo 2018?
You might laugh, but literary agents cringe at the end of National Novel Writing Month because their inboxes swell with “novels” on December 1st, nary twelve hours after well-meaning writers have finished their masterpieces. Because a novel is done once the word count gets to 50k, right?
As you’ve heard me suggest several times, the real work, unfortunately, of crafting a novel happens in the months after this one. So whatever you do, as tempting as it is, don’t rush to submit just yet.
Over the winter, I might suggest reading some writing resources. I just dove back into The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. It’s a dense read, but I came away from it with some rewarding ideas. National Novel Writing Month is all about passion and fire and speed. It’s a rush.
Revision is a slow burn. Appreciate both for what they are. You have the rest of the year to revise before this whole crazy trip happens again!
If you want personal feedback on your project, or revision proves overwhelming, hire me as your novel editor. I work on manuscripts in all stages of creation, from WIP to if-I-have-to-look-at-it-one-more-time-I’ll-cry.
If you want to write children’s books, writing child characters has to be a special interest, and always top of mind. The thing is, children are different from adults. For a lot of wonderful reasons. For some people, it’s very easy to channel their childhoods onto the page. For others, it takes constant work and course-correction. Here are some tips.
Writing Child Characters Believably
Nailing the mindset of a child the same age as your protagonist is crucial. As I write in Writing Irresistible Kidlit, and as I’ve said at many conferences across the country, kids have amazing built-in BS detectors. It’s hard to ring true with them because they are so absorbed in their experience, they’ll be able to pick out those who can’t connect to it very easily. (It’s the bane of every parent’s existence to be called out for not understanding, after all.)
For a lot of writers attracted to children’s books, this comes rather naturally. There is something about a young child’s experience that they remember from their own lives. They remember being a child and have something they want to say about it. Or they have a child the age of their protagonist to connect with. Something about parenting children has inspired them.
No matter where you stand, it’s always a good idea to get back in touch with your inner child–because that’s key when writing for children.
Remember Your Childhood
You may want to bean me with a yoga mat for this suggestion, but I am a big fan of journaling to help you get into (or out of) a particular headspace. When trying to connect with your inner child, don’t hesitate to write letters to that age of child, write letters from that age of child, or write diary entries as that child. Don’t try too hard to think, don’t judge yourself for what you’re writing or its quality.
Simply write. (Ha ha, easier said than done.)
Soon enough, you may find that words are starting to flow and ideas, memories, or feelings may surface after a long, deep sleep. The key isn’t just to do this once. If you want to write for a certain age group, do this over and over and concentrate on what it was like to belong to that age group.
Also, and this goes without saying, this is one of those exercises that only works if you do it. Thinking about doing it and doing it aren’t the same thing.
Connect With Modern Kids
Not in a creepy way, obviously. But another piece of the puzzle if your childhood muscles are rusty is to be in the same room as living, breathing children for a while. Volunteer for story time at the library, hang out with nieces and nephews, offer to host your teen’s next sleepover or sports party. Don’t lurk, but don’t close your listening ears or your observation eyes, either.
Childhood is different today than it was in your time, even if your time was a few years ago. A lot of the feelings might be the same, but the plot points are new. There are different issues at play. The world is different. Scarier. Bigger. Smaller. Bullies can do their dirty work on a screen or with guns instead of with their fists, for example.
Channel your inner child, but talk to contemporary children as well. They’re fonts of information and they will be more than willing to share if they believe you to be genuinely interested in their experiences.
Read, Read, Read When Writing Young Characters
Have I beat this dead horse into the ground yet? Read. Even as you’re journaling to connect with your former self, and hanging out with actual kids the age of your characters, you’ll want to see who else is working in your space, and what they’re doing.
If you’re not already reading in your chosen category, what the heck are you waiting for? If you’re at a total loss for great books, start with award winners. These are writers at the top of their game, and all kinds of age groups, genres and styles are represented. Check out the Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, Newbery, Printz, Belpré, Stonewall, Morris award winner and honor books, and more. Here’s a whole list of all the awards given by ALA. This is certainly not the end-all, be-all of books published that you should be reading, but if you’re desperate for a reading list and don’t know where to start, this will lead you down a great rabbit hole of your future favorite authors.
Writing Picture Book Characters
Special considerations for writing picture book characters (and, to an extent, early reader and chapter book) include remembering that these kids are still very much developing. Their worlds are quite small. They have a family and home that fill up most of their lives. They are learning a lot and being told what to do constantly by parents, teachers, siblings, etc.
As such, your books for this age group need to empower and inspire. Kids need to be put in the starring role, to solve their own problems. Well-meaning and wise adults cannot solve everything for them. For these ages, play on universal themes like love, loss, friendship, overcoming challenges, and trying to find what makes you special. These ideas will resonate in a big way with little kids who are still extremely egocentric. (This is not a slight. Developmentally speaking, young kids have a hard time differentiating that others are different from them and not simply there to suit their needs until they’re two or three.)
Think of what’s important to the littlest kids in your life. Writing young characters for picture book and connecting with children the age of your readers is especially important when writing for the youngest age groups, because you may not have very distinct memories of what it’s like to live in the moment and feel everything as intensely as little readers do.
Writing Middle Grade Characters
I love writing young characters for this age group. Nowhere else is the split between child and grown-up felt so acutely. Middle school-aged readers (and those slightly younger) are in frenzy of activity around developing their identities. Yet they also crave a safe haven when life gets to be too much, or when they get in over their heads. To all the world, they might be confident young citizens…but sometimes they’d much rather run and hide under their covers or have Mama bring them hot chocolate after a rough day.
