I’m always thinking of how to help writers get exactly what they need to accomplish their writing goals. It’s in this spirit that my team over at Good Story Company has created Pubdeets:, a daily, digestible newsletter of publishing industry information geared for the creative writer.
Examples of deets include opportunities for grants and to publish, tools and interesting writing articles, news on favorite authors, trends in the publishing industry (!!!), and much, much more. This information can be found in a daily (Monday through Friday) email newsletter and blasts out on social media (@Pubdeets).
Please subscribe! In other social news, I’m hoping to see my @Kid_Lit Twitter followers on my much more frequently updated @GoodStoryCo platform. In fact, fresh updates to @Kid_Lit are now discontinued. You can catch me and my team over @GoodStoryCo.
One of the questions I find myself discussing all the time is the issue of character backstory. When do we add it? How much do we add? How much is too much? Too little? Are flashbacks okay?
How Much Character Backstory to Use
The bare minimum of backstory that you should include in your novel or picture book or memoir is this: enough to get readers plugged into the character. Maybe that amounts to ZERO backstory, if you start right away with some kind of conflict or action.
Aim for minimum viable product (from the business world), the leanest version of your character who can possibly fly. Maybe we learn one or two things about the character via telling, as is sometimes what happens at the beginning of a picture book. Maybe we don’t get any backstory at all and concentrate on present action. Maybe we get a piece of context (it’s the first day of school, the character just moved to a new place, they’re off to a practice to impress a college scout), and the rest is filled in over time.
What you categorically want to avoid is a big block of character backstory or flashback right away. My advice is always this: if you find yourself leaving the present moment to fill in backstory (even short backstory, like, “we’ve been best friends since kindergarten”), you may not be starting in the right place.
The key questions you want to answer with any backstory you include are: “What makes this character tick, and why should I care about them?”
When to Use Character Backstory
Your first few chapters or scenes should be action-heavy (with some nice introductory conflict) to get agents, publishers, and readers into your story. Once you feel that is established, you can start weaving in backstory or flashback starting in the second or third chapters. Why is the character’s situation XYZ? What is the significance of their objective and motivation? Which characters do we need to know more about in order to understand the present conflict?
BUT! Remember to keep up the balance of action and information, a crucial idea in keeping your pacing lean and mean and compelling. Whenever you give us a scene or paragraph of backstory, surround it with action, scene, and dialogue on either side.
Readers only perceive a story to be backstory-heavy and slow-moving when there aren’t injections of action and conflict to give the dense information a much-needed “lift.”
How to Fill in the Rest
Another thing to consider when you wonder how much character backstory to use, where, and when, is that you don’t have to use absolutely everything that you’ve developed. You may have done your homework and discovered where your character went to middle school and who their first crush was and how they like to relax after a long day. Some of this could wind up in your story, but some of it is for your edification only.
Sometimes, you will find that you need more depth. In that case, whole flashbacks of scenes and memories that not only flesh out your protagonist but the other characters in the story will become useful. But make sure these pull a lot of weight and deliver a lot of insight. The fewer and tighter your flashbacks, the better.
On the whole, it’s perfectly okay to leave elements on the “cutting room floor” as you prioritize action and conflict over heavy character backstory, especially at the beginning of your story.
Your opening pages are crucial for agent, publisher, and reader engagement. Hire me as your book editor for a Submission Package Edit, and I will give you insight into your query, synopsis, and first pages.
One of the biggest challenges I encounter in my editorial practice is picture books that show character change in a clumsy or overbearing way. Picture books, more than any other category of kidlit, are about character change, a moral, or a lesson. A strong takeaway is expected because we want our young readers to be eating a little bit of medicine (the moral) with their syrup (the story). Like those cookbooks for moms who want to sneak veggies into brownies. But how do we do this effectively, without turning readers (and agents and publishers) off with too much lecturing? It’s all about character!
Picture Books That Show Character Change
As you may know from other posts about picture book lessons and writing child characters, I am not a big fan of morals delivered in a didactic way. I’m not alone. Agents and publishers cite moralizing as one of the main reasons they pass on a picture book project.
So how do we write picture books that show character change without explicitly stating the lesson? It’s a rather simple answer: let the character have some realizations and then act upon them. At the same time, do not explain what the character is learning.
Bad: “And Kim realized that sharing IS caring!”
Better: A scene of Kim sharing with her friends and finding satisfaction in it, but without this satisfaction being explicitly explained.
Better: Kim encouraging a younger sibling to share, but also without explicit explanation. (Kids love to play the teacher role, so showing a child passing on their new knowledge to someone else is a great solution!)
Use the moral you’ve come up with as a starting point. Then write three scenarios where the character can actively learn the lesson, enjoy the lesson, or pass their wisdom on. One of these will invariably be better than a straight explanation of the moral.
Unrealistic Character Change
One thing to keep in mind about picture books that show character change is that they should also be realistic. Even preschoolers know that people don’t change 180 degrees overnight.
