Seeking MG and YA Novel Opening Pages

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!

Send in 250 words of a MG or YA novel opening for a potential critique!

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 messageI will not accept attachments for this opportunity (#ripinbox).

Please send them to mary@kidlit.com with the subject line Blog Critique.

Deadline: Midnight, Central, on Friday, July 26th

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.

Avoid Long Sentences in Colloquial Writing

I work a lot with voice, especially colloquial writing, with my editorial clients. Aside from dry voice, which is a topic in and of itself, I have been battling long sentences quite a bit recently. I write this post as a reminder to all writers: Bigger isn’t necessarily better. (Cue my thirteen-year-old self giggling.)

long sentences, colloquial writing
Today’s voice favors colloquial writing and eschews long sentences. Especially for young readers still finding their reading confidence.

Long Sentences Are Hard Work

There are two common ways in which writers elongate sentences unnecessarily. One is via the semicolon, one is by stacking action. Unless you are British or from another Commonwealth country, the semicolon is largely leaving modern trade fiction. (An interesting anecdotal study done for The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer found that semicolon use is inversely proportional to commercial success. Plus, not a lot of people use semicolons correctly.)

I personally encourage clients to avoid them because they create awkward long sentences that drag on. They are especially undesirable in picture books, early readers, and chapter books, and some early middle grade because those readers are not yet comfortable with complex sentence structures.

Another tendency I see is the stacking of action, especially by using “as.” I encourage writers to limit a sentence to three actions, for example:

She shut her laptop, sipped her coffee, and stared absently at the wall.

(This happens to be my favorite activity…)

Here’s what happens to the sentence, which is long enough already, if “as” comes to the party:

She shut her laptop, sipped her coffee, and stared absent at the wall as the cat prowled for puzzle pieces along the hallway and the mail carrier knocked at the door.

It’s too much for one sentence to do comfortably. (Also, my cat can’t be the only puzzle enthusiast out there, right?) Your work shouldn’t be, well, work to read. When you’re tempted to use a semicolon or “as” to keep something going, consider either zooming out and conveying less action (because you might not need such detail) or breaking up the sentence.

Reading Long Sentences Aloud

Another trick I love to use, especially for picture books, is to read the work aloud. Not only will this help you get a visceral feel for colloquial writing and voice, but it will absolutely indicate which sentences are too long. Why?

People need to breathe. And if you need to breathe in the middle of one of your sentences, it’s too long. Especially in dialogue. We tend to speak in shorter sentences than we’d use for narrative and description. If you have characters speaking in 50-word sentences which are exactly the same as your narrative writing style, that’s an issue. Speech should have its own cadence.

Read your work aloud to focus on long sentences and either eliminate them or break them up. Colloquial writing is here to stay, and shorter, more energetic sentences are going to help you a lot on the voice front. A win for you, and a win for your readers!

If you struggle with voice, I can step in as your manuscript editor and guide you in the right direction with personalized, encouraging feedback.

Character Development Questions to Ask and Answer

Perhaps this is a contrarian approach to character development, but I don’t care what your character’s favorite flavor of ice cream is. I don’t necessarily want to know what sport they played, or what their spirit animal is (unless these factor into the plot, of course). A lot of character development that writers are coached to do doesn’t really translate into great story. So what should you focus on? Keep reading to find out.

character development, character development questions
“If you were an island, what color would your sand be?” Huh? Ask significant character development questions instead.

Why Ask Character Development Questions?

A lot of writing books suggest getting to know your characters. Act like you’re interviewing them. Ask them questions. This, the logic goes, will lead to deeper and more nuanced character.

But you have to ask the right questions! I have seen spreadsheets that writers have created of a character’s hometown, favorite TV show, etc. None of these things move the needle. A key part of writing character, in my opinion, is creating vulnerability. Inner struggle is crucial to character and story. Those are the deeply human elements that are going to reel your readers into the heart of your characters and stories. If you’re not asking these types of questions, it’s never too late to start.