Identity, friendships, and realizing that the world has shades of gray (including their suddenly fallible parents) are key themes for middle schoolers. Issues like communication, bullying, and figuring out one’s own moral code and integrity will come up a lot in the most emotionally resonant plots.
Though many of us probably don’t want to go back to middle school–it was such a cruel and confusing time–this is the proving ground for your middle grade characters. Where they figure out who they are, who they want to be, and how to start bridging those gaps. If the split between childhood and teenage-dom isn’t felt in your MG fiction, put this idea on your back burner as you revise.
Writing Young Adult Characters
Teens aren’t just miniature adults with fewer responsibilities. They certainly can seem that way sometimes, but assuming this is a big disservice to the age group. Teens don’t want to read your romanticized version of teendom. They experience everything in larger-than-life terms (which makes for great fiction). Their problems are incredibly real to them. And they don’t have the tools necessary to put their lives in context yet, or deal with their problems in healthy ways.
Remember, teens were kids just a few years ago, even if they’ll do anything to distance themselves from that idea and prove that they know better. At the same time, teens do have moments of clarity where they’re aware of their limitation. This vulnerability is an incredible thing to write into. It’s what makes YA so alive and electric.
The teen years are full of defining experiences, big questions, big fractures, and the seeds that will stay with a person for their entire lives. Who were you when you forged your identity? How do your teen characters grapple with this responsibility–if they want to touch it at all? How are they still children, deep down? This split-personality element of YA is so interesting to write.
No matter how old your characters, or how you get into the headspace of writing them, you just need to keep authenticity in mind. Write from an authentic place, and you will attract readers who value vulnerability, truth, and genuine prose. Sorry to go all Brené Brown on y’all, but I like to be reminded every once in a while of what we all aspire to.
Are you striking the right tone, voice, and emotion in your children’s fiction? Hire me as your developmental editor for anything from picture books to young adult novels.
Curious about how many words in a chapter? When you’re writing fiction, it’s natural to wonder about children’s book manuscript chapter length. I’m afraid this answer won’t be entirely satisfying, but I decided to make a video about it. The transcript appears below.
Writers Are Asking: How Many Words in a Chapter?
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 children’s book manuscript chapter length is a big question that I’ve 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? How many words in a chapter?” 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.
Children’s book manuscript chapter length 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. (And take some advice on how to write action scenes.) 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.
How Many Words in a Chapter … And How Many Are Working for You?
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 lot of 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 children’s book manuscript chapter length is consistent, 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 darlings.
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.
How should a writer approach political 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.
But the question did get me thinking: What’s the role of politics in children’s books? Especially books for younger readers? Here’s what I came up with.
Political Children’s Books: The Real Concerns
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:
Does the political element work in the context of the story? Is it necessary or is it gratuitous?
Is the message and its packaging appropriate for the intended audience?
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 regarding political children’s books is that of marketability. This consists of two parts:
In children’s fiction, you have the additional element of your audience’s age to consider. Sometimes, politics in children’s books plays well. 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. But also give careful consideration to writing believable child characters who minimize preaching. 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 compelling characters and high-stakes plots driving political children’s books.
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 agents, editors, and imprints who are open to politics in children’s books. 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 regarding your drive to write political children’s books. 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.
Do you want to make sure your manuscript is compelling without being preachy? Hire me as your children’s book editor and we can convey your message along with compelling characters and a high-stakes plot.
A few weeks back, I reached out to see who had questions, and Rachel had a great one about how to write a children’s book series:
Back when I read the Baby Sitters Club as a kid, I would always skim over the whole “introduction” to the club and group, which appeared in each book. I am currently working on a novel series and wonder if each book needs the “introduction” to the story, or if they are a bit unnecessary these days?
This astute reader is totally right. A catch-up introduction is no longer the norm when you’re writing a children’s book series. Whew! No need to write a dry and skip-able synopsis for your manuscripts. (Though, unfortunately, you’ll still have to craft one for when you submit.) However, this opens up a bigger question: “So how do you begin a novel series without boring readers who are familiar with your premise?”
How to Write a Children’s Book Series: Weave Context into the Beginning
For a more modern feel, you want to include that information in your opening few chapters. However, you don’t want to bog the opening down with tons of facts right off the bat. So when you’re approaching how to write a children’s book series, it’s a good idea to start each book with several key facts about your main characters and their relationships, and about the world in which your story is set. Even if it’s in our modern non-fantasy world, each “world” has its own rules and climate, like a high school cafeteria from a popular person’s POV vs. an underdog’s, those “worlds” look very different. If there’s anything else from previous installments that’s crucial to know, make sure to include that information, as well.
By providing this context but weaving it into the first few chapters of the story, you will be welcoming your existing readers back into the story while simultaneously giving new readers a chance to catch up. All without info-dumping. The important thing to remember is to keep everything brief and relevant. The story should start in action that continues the plot you’ve already been telling. This way, it’s easy to keep pacing quick while providing some relevant context.
If your characters are at war at the end of Book 1, open Book 2 with them gearing up for an important battle. From the action, new readers will be able to gather that they’re at war and something important is coming up. During that scene, you will want to drop hints concerning why they’re at war, who they’re fighting against, what the stakes are, etc. Since characters will be interacting as they prepare, you can start introducing a sense of their relationships, values, personal objectives, and motivations. Sure, you have all this juicy backstory about the king and some palace intrigue, but leave it for later. Open with big action that carries the pacing and buys you a few moments to balance it with information.
If you’re wondering how to write a children’s book series, take a look at some craft books about starting your story. Whether it’s a stand-alone manuscript or part of a novel series, I’d recommend The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.
Bring me on board as your children’s book editor. I’ll help you craft a strong beginning that draws readers into your story.