Articles on how to write children’s books, fiction writing, children’s writing, and the craft of creative writing for picture books, early readers, chapters books, middle grade, and young adult novels. Here you will find the kidlit writing archives. All of the content with this tag refers to how to write children’s books.
Picture book manuscript format flummoxes a lot of aspiring children’s book writers because there is so much potential variety. In my career, I have seen hundreds of examples of picture book format. To help you stand out in the slush as polished and professional, I’ve developed a picture book manuscript template handout that I’ve used over the years to really streamline and clarify the process for writers.
Picture Book Format
Picture book manuscript format tends to vary WIDELY. Some writers have it down. Others think they’re paginating correctly if they allocate a separate manuscript page to each line, resulting in a 32-page Word document that contains 300 words. What if a picture book manuscript template existed? It would certainly streamline things. As is, some writers include illustration notes, others stay far away. How do you paginate a children’s book? How do you format illustration notes correctly? This resources answers those questions (and here are more thoughts on illustration notes in your children’s book manuscript).
Remember that picture book format is just one small component of a successful children’s book submission. You also have your picture book query letter, and, well, the most important thing: an awesome manuscript! Don’t focus so much on picture book manuscript format that you lose sight of character, plot, and writing style. Those are going to take you a lot further than a nice-looking, polished file … but the latter certainly doesn’t hurt.
As a picture book editor, I work with writers on all aspects of the picture book craft, from creating a compelling children’s book manuscript (in proper picture book format, of course!) to nailing the query letter. Contact me for personal, actionable advice on your project.
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.
There are quite a few ways to think about picture book structure. Here, I’m going to present a looser “Problem and Solution” structure, and a more specific
The Basics of Picture Book Structure
Keep in mind that you are working with 24, 32, or 40 pages for most picture books, with 32 being the hands-down favorite. Take three or four pages away because you need to accommodate front matter (like the copyright and title pages), and I’d say you have about 28 usable pages to work with.
When you are planning your picture book, imagine telling the story in individual pages (either the right or left side of the book, “profile” view) or spreads (both pages, “landscape view”).
How do you fill those pages? Spend five of them describing the character’s favorite ice cream flavor and how nice they are? NOPE. You need to dive right into story without wasting too much time. Preferably, you will jump straight into action. Here are two examples of common picture book structure that you can work with.
Picture Book Structure: Problem and Solution
When I was doing some speaking on picture books in 2012, I wrote a talk that incorporated simple Problem and Solution picture book structure. Basically, your character is introduced in terms of a problem they’re having. Then they make several attempts to solve the problem, before some kind of resolution. It looks like this, assuming that your book starts on page 4 because of front matter:
Page 4: Character introduction
Page 5 to 6: Conflict introduction
Page 7 to 8: Raise the stakes (establish why the conflict fights the character, what happens if they don’t get what they want, etc.)
Page 9 to 18: First two attempts to solve the conflict, story stakes rising
Page 19 to 26: Third and biggest attempt
Pages 27 to 29: Climax and success hanging in the balance
Pages 30 to 31 or 32: Resolution, reversal, final image (whether you go to page 32 depends on if you end the story on the right side of the page or after one more page turn)
Note: These page number prescriptions are a starting point for helping you map out your thinking, they are not a hard-and-fast rule.
Character Development in Picture Book Structure
Nobody cares what your character’s name is or what their favorite ice cream flavor is. Sorry. You do, but nobody else does. That’s not what makes them a character. Fancy Nancy was a character not because she liked poodles but because her whole driving passion in life was making ordinary things fancy. This is a characteristic that will fire up reader imaginations.
So once you’ve established a character with an objective (something they want) and motivation (why they want it), you can give them a conflict that grates against who they are. This makes the conflict more powerful, and gives them extra reason to want to solve it. Is also establishes stakes–what happens if they aren’t successful, why it matters.