Things to Consider When Doing Character Development

Here is a list of character development questions I wish more writers would ask their characters or about their characters:

  • What is your deepest conscious desire?
  • What is your deepest unconscious desire?
  • What, if anything, is preventing you from achieving either of the above?
  • What do you want from yourself?
  • What do you want from other people?
  • What, if anything, is preventing you from achieving either of the above?
  • What’s your most positive and supportive relationship?
  • Is there any conflict to it?
  • What’s your most negative relationship?
  • Is there any positivity to it?
  • If there were no obstacles, what is one thing you would do in a heartbeat?
  • What obstacles (internal and external) are preventing you from doing that?
  • How do you feel about yourself on a good day?
  • How do you feel about yourself on a bad day?
  • What does an ideal life (referring to the character’s own life and situation) look like, to you?
  • What does an ideal world (referring to society at large for the character, his or her loved ones, and people in general) look like, to you?
  • What three experiences from the past defined you in the present?
  • Where do you see yourself in three months? One year? Three years? Ten years?
  • What is the inner wound or inner struggle that keeps you up at night?
  • What is your ugliest side? How do you manage it? Does it ever overtake you?
  • What is your most noble, best side? How do you encourage it? What’s keeping it from shining more often?
  • What does it feel like to you when you’re stressed? Bored? Angry? Proud? Happy? Excited?
  • Is there any friction between how you see yourself, and how others see you? If so, what is preventing you from closing that gap?

These questions aim to address a few crucial (I believe) components of character development: What are the inner struggles? How does the character deal with adversity? How do they see themselves in their mind’s eye and in relation to others? How do conflicts and tensions affect them?

The rest of the decisions you make about their favorite subject in school and what kind of cake they like … those are fun but fluffy. Here, I aim to drill down to the very real. Why? Because these are the relatable things that your readers will connect to on a deeper level.

What to Actually Use

One big mistake I see is that writers do all of this character development, and then shoehorn all of it into their manuscripts. They can’t bear to leave any behind. But some of those spreadsheet ideas need to stay in the spreadsheet. The purpose of doing any kind of “getting to know you” work with your character is that you sit down and do the work. You get to know them. You plan them out.

Invariably, some of that work will end up on the “cutting room floor.” It’s for you, it’s not for the reader. Though you’ve developed it, you don’t necessarily have to use it on the page. And you don’t want to be terribly overt with the answers to the above questions, either. Avoid putting these things on the page. Real people don’t walk around saying, in dialogue with others, “My childhood wound is that I wasn’t loved enough.” But if this is true, it drives a lot of their behavior anyway.

Think of it as homework, not necessarily something for the final product. Focus on what’s really important when it comes to character. Leave the rest for your spreadsheet.

If you struggle with character development, you might want custom, actionable advice from a novel editor. I can help take your protagonist, and therefor your story, to the next level.

Choosing Your Main Character

Some writers don’t have to decide on their main character, the protagonist has been in their imagination forever! Others, though, struggle with the choice or protagonist. These writers having big casts of characters, multiple POVs, or small, tightly knit ensembles. If you find yourself struggling to define the main character in your story, read on.

If you have trouble selecting the best potential main character for your manuscript, you’ve come to the right place.

main character, protagonist, novel hero, picture book main character
If you have trouble selecting the best potential main character for your manuscript, you’ve come to the right place.

Choosing Your Main Character

One question I’m asked a lot is: Does a character have to change from beginning to end? This is otherwise known as a character arc. My answer has always been a resounding yes. Unless you’re writing an antihero (a tough proposition, especially for younger readers), a character’s change arc is going to be one of the more interesting parts of your story. Whether your character learns something by solving a problem (common in picture book) or undergoes a fundamental identity shift (as seen in MG and YA), their potential for change is a big determining factor in who you should select for a main character.

Remember what readers want. They read to care and feel. That’s it. Change is messy, it’s emotional, it’s usually very gratifying. The character who changes the most is also the character who has the potential to connect most with your reader. If this isn’t currently your main character, you might have a decision to make.