Yes, we all hate bullies, and we all want kids to share, and we want our preschoolers to tell the truth. But you aren’t going to get anywhere near a realistic and nuanced character if: your bullies vow to never bully again; kids always share forever and ever from this day forward; and your character will never tell a lie in their whole lives, not even a little harmless one.
Honor your reader by not feeding them an overly idealized view of the world. This practice sets up false expectations. Kids are humans, too. They shouldn’t be held to these impossible adult standards for Victorian-era good behavior, not even in picture books.
Because that bully in the preschooler’s real classroom will, unfortunately, bully again. I’d much rather you strive to teach that transformation happens with little choices and in small steps, as that honors the real life process of behavioral change.
Many writers wonder whether they can break fiction rules and engage in unconventional writing styles or choices and still get published. I’m of two minds here and would love to explore it further.
For each writing rule, there exists an example of a project that breaks it. Look no further than the beautiful Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri, which is a riff on storytelling itself, operating without a straightforward chronology.
So for the writer who asks, “Can I tell a story with a very loose, riffy chronology?” Or the writer who asks, “Can I write a 1,500-word picture book?” Or, “How about going into adult POV in middle grade?” My answer is, “Sure you can.”
But! And there’s always a but … it has to be done well. In my over a decade in publishing, I’ve realized that unconventional writing choices are made and break the fiction rules all the time, but in these scenarios, execution becomes all-important.
For the most part, fiction rules exist to help writers figure out how to tell stories in a way that invites readers in. Once you learn those rules, guess what? Then you can take a departure and indulge in some unconventional writing, should you desire that approach to storytelling.
However, the rules exist for a reason. Especially in children’s books. Some elements, like word count in picture books, are common sense considerations. Preschoolers don’t have big attention spans and often can’t read on their own. A 2,000-word picture book might strain the boundaries of what’s palatable to kids this age. Chapter books full of advanced vocabulary might scare off or alienate emerging readers. Middle grade with adult POVs that go in depth about divorce and other adult issues from an adult perspective might be better off as stories for adult readers who can more easily relate to these issues.
If you do choose to break fiction rules and guidelines in your desired category, be prepared to get some pushback. Make sure you’re making these storytelling choices for a compelling reason, rather than due to not being fully informed about the market. Make sure your unconventional writing is necessary, rather than a darling that might be better off dead.
Writing for the Agent or Publisher
I was talking to a client the other day and he remarked that he feels like he’s “writing for the agent,” rather than for the reader. And there’s truth in this, frustrating as it might be. A debut writer who needs to convince an agent or publisher that their work is worthwhile has a very high bar to clear. It’s harder to be a debut writer than an already-published one because you have to do so much to prove yourself.
And some unconventional writing choices may be off-putting to agents and publishers, who often want to traffic in what they can sell to the biggest possible market. Stories that break established fiction rules might come across as too niche, and this might scare gatekeepers in the traditional publishing framework.
So what? Well, there’s always the option to pursue a smaller (and often more experimental or artistically motivated) publisher, or self-publish. Or forge forward and try to find a traditional home for the story.
It takes courage and determination to break the rules. Here’s to a little rebellion!
Is it a bold choice or a liability? Get a manuscript overview—including analysis of your market potential—when you hire me as your freelance editor.
I’m very excited to announce that I’m hiring a research assistant for an undisclosed project. cue mysterious music
This remote position is perfect for someone who has research experience and is interested in data, data architecture, and more, either in the corporate or start-up space. Maybe you want extra income as you work on your own writing, or need to work from home in this changing landscape.
Ideally, your skills and attributes include:
Time management and dedication to deadlines
Ability to set, then meet or exceed expectations
Clear communication with me about timing and progress
The ability to follow instructions but largely work independently and take initiative
Reliability and trustworthiness, you will be privy to sensitive business information
Proactivity and love of learning—if you don’t know how to do something, you will seek out additional resources, learn what you need, and enjoy the process
Familiarity with the Google suite of productivity tools, especially spreadsheets, as well as Dropbox and Slack
Commitment—I put a lot of energy and passion into my working relationships, and I’m only looking for people who could see being available for a minimum of two years, ideally more
Projects will include:
Amazon and Goodreads data retrieval
Thinking of, applying, and keeping track of keywords
Monitoring changes over time
Keeping an eye on publishing and entertainment trends
Making SPREADSHEETS! 🤩
Working closely with me and a few editorial assistants
This is not an editorial position, unfortunately, but I welcome applicants who are interested in the publishing business, as we will invariably end up discussing the industry and various client and project needs.
If you do not light up with stars in your eyes at the prospect of spreadsheets, this opportunity is not for you.
Starting pay is $12/hour with the opportunity to grow, and my needs will start at a firm commitment of 10 to 15 hours a week. You will be a 1099 contractor for tax purposes (responsible for withholding and reporting your own income taxes), rather than a W2 employee. Please understand that I am not in the position to offer employee benefits, like health insurance. This is an opportunity for US-based candidates only for legal reasons.
I’m Mary and I have been in the publishing business for over a decade. I started Kidlit in 2009, published my book Writing Irresistible Kidlit in 2012, founded Mary Kole Editorial in 2013, and Good Story Company in 2019.
At Mary Kole Editorial and Good Story Company, we believe in helping all writers unlock their potential. We’re also passionate about doing good. With the Good Story Grant, we give away an award of $3,000 to two writers to enable them to take their writing projects to the next level (one grant is reserved for a BIPOC writer). I can’t wait to see what kind of creativity the Good Story Grant facilitates in the future!
I’m a female founder working my way up in the business world and building a company that makes a difference. My team is a fun and motivated crew of writers, creatives, nerds (said with so much love!) and more. Our work, from the editorial team to the marketing team, is highly creative. But we’re successful, too, and only working to become more so!
More than anything, I want to inspire anyone I work with and give you the tools and firsthand experience of what it means to run an amazing independent business. My dream for you is that you stay with me for a long time, but then maybe go on to build something yourself, using what you’ve learned!
How to Apply
This position has been filled. Thank you for your interest!
This is a survey of published authors that I did on here (mumbles) over a year ago. But now I finally have a beautiful infographic to share on how to write a manuscript that succeeds.
The key takeaway, I think, is that so many of you have written more than ten manuscripts on your journeys, and how many of you enlisted outside help in the form of writing groups, critiques, beta readers, and editors.
What I’m seeing here? A lot of encouragement and perseverance. While it’s true that approximately 20% ended up landing an agent or publishing their first manuscripts, between 38 and 43% of writers ended up breaking through on their 5th through 9th manuscript, or even their tenth+ manuscript! That’s the majority of responders to the survey.
These writers have also taken the time to leave some very important words of wisdom to those of you who are still struggling with how to write a manuscript that succeeds.
Please take this to heart: you may publish your current WIP, or you may not. But a large determining factor of success is perseverance and self-education. That’s why you’re already ahead of the curve! You’re sitting here, learning about the writing craft, and adding tools to your toolbox.
Now all you need to do is keep going. Trust that one day you will crack the code of how to write a manuscript that succeeds, like the published authors who responded to the survey did.
It’s such a pleasure for me to be able to post this on November 30th, which has been a significant day for our family. (It was on November 30th, three years ago, that our daughter, Nora Pepper, was born, only to pass away sixteen days later from a very rare disorder.)
This year, we have something—or someone—new to celebrate: Eleanor “Ella” Davis was born on Halloween, 2020! Happily, she is thriving, and we couldn’t be more excited to welcome her to the world.
“Eleanor” is a subtle nod to Nora, and “Davis” honors my stepfather, who suffered a debilitating stroke on November 1st, 2019. Even though she’s her own wonderful little lady, Ella has some fantastic guardian angels watching over her.
Ella joins older brothers Theo (4.5) and Finn (21 months). They are tolerating her so far. Ha!
My husband, Todd, and I, are so happy to be done building our family. Ella is the perfect ending to a long and somewhat tumultuous story. Or, rather, the beginning to our journey as a family of five.
2020 has been an incredibly long haul for so many people, and for so many reasons. But our 2020 has ended on a high note, and we find ourselves incredibly grateful for the support of our friends, family, my amazing team at Good Story Company, and all of you Kidlit readers out there who have followed my personal story over the last few years.
The topic of writer marketing is an incredibly tough but very juicy one. For this post, I’m doing a call out: Writers and authors who are marketing their work, what has worked for you? I want “boots on the ground” experience from you writers out there about your own marketing efforts.
Looking for Writer Marketing Successes (Or Not)
What has worked for you? Email newsletters? Lead magnets? Bookmarks? Leave some examples of your personal marketing successes—and things you wouldn’t do again—in the comments, or take the survey, below
I’m looking for real life experiences as fodder for future posts on this very important topic. If you’d rather email me, you can reach out to:
I had the incredible pleasure of interviewing Wendelin Van Draanen for the Good Story Podcast. Her episode debuted today and I’d love for you to have a listen! It features all kinds of advice on writing and life.
As part of the interview, I’m giving away my copy of Wendelin’s latest, Hope in the Mail, published in January 2020.
To win your copy, all you have to do is share this episode of the Good Story Podcast somewhere on your social media, and supply the URL for your share. (All Facebook posts, Tweets, and Instagram posts, for example, have individual post addresses that you can copy and paste into the form below.)
Feel free to use this graphic if you want to blog or post about this episode:
To facilitate the giveaway process, I’m linking you to a Google Form to collect your entry, including your mailing address, since this is an ARC giveaway. Once you’re ready, you can fill it out, below. Entries are due December 4th, 2020 at 11:59 p.m., CST!