Otherwise, if readers don’t understand why your specific conflict is a big deal for your specific character, your whole story won’t matter. But if you create a strong foundation that ties character to plot, their attempts to solve the conflict will be noble, and the classic Problem and Solution picture book structure will work well for you.
A Reminder About Preaching in Picture Books
But keep in mind something I mentioned above. Their attempts to solve the conflict. That means you’re writing a proactive protagonist who is going to drive the story.
This idea for picture book structure comes entirely from Eve Heidi Bine-Stock’s HOW TO WRITE A CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOK: VOLUME I: STRUCTURE. Her writing on the topic of picture books is definitely worth investigating. I’ll summarize the structure here but won’t reveal several fine-point components, in fairness to their creator.
The Components of Symmetrical Paradigm Picture Book Structure
This is a looser wrapper and more applicable to different types of story. It has a lot in common with the Problem and Solution structure, but there are some nuances. Here’s how it goes:
Act I: the Beginning or the set-up, about 20% of the story or 5-7 pages
Plot Twist I: a plot twist that separates the Beginning from the Middle
Act II: the Middle, or the primary action, about 60% of the story
Midpoint: a moment in the middle where the story splits into a “before” and an “after”
Plot Twist II: a plot twist that separates the Middle from the Ending
Act III: this contains the resolution or the Ending, about 20% of the story, or 5-7 pages
What I really like about this Symmetrical Paradigm is that it inspires writers to carefully consider what separates the different sections of their book, the plot twists and midpoint, which provide emotional layers to the character and story.
Examples of Symmetrical Paradigm Picture Books
Bine-Stock cites many classic examples in her book, and her explanations are worth looking into. They include:
There are exceptions to every rule. While the above are good options for narrative-style picture books, those aren’t the only ones around. Non-fiction picture books are their own animal, and need to be organized according to the narrative structure of their subject matter (for example, in a picture book biography, the subject’s life is going to provide its own flow).
Concept picture books or picture books for very young readers often have their own structure, and it tends to be very repetitive. Alphabet books are obviously organized according to … the alphabet. And concept books like DUCK RABBIT by Amy Krause Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld follow a Problem and Solution framework but only insofar as there’s a question asked, and then variations on an answer (or question) are given over and over. If you examine that example, there isn’t really a resolution at all.
Let’s dig into your own picture book project. Hire me as your picture book editor and get advice customized to your manuscript.
Writing a proactive protagonist is one of the single most important things you can do to set your novel up for success. I feel like I’ve been giving this note over and over in my freelance editorial practice lately: Your protagonist is too passive. They do not drive the plot. They are passenger, not driver. What is this problem and how can you address it? Read on!
Active vs Reactive Protagonist
Novels are hampered when a “main character” takes a backseat to action. Higher concept plots are often vulnerable to this. (Because, remember, stakes in writing can be tricky.) If you have Ordinary Kid and you throw them into Extraordinary Circumstances, they are likely, a) not going to know what’s going on for quite a while, b) not going to know what to do, and c) going to rely on others for help.
You’ve perhaps made a plot that’s “too big” for your Everyman character. This thwarts them because they spend the entire novel either, a) learning the ropes, b) discovering their talents, and/or c) figuring out where they fit in.
Thematically, this makes sense, especially for a middle grade or YA novel. If every kid was self-assured at the beginning of their story, you wouldn’t have a relatable novel for tween and teen readers (who often feel incompetent or unsure). But it’s possible to make your character too impotent.
Take a look at your novel. Does your character spend a lot of time receiving instruction? Are there a lot of guide/mentor characters? Do events happen to your character, rather than your character making events happen?
You are in danger of having a passive protagonist. After a while, if the character doesn’t become “activated” and start acting with their own goals, desires, and agency, they are going to be the eternal backseat driver and their power to affect the story–and, more importantly, the reader–will evaporate.
Writing a Proactive Protagonist
No matter how unsure your protagonist is about their life, themselves, or their upcoming challenges, they still need to be a hero. For sure, this doesn’t have to happen immediately, or there’s no growth trajectory. But when you’re writing a proactive protagonist, you should at least the hint of some confidence/ability at the beginning.