Main Character and Emotion

One of the cornerstones of my teaching philosophy about writing is interiority, or access to a character’s thoughts, emotions, reactions, and inner struggle. The character with the biggest change arc usually also has the most potential for emotional scenes. The character is going through a lot, they feel deeply, they aim to learn or grow … readers will want to see this on the page. By choosing this dynamic character, with deep, nuanced feelings, for your main character, you will be putting more emotion into your story. The scenes of your plot will have more feeling to them. What you write about will seem to matter more to readers. If your character floats along, not changing, not really feeling that much, do they have enough potential to be a true protagonist?

The other thought here is about  novel theme. Every book has something that it’s about, in a big picture sense. Character will often be tied into your theme, meaning that if you want to write about loss, then maybe a good protagonist in that type of book is grieving. So when you choose your protagonist, and you think about their journey, and their potential for emotion, you’ll also want to think about how all of these things align with your bigger picture. If your book is about self-acceptance and your main character spends most of the story in denial, while their friend plays a supportive and emotionally vulnerable role, maybe you’ve chosen the wrong point of view. Let the lens of the character match the thing you want to do or say with your project.

Special Consideration for Picture Book Main Characters

I was speaking to a client this weekend who has this problem with a picture book. He has three potential candidates for the protagonist. In addition to all of the thoughts, above, I gave him the following advice:

Since it’s generally a bad idea to use adult or teacher characters to dispense picture book lessons, the main character in a picture book should be the character who realizes the moral of the story themselves. Which character here can realize the strongest solution to the problem, and present it to readers in a kid-friendly and realistic way? That should be your main character.

This client had one character who would’ve been a good mouthpiece of the message, which was about dealing with change (a perennial picture book theme). But there was another character who was actively going through a change. I counseled this client to pick the character who was experiencing change, because readers would be much more receptive to hear from that particular character about how to deal with it. That character would be speaking firsthand about the topic, rather than giving a more passive lecture.

In summary, follow the change, follow the development, follow the emotion. Connect these back to your theme. The person who hits as many of those points as possible is your book’s main character, and if they’re not, they should be.

Struggling with creating a relatable protagonist? I can be your developmental editor to help you create the necessary depth and nuance.

Now Hiring Administrative Assistant and Seeking Referrals

Less than a year after hiring several editorial assistants and a social media and marketing manager, I’m growing and hiring for Mary Kole Editorial again! Now I’m looking for a dedicated administrative assistant to help me with the day-to-day logistics of my business. This will be a part time position (20 hours or so per week, unless need increases).

I’m also looking for editors, ghostwriters, and proofreaders for referrals of overflow work. I find myself turning work down if a project isn’t a perfect fit for my team, and would love some qualified editors and proofreaders to recommend. Sometimes my clients also look for ghostwriters. This is an opportunity to receive referrals. I’m especially looking for excellent proofreaders, ghostwriters, and editors who specialize in non-children’s fiction.

I’m looking for my right-hand guy or gal to help me with my growing business, so that I can do the editorial work I love more easily!

This remote position is perfect for someone who has experience as a support person and administrative assistant, 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.

Ideally, your skills and attributes include:

  • Clean written communication–you will be writing on my behalf sometimes, and that means clear, error-free, delightful copy
  • 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, Dropbox, DocuSign, and Slack
  • Some basic graphic design skills using Canva and templates
  • 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:

  • Tracking and following up with potential client inquiries
  • Bookkeeping, issuing client agreements, generating invoices, and tracking payments
  • Reaching out on my behalf to marketing opportunities
  • Responding to inquiries on my behalf
  • Helping set up and update various marketing elements like email newsletters and webinars

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.

Starting pay is $15/hour with the opportunity to grow, and my needs will start at 20 hours a week (as a minimum, never less) though they  might increase to up to 29 hours a week. You will be a 1099 contractor for tax purposes (responsible for withholding your own income taxes and reporting them), 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 sadly had to turn down many qualified editorial applicants from abroad during my last hiring event.)

I’m looking for cover letters and resumes sent in the body of an email or as an attachment. Please use the subject line “Assistant Application” and send to mary@kidlit.com. The deadline for applications is Friday, June 7th, 2019 at midnight, Central. The next step is a phone interview for qualified candidates. Since we will be working very closely together, the personality fit factor is important here. I welcome all applicants! The position would most likely start at the end of June or beginning of July.

If you’re interested in being an editorial, ghostwriting, or proofreading referral, please use the subject line “Editorial Referral” and send to mary@kidlit.com. There is no deadline on this request.

How to Avoid One Dimensional Character

Too often, one dimensional character translates to predictable fiction. Flat character descriptions have the potential to sink your novel before it really gets off the ground, especially in children’s fiction. Picture books suffer from caricature as well. Here’s why one dimensional character is harmful, and how to avoid it.

one dim
If I’ve read your character many times before, you have a one dimensional character. But how to fix your sheeple, er, people?

The Danger of Flat Character

One dimensional character is, basically, quite boring to read. A lot of manuscripts I’ve seen over the years pick an attribute for a character (“the brave one” or “the shy one”) and then … that’s it. The Brave One can always be found doing something brave, the Shy One is always hanging in the shadows without speaking, and the whole manuscript proceeds along these lines.

It’s as if the writer has boxes they feel they need to check, and various attributes they want to include, and that’s it. But these caricatures aren’t true characters, and they’re no fun to read. They’ve also been done thousands of times before … the definition of flat character. This goes for protagonists, secondary characters, antagonists, even the helpful librarian (I’m talking to all of you  middle grade mystery writers!). The kid who loves adventure (shout out to my picture book people).

Every type of characters deserves nuance. Something to make them surprising, something to make them relatable, something to make them complicated. So take your thumbnail sketch of the character you’re writing and thrown in a few wildcards. The thing is, nobody makes sense all the time, or plays to “type” consistently. And if they do, there’s something wrong.

How to Fix One Dimensional Character

Throw a surprise into the works. Does the Shy One come up with a bold idea? Add struggle. Maybe the Bold One hates being the daredevil, but they’re overlooked in their large family if they don’t stick out–sometimes with disastrous results. What’s something the reader can’t tell about your character at first blush? What’s a secret your character is keeping? An unexpected desire? A rebellion against their identity, or what others think of them?

Imagine a scene in your manuscript that will make readers change their opinions of your character. Maybe it’s after your character says or does something controversial, dangerous, tame, or “out of character.” Write this scene. Aim to change not only the reader’s mind, but the minds of other characters who think they know the person in question. You’ll have a flat character no more!

You may find that you like playing with impressions and expectations. You may uncover a character attribute that you will then incorporate into your manuscript. How does what you learn change your character’s arc? Objectives? Motivations? You may be inspired to do this “second impression” scene with your other important characters.

Surprise yourself. Surprise your characters. Make sure you never suffer from the one dimensional character pitfall again.

Character is the window to story for your readers. If you’re struggling creating a compelling, multi-layered protagonist, I can offer customized advice and feedback as your developmental editor.

Writing Motivation

As spring comes to my corner of the world (finally!), I am thinking about writing motivation. This is a conversation I have endlessly with my editorial clients. How does one stay motivated? How does one stay motivated despite dealing with rejection, which is, unfortunately, part of the writing life? How does one maintain writing motivation when life threatens to get in the way? Here are three common scenarios where writers find themselves needing motivation. See if any of this resonates.

writing motivation, writer motivation
Unexpected writing motivation for those of us out there who need to hear it.

Writing Motivation When You’re Not Writing

All you want to do is write, dang it, but life keeps getting in the way. You made a goal to write fifteen minutes a day at one point, but paying bills and cooking food and showering seem to steal that time.

This may sound like strange advice, but don’t focus on finding time to write right now. That will only make you feel worse about not writing. Instead, fill your creative well with indirect writer motivation. Take a walk. Binge Shark Tank (or is it just me?!). Sketch something funny in the margins.

The harder you push yourself to write, the more stressed you’ll become. And sometimes, it pays dividends to be nice to yourself. Maybe this isn’t your time to write right now. Maybe this is your time to recharge. After all, burnout is a very real thing. Do something else creative and see if it inspires you to go back to the page.

I had this conversation a few days ago with a client who hadn’t done their scheduled revision because life got in the way. I told her what my midwife said to me a few weeks ago at an appointment: “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” So before you try to pour, refill your cup in other ways, if possible. And if it doesn’t happen every day, or on any kind of schedule, that’s fine, too.

You’re not doing your best work when you’re stressed or forcing yourself.

Writing Motivation When You’re Stuck

When you’re stuck on one thing, the best writing motivation is to start flowing elsewhere. Either skip over the section where you can’t seem to catch a break, or work on an entirely different project. You can always go back and splice sections of writing together, or switch documents when inspiration for the current dilemma strikes again.

But too many writers, in my experience, buy into the idea of writer’s block and let their momentum slow in front of it. If you’re otherwise on a roll (and not taking some downtime, as advised above), don’t let a problematic section slow you down.

I firmly believe that writer’s block is just fear talking. You might be trying to avoid writing bravely about something vulnerable or true. Ditch it for now and work up to it. If you’re finding it difficult to generate writer motivation, you may want to fly in the face of common sense and start with a totally blank page. Face the enemy head on! Freeing yourself from what you’ve already written can be a good way to generate new ideas.

Writing Motivation When You’re Discouraged

Nothing stops writer motivation cold faster than rejection. Whether that’s rejection received from others or, even more dangerous, rejection received from yourself. Writing can be a lonely, long road and it’s hard to paste on that smile and get to it when you feel low.

Good writing motivation in this case is doing something else proactive, where you can see results more easily. For example, posting to your social media and getting a tangible response from your audience. You got two new followers? Great! Instant gratification is a cheap thrill but it can feel good when you need a win. You can also do something proactive for someone else. Have you been putting off working on a critique group submission? Is there a beginning writer you could mentor? Can you attend a friend’s reading to show your support?

Reminding yourself that there are successes out there, and celebrating them, even if they aren’t yours, can be a good way to reinforce that there’s room on shelves. And one day, your book might fit there. This may be easier said than done but it’s worth a try.

Finally, reading is always inspirational. Read a writer you admire, or a new book you’ve heard a lot about. Read an old favorite. Read something that has nothing to do with what you’re personally writing.

Or, you know, eating an entire pizza works, too. You do you.

If you’re hitting a wall with your writing, let personal, actionable feedback energize you. Work with me as your book editor.

Syntax in Poetry and Poetic Voice in Rhyming Picture Books

Rhyming picture books are tough to write and sell. And it’s not the rhyme that’s the issue! Syntax in poetry is just as important as end rhyme. Sometimes more important. As is poetic voice. These are two things a lot of aspiring picture book writers forget.

syntax in poetry, poetic voice, rhyming picture book, verse picture book
Writers will twist themselves into sentence pretzels to hit end rhyme, but what about syntax in poetry? Don’t sacrifice poetic voice on the altar of rhyme.

What Is Syntax in Poetry?

There are many poetic elements to consider. Stressed syllables, unstressed syllables, trochees, dactyls, anapests, iambic pentameters … describing all of these various things is beyond the scope of this post. (A great companion to your poetic endeavors is Rules of the Dance by Mary Oliver.)

So let’s walk it back. What’s probably the most common error I see in rhyming picture book texts, and the number one issue with poetic voice? Inverted pretzel syntax!

Basically, if you don’t speak a certain way, don’t write a certain way just because you’re trying to hit your end rhyme. Here’s an example:

As if I’m on an island deserted,
Is my feeling when the verse becomes inverted.

Now, the prevailing attitude with first-time rhyming picture book writers seems to be, “What’s the problem? I hit my end rhyme! I jammed it in there and you can’t take it away from me! Besides, poetry’s supposed to be kinda goofy-sounding…”

WRONG. I cannot tell you how many times I read an aspiring picture book manuscript and have century confusion. Why are people suddenly using “thus” and “hitherto”? Did I stumble into an illuminated manuscript? What’s with the Victorian-sounding sentence structure?

Here’s an idea. If you wouldn’t speak a certain way today, in your normal life, do not write that way when you try to write poetry. It really couldn’t be simpler. There is no difference between poetry syntax and normal syntax. Or, at least, there shouldn’t be. The best poetry employs all of those fancy-sounding tools, above, it scans well, but it also sounds quite natural.

Which Brings Me to Poetic Voice

The famous Anna Karenina quote goes, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Hear me out. I’d like to extend this idea to picture book manuscripts. Along this same line, in my experience … bad poems are all alike. They tend to shoehorn in end rhyme in syntax that doesn’t make sense, say simple things in overly complicated ways, and use outdated phrases and words to make the most elementary of points. (“To make the most elementary of points,” in fact, is a great example of saying something simple in a complicated and outdated way!)

I’ve given all of the above notes thousands of times in helping writers find their own picture book writing style. That’s why I always recommend two solutions:

  1. Rewrite the story in prose. A lot of writers get so caught up in rhyming that they lose focus on the story. Take away the verse and see if there’s still something there worth telling. If there is, decide whether it makes the most sense–to serve the story–to put it back in verse.
  2. Take away all of the contrivances. All of the mistakes I mention in the above paragraph, find them and strip them out. You’re going to wreck your poem, I know. But if your poem relies on some bad technique, it’s not a great poem to begin with. Then rephrase the problem areas in your own voice. Not the voice of what you think a poem should be. Not an 18th century voice. Your voice.

Writers often struggle with finding their own style. Fantasy writers usually start out writing in Fantasy Voice, with elaborate syntax and a very specific descriptive style. The problem is, this isn’t their voice. The same thing happens with poetic voice. Aspiring poets write how they think they should.

But Dr. Seuss wouldn’t be Dr. Seuss if he hadn’t invented his own style. My advice would be to learn what makes prosody tick, then write your own path through your rhyming picture book text. Read everything aloud. Make sure it sounds natural. Avoid wonky syntax. Doing that, you will be well on your way to your own unique poetic voice–and not someone else’s.

I work with tons of verse manuscripts as a picture book editor. If you want more advice, check my website so nice. (Get it? I’m disregarding my own advice about awkward syntax? Ha!)

 

Literary Themes in Your Writing

Literary themes flummox a lot of writers, but theme in fiction doesn’t have to be the enemy. In fact, if you haven’t yet chosen the central theme of your book, you need to stop and do some serious thinking. When you select a literary theme correctly, it can actually become a strong writing tool.

literary themes, theme in fiction
Imagine your literary themes as a strong story core, the rope that pulls everything together.

What Is Theme in Fiction?

When I’ve written about novel theme before, I’ve defined the topic as the central idea of your book. (I’ve also written about what not to do with your writing theme…) Good themes for middle grade, for example, can be grappling with independence or identity, or wanting to grow up while also feeling the pull of staying a kid. Great picture book literary themes include friendship, embracing differences, or overcoming fears and finding one’s courage.

The problem with heavy-handed theme is that some writers are too overt. “I love trying new things!” their picture book characters shout.

Their middle grade protagonists muse, “I just want to stay a kid sometimes, and not have to deal with all of these big decisions.”

This hits the theme too squarely on the head, and readers don’t usually appreciate being handed information on a platter. They want to dig a little bit.

So your job is to decide what your core theme is. For example, I was chatting with a client the other day who didn’t think he had a theme. After I picked my jaw off the floor, I exclaimed, “Of course you do! It’s how secrets affect the people trying to live with them!” It was so obvious throughout the work.

Luckily, this client had imbued his work with a theme without even trying. If, on the other hand, you’re struggling, think about something that all of your characters (or most of them) are dealing with. In this case, it was “secrets.” In your case, it might be “forgiveness” or “identity” (though I’d argue that’s a theme in most kidlit) or “accepting what you can’t change.”

Good. Now put it on a Post It or keep it front of mind.

Making Literary Themes Work For You

The key to theme in fiction is that it define your work without popping up all over the place. The best themes are buried. So what do you do once you’ve decided on your theme?

Make sure it affects character and plot. For character, work in some kind of conflict for your protagonist where they struggle with your theme. If possible, let other characters struggle with the theme, too, but in different ways. If you were using literary themes of “identity” and “acceptance,” have one character be able to easily accept who they are, and another character struggle with it, for example. This won’t be the main plot for each character–struggling with identity is an internal conflict, not usually an external one–but it should factor into the story in some way that demonstrates multiple shades of the topic.

Next, write a few scenes throughout that force the character to confront the theme. In my client’s theme of “secrets,” there are several scenes where the past either comes back to haunt the characters or they’re forced to confirm or deny devastating information. So let theme surface in an actionable way–this is the external conflict piece.

Now, you can also use theme to help you revise. This is my favorite part. Consider your story core. Think of it as a rope. The rope runs through the entire story, and all of the elements of story hang on the rope.

Literary Themes in Character and Plot

Go through your story character by character. Does each character connect to the rope in some way? If not, can they? Obviously, the main characters should touch the theme in bigger ways than the barista who appears in one scene. But still. Can each major character hang from the rope of your theme?

Now, plot. This is where revision miracles happen. Go through your manuscript scene by scene. Does each scene have a connection to the rope, even if it’s a very, very slight connection? For the scenes that do, perfect! For those that don’t, are you sure you need them? Are you sure they fit into your story?

The writers who are bold enough to cut material that doesn’t fit their story core or connect to the rope of their theme are the ones who pull off strong revisions. A lot of the time, writers are afraid to cut material, and end up with a lot of “darlings” that they can’t kill. Considering each scene’s thematic impact is a powerful way to make sure your manuscript is as cohesive as possible.

All of this work is subtle, with most of your thematic work happening behind the scenes. But when done well, it can be extremely effective.

Struggling with the bigger picture of your story? Hire me for editing services and we can dig into your creation together.

Surprise! Welcome Finn!

Here’s a post that I’m thrilled to write. On February 7th, we welcomed Finn Mikhail Macdonald to the world. He joins big brother, Theo, who is three years old today.

Those who’ve been following know that our daughter, Nora Pepper, died in December 2017 after being born with a very rare and completely surprising birth defect. But my husband, Todd, and I knew we weren’t done building our family. Or so we hoped. We never learned our recurrence risk for Nora’s condition, despite doing whole genomic sequencing, the most comprehensive option available. Our odds were either 1 in 4 of a repeat (if the condition was inherited), or 1 in a billion (if it was a random mutation) of being struck by the same lightning twice. But there was no way to close that gap.

When you’re hit with such a devastating loss, and medical uncertainty, you can’t help but think, “Was our healthy child the fluke? Or was our unhealthy child the fluke?” And then, “Could we go through this again, if it happened? Are we brave enough to try?”

Well, we tried. And the pregnancy was its own special kind of hell, because Nora’s condition doesn’t show up on imaging or any kind of prenatal testing (since we never found the gene responsible, we had nothing to test for).

So I had to basically have a baby and see if it … worked. Brutal.

Happily, Finn seems healthy, as far as we can tell. He’s very different from our sweet Nora. He cries, he eats (and eats!), he opens his eyes, and he seems very engaged with the world around him. In other words, a typical newborn, just like Theo was.

The second Finn was born and screamed and latched immediately, a huge weight was lifted. Worry and heartbreak that I didn’t even realize I’d been carrying around for so long dissipated. I can’t describe how happy we were, and still are, to have this beautiful new creature join our family.

To be totally honest with you, the end of 2017 and into 2018 was devastating. Not only did we have the worst surprise of our lives when Nora was born and passed away in December 2017, but I lost my dad to cancer in March 2018. This was also a surprise. He sincerely thought he had more time. They both departed way too soon. It was too much. I was numb for about six months. That’s why Finn has the middle name Mikhail. That was my father’s name, the Russian version of Michael.

At least our Finny has two amazing guardian angels watching over him.

And, of course, two furry ones. (Token pug picture of Olive and Gertie…)

Thank you to everyone for following this saga. I kept the pregnancy a secret for the most part. I learned the hard way not to count my chickens. Hearing congratulations for Nora and then condolences two weeks later was very hard. So I didn’t want to say boo about a baby until there was one. Well, boo!

It was such a thrill to have the same photographer who took our Nora pictures, Sarah Ann Photography, back to chronicle this new arrival. We also got to share Finn with the incredible NICU doctor who cared for Nora, which felt so gratifying. It was such a wonderful way for things to come full circle. I hope that now we can close out one tumultuous chapter of our lives, and begin an exciting new one.