Everyone is good at something. And even if a character is not good at anything (or just believes they aren’t), they have a secret weapon that you shouldn’t hesitate to deploy: their desire or need. This secret weapon can make all the difference between an active vs. reactive protagonist.
Use Desires or Needs to Motivate Your Protagonist
Desires and needs are universally relatable and everyone has them. They come together to form your character’s objective and motivation. The objective is what they want, the motivation is why they want it. I define desires as things characters want, which can be external. Whether a physical object or an outcome. A need is something a character, well, needs on a deeper level, so it’s usually an internal conflict. They desire to win the championship but they need the validation such a coup would provide, for example.
The best thing about desires and needs? They make us brave and they make us active. I may not usually be outspoken (Ha! Obviously not speaking personally…), but if my desire is on the line, I’ll act.
Too many times, a character arrives on the page without strong desires or needs. “Ugh, I’m so ordinary. Ho hum. If only something good would happen.” This isn’t specific. Sure, everyone can relate to being bored, but boring characters are … boring. Sitting around and waiting for “something, anything” to happen is a prime set-up for a passive protagonist. This leaves them wide open to anything that comes along, but not really pursuing anything.
Instead, give your character strong goals and wants. Let’s see them chasing after something right away, even if it isn’t yet their central objective. And when the plot does kick in, solidify their objective, motivation, desire, and need. That way, even if the plot sweeps them along on a wild ride, they are always able to take proactive steps, they always have their eyes on the prize.
Better yet, the plot might threaten their objective. Then the stakes rise. They can’t lose X. They can’t sacrifice Y. They only have one shot at Z. Or else what? They go unfulfilled, because their deep need isn’t being met. If you have your character actively chasing, no matter what else happens, you give the impression of a hero.
Secondary characters and subplots help in terms of making your protagonist active rather than reactive. A character can do things for others, or do things that dovetail with another plot thread. Ideally, all of these actions serve their core need (not every need should be 100% selfish, but you should always have strong personal reasons for selfless actions, too). If the primary plot puts your protagonist in a passive position for a moment, is there anything they can DO for anyone else?
Give Your Characters Enough Info to Act
Finally, too many writers hamstring their characters by not giving them enough information. Why? The misguided urge to save everything for a huge reveal at the 70% mark of the plot. Well, guess what? If readers aren’t compelled by a character or story right away, they won’t even get to the 70% mark. Too many writers withhold too much information, stalling until “the time is right” for a reveal. Instead, give your protagonist information earlier. Empower them. Allow them to act with some of the facts in hand. Otherwise, they’re sitting on their thumbs until you’ve decided to throw them a bone. In this active vs reactive scenario, reaction is going to win out — which spells disaster for your protagonist.
Big Choices and Small Moments
Even if you can’t give your character a bunch of information or make them an ass-kicking hero from page one, you can let them be proactive from moment to moment. Study this article on writing active character reaction. If they simply can’t participate just yet, at least let them be engaged. You’ll also want to take a few big risks and step outside of your comfort zone.
Keep training/explaining to a minimum, especially in the first 100 pages. It’s always better to have your protagonist active vs reactive, even if they make a mistake doing so because they’re green or don’t have all the information yet. Really take a close look at all of these types of montages. I will bet that you can make some big cuts and redistribute key information elsewhere.
Perhaps the biggest choice you can make to empower your hero is to stop giving them so much help. The best friend who only exists to support them? Give that friend some nuance and conflict, or they’re just going to be boring scaffolding for your protagonist. The older, wiser mentor who gives the trainee the lay of the land? Let the character start to discover things for themselves, make assumptions, and get out there, ready or not.
Remember, fiction is life elevated. Big stories. Big characters. Big stakes. Most of us feel like we’re just along for the ride in our daily lives. When we come to get away from it all and read fiction, we want to see protagonists who take risks, make choices, chase dreams, and grow into their power. There’s definitely an aspirational component to relating to character. Make sure your hero is someone readers can be inspired by, warts and all, and put them in the driver’s seat. What are you waiting for?
Are you struggling with writing a proactive protagonist? Hire me as your novel editor for actionable, hands-on manuscript advice tailored to your story.
When we think about the writing craft, it’s easy to focus on imagery writing. After all, finding fun, creative, or beautiful comparisons is a huge part of a writer’s job. Right? Well, sure. But not all images are created equal. So are you in need of some descriptive writing tips? Read on!
Obvious Imagery and Clichés
Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. – C.S. Lewis
Perhaps the first consideration of any image you use should be: Does this image enhance a reader’s understanding of the moment?
A lot of images fail this test right away. For example:
He glowed like the sun.
Her tone was sharp, like barbed wire.
Not only are both of these clichés, and telling, but the bigger issue is: They just aren’t needed. “Glowed” does the work of suggesting light and warmth. That’s what the sun does, too. So you don’t need it. “Sharp” is already describing the character’s tone, so an image of barbed wire (also sharp!) is redundant.
The best imagery writing adds to our appreciation of what’s happening, and maybe introduces a surprising or unexpected idea. Take, for example:
He extended the coffee. Such a simple exchange, but in that moment, it looked like a rope that could drag me back into the real world.
Here, it’s a coffee. Easy peasy. Then the reader might be surprised to learn that it’s more than just a coffee to the character, it’s a lifeline of sorts. The image doesn’t just describe what’s happening or offer another, similar idea. It adds a new idea that changes the original action or context and gives it layers.
This is one of my biggest descriptive writing tips: images have to work. They have to do new work, not redo work you’ve already done. They have to enhance. You have to ask yourself, is an image even necessary here? Does this moment even require an image to really make it clear (a lot of moments don’t, yet are piled with imagery anyway)? Sometimes, you can leave well enough alone. Sometimes, imagery in writing can be overkill.
Per a previous article about writing theme, I’d like to remind you of another one of my favorite descriptive writing tips: heavy-handed imagery is not your friend. In the same vein as the above, it’s very easy to overdo imagery writing. Not just in terms of redundancy. But in terms of meaning, too.
Great images add or deepen meaning, but it’s possible to use this power of theirs for evil. In other words, it’s possible to get too deep and too meaningful.
Let me rewrite the example from above:
He extended the coffee. Such a simple exchange, but in that moment, it became my lifeline, a life preserver in stormy water that made all the difference between me floating and drowning.
The first example may not be incredibly deft because I hate writing examples, but this revision hits the ground like a lead balloon. Clunk. So heavy, so obvious.
Your images are not the time nor the place to preach your themes. As with cliché images or unnecessary images, remember that less is often more. If you can make an image appropriately profound, without hitting your reader over the head, absolutely do so.
If you find yourself working hard to get your message out, realize that you are probably working too hard. And it will show. This is good writing advice in general, and I give it probably once or twice a day: Stop working so hard, trust that you’re getting across, and trust that your readers are following. It applies twofold to images, where “trying too hard” is glaringly obvious.
Writing Imagery that Doesn’t Fit
You want to make sure that your imagery writing matches the mood and content of your scene. I wish I could show you some examples from work I’ve read, but out of respect for writer privacy, I cannot share. You may look at the two sentences below and think, No way are people writing images that are this weird. But they are. Every day. You may have even written some yourself. It is not as uncommon as it seems! Take, for example:
She relaxed into his wonderful embrace, warm like an attic that hadn’t been opened for years.
He drove the ball into the end zone, glowing like a languid sunrise over the prairie.
Huh? The first sentence conveys warmth and a happy mood. But a stuffy attic, while warm, is not happy. Just because the temperature fits doesn’t mean it’s a similar type of warmth. Same for the second image. We’re in the middle of an intense sports scene. The peaceful, slow sunrise over amber waves of grain has no place in a loud, frantic moment.
Key Descriptive Writing Tips
Don’t use too much. Not everything needs writerly frosting.
Only use them when they will deepen and enhance understanding. Focus on emotional moments for your character, for example.
But not too deep! Avoid the temptation to Be Profound because Images Make You a Writer With a Capital W. They don’t. Often, they get in the way and show your nervous writer sweat.
If you’re going to use an image, pick one that fits. An awkward image is going to raise eyebrows and pull the reader out of scene.
Is your writing hitting the right balance of beauty and substance? I’ll be your novel editor and steer you toward your authentic writing voice.
Many writers wonder how to write big character life changes, massive events that rock your characters to their core. But this is a necessary discussion to have, since, ideally, your novel will be grappling with huge life stuff. So how do you render a big plot point in a believable and relatable way? Read on.
Coping With Big Life Changes
Two recent editorial projects come to mind where a novel’s protagonist has been thrown into an absolutely new life. In both cases, these were thrillers, so it was a life of sudden crime, badass skills, high stakes. Two perfectly nice small-town young women suddenly became Lara Croft in the span of one life-changing event each.
In both cases, the writers just ran with this new “badass persona”, without paying a lot of attention to the idea that big character life changes often come with a lot of angst. I can’t be walking my neighbor’s dog one day, then breaking into a bank vault with a Glock the next, without some kind of psychological upheaval.
The thing is, rendering big stakes in writing is hard because they’re so big, so unbelievable. When your character inevitably goes through a huge life event, your job is to follow them through the transition in a way that takes many steps.
One leap from Girl Next Door to Action Hero is not believable. Any huge shift to identity demands several steps. When the unthinkable happens to your protagonist, what are the layers they feel?
Let’s take our Lara Croft example. When she wakes up the next day, suddenly charged with stopping a money laundering ring, and she finds a gun in her hand, how many different ways does she feel?
Scared of the potential outcome? Guilty for what she has to do? Worried about the people she’s leaving behind? Empowered that she has the chance to do something big? Like she wants to crawl back into bed? All of these are different.
Of course, in the interest of your plot, you want your character to embrace their story, to run with it. To buy in to the inciting incident. But too many times, I see a character going from Mode A to Mode B so seamlessly, that it’s like Girl Next Door never existed. She did, and she’s instrumental to keeping your reader attached to the big plot point that happens next.
Life Before and After Big Character Life Changes
Speaking of which, be sure to give your character enough of a life “before” the big plot point. Something that can act as a touch point. Do they think about a childhood pet (a symbol of comfort) when things get intense? Do they remember previous moments of triumph when they need motivation in their new circumstances?
In both of the manuscripts I worked on recently with this issue, one of my big notes was that there wasn’t enough of a “before”. But if the character is too thin when they launch on their big adventure, there’s something too glossy about their new personality. It’s hard to relate to. I’ve never held a Glock. I’ve never woken up as an international jewel thief. (All of the examples I mention are made up, they don’t have anything to do with client manuscripts.) I can’t relate as well to our protagonist now that she is these things.
So that “before” life is going to come into play to not only help her weather the storms of her new predicament, but to help me connect, as a reader. Character life changes are incredibly powerful tools in your plot. They keep your action moving forward, and they are very necessary to creating good fiction.
But remember who your characters were before their lives changed, too. That’s years of rich material you can draw on, especially if present circumstances are rocky or larger than life.
The Bigger the Event, the More Nuanced the Reaction
There’s a note I often give about melodramatic writing. You know, when the boy’s girlfriend dies and he all of a sudden becomes a poet and weeps about “the darkened chambers of my heart”. A big reaction to a big plot point is not always the best choice.
The problem is, we don’t often know how to write nuanced and compelling reactions to big events. Matching big event to big tone often results in purple prose. Souls shattering. Angels weeping. That sort of thing. These have become cliches.
As you consider your character’s reaction to big life events, think instead of the small thoughts he or she could have. Everything is falling apart around them. With a pang, they suddenly remember the treehouse where they used to hide out when their parents argued. What they wouldn’t give for that childlike sense of safety and security, to hide away until everything blows over.
Or when their best friend falls into a coma. They could drop to their knees and rend their hair, sure. Or they can remember that time they filmed an N*Sync music video in their backyard*. They even went to Ross and got matching costumes. How they laughed when they played it back.
Look for contrasts. Big events/quiet thoughts. High action/small realizations. I’m always on my editorial clients to aim for complexity, to add layers to their work, to connect in unexpected ways.
When your novel serves up big character life changes, the first reaction that comes to mind may be a familiar one that readers will expect. Take a step back. What else is available to your imagination? There, you might find the fresh, nuanced choice to really reel your reader in.
*Absolutely, positively not something I did in the seventh grade. Okay. Okay. But it was my best friend’s idea…
Are your characters coming across as you’ve always envisioned? If not, hire me as your novel editor and learn how to make them a reality.
Writing emotional meaning can be very difficult because most writers are so focused on getting information down on the page. What it all means, how it makes the reader feel, how to get the most out of it…these are higher order concerns that sometimes don’t enter into a first draft.
And they don’t necessarily have to. Sometimes we don’t know what our books are really about until we’ve written them. But that’s what revision is for! If you have no idea how to convey emotion in writing, read on.
Writing Emotional Meaning for Character
Writers often get caught up in putting character details down on the page instead of focusing on how to convey emotion in writing. Your character’s eye color, favorite food, quirky hobby. For some, this is the stuff of spreadsheets. The contents of the character’s room or locker or backpack are meant to tell the reader who they are.
I do not understand this, nor have I ever. Sure, if they like mumble rap instead of country, this tells me something about them. Some vague, mass market, cookie cutter thing. But it doesn’t give me their soul. Writing emotional meaning entails digging beneath these surface details to the how and why at the core of your character.
This is a pretty subtle difference. Keep in mind that your character has had a past, they have a present, and they are hoping for a future. Instead of just the facts about each of these, I want to know how your character backstory is affecting them.
For example, your character grew up in an abusive home. Instead of just detailing the abuse in flashback, surprise the reader. Maybe your character thinks of the treehouse where they escaped from everything. Or maybe they felt empowered in the midst of tragedy by making pancakes for their siblings before the mom got up and the day started on a bad note.
An Example of Emotional Meaning
If the character relates to this fact from their past with some nostalgia, or even fondness, there is richness there. How do they think about the past? Compare this example:
I was abused ever since I could remember. Mom would come home late from one of her benders, then it’d be up to us to stay quiet all morning while she slept it off.
This is very factual. We get just the straight truth here. Now compare it to this one that showcases writing emotional meaning:
Th smell of maple syrup always sets me off. I remember cooking as quietly as possible. Huddling everyone around the table. But instead of the fear, I remember watching everyone eat and smiling. For just a moment, we are all safe in the kitchen and it’s because of me.
This character has a tough backstory. Sure. Everyone knows that child abuse = bad. But don’t just make that preconceived notion in your reader’s mind do all the work.
Finding an emotion that’s more than “just the facts”, and maybe a surprising emotion, adds some interest and intrigue to the character attributes you’re creating. You can have the character react with the same level of complexity about their present and future. For example, they are about to receive a full-ride scholarship to an elite prep school. Amazing. All their dreams are coming true.
But how else might they feel about it? Resentment because they’ll have to actually work hard, unlike some of their fancy new classmates? Pressure?
When you’re focusing on how to convey emotion in writing, don’t stop at “what”. Move past it to “how” and “why”.
Layer Emotional Meaning In Before You Need It
The other day, I was reading a client manuscript about two best friends who really miss one another, because the main character moved away. The friend is mentioned briefly in the first chapter (by name, with the attribution “best friend”), then it’s not until a dozen chapters later that they are able to talk on the phone.
Now, the writer has done a few things wrong here. First of all, if it really is a best-friendship, why does it take ten chapters for them to get on the phone after a traumatic separation? Second of all, it’s not enough to just say “Oh, she’s my best friend and I miss her” and then count on the reader’s idea of a best friend to do all the heavy lifting. Leaning on your readers’ assumptions is not how to convey emotion in writing.
What this writer should’ve been doing is writing emotional meaning into the friendship in every chapter. Does the character think to text their BFF, only to sadly remember that it’s past midnight on the East Coast? Does someone at their new school remind them of their friendship? Does mint chocolate chip ice cream not taste as sweet without their amiga?
Have Your Characters Think About the Important Stuff
I read a lot of manuscripts where the character says something like, “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about my BFF. I miss her so much.” And yet in 50 pages, the protagonist hasn’t thought of the friend once, except to name them and tag them “best friend”. I have access to their thoughts! I’ve been looking! Not one thought on the actual page. So “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about XYZ” rings incredibly false.
All this is to say, if something is meaningful, put it on the page early and often. Try to find surprising emotional meaning behind it. Add depth and richness. By the time we get on the phone with BFF in chapter ten, we should know something about their friendship. We should have feelings about it that are inspired by the character’s feelings. We should know much more than, “Oh yeah, that’s the best friend character she mentioned.”
Plant seeds. Add layers. Writing emotional meaning is a job to undertake from the very beginning for those elements of your story that are truly important.
All of your details are on the page, but the emotions are falling flat. Work on your character’s interiority and your emotional writing with me as your novel editor.
There is a big distinction between writing tension and merely teasing the reader along. Unfortunately, a tease is not enough and doesn’t respect your audience. Here’s how to recognize if your scenes have enough tension, and how to fix it if you have a teasing issue.
Have you ever written this kind of tension in a story:
If only she knew then what she knew now, she would’ve done everything differently…
They enjoyed their ice cream, not knowing what was about to hit.
These are examples of a classic tease. Writers usually use this kind of language when nothing is going on in the present moment, but they want readers to tag along until something more exciting happens. This is a fine instinct–you know you need more tension than you have, so you are trying to create it. However, it’s not the best approach. Read on to find out why, and how to create genuine reader interest by writing tension rather than relying on gimmicks.
Why Teasing Doesn’t Work
Teasing is especially problematic for middle grade and young adult fiction, because those novels tend to be very immediate. The character is in the moment, and there’s none of this, “I’m telling the story from the future, looking through the hazy sands of time.” When you resort to the “If I only knew then” ploy, that puts your actual character’s storytelling in some undetermined future and kills the tension in a story.
Sure, the reader may wonder what’s about to happen, but this is a short term fix to a moment that lacks other tension. It may not be enough. One or two sentences of teasing might give you a very temporary tension boost, but if you aren’t writing tension into that scene or chapter, it’s not going to be enough.
Even more problematic is the idea of teasing repeatedly. Every time you mention a tension-building event, it loses a bit of power. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s a simple application of the Law of Diminishing Returns. Redundant writing without actually putting the climactic event on the page (and soon!), readers will lose interest as the tease becomes more and more transparent. If you simply must build tension this way, try to add new information with each tease to keep readers engaged.
Writing Tension In the Present Moment
Ideally, you will be capitalizing on tension that is present in the moment that you’re writing. This is hard to do, because sometimes your moment doesn’t have a lot of tension. You know it needs more. You just don’t know how to create it. So you tease about the future. This often happens in chapters where there has been a lot of telling and the writer is eager to pick up their pacing.
This isn’t the answer you want, but it’s the real answer: writing tension into your moments, scenes, and chapters will automatically boost reader engagement. If you don’t have it, create it. Or maybe the moment you’re putting on the page isn’t working because there’s not a lot going on. Really analyze the moments where you’ve been using teases. Do they work? Is there more that can happen there? Can you create conflict via character? Maybe loop in other characters or bring in a secondary plot thread? Have a bigger world event happen to shake the characters up?
If the moment isn’t doing heavy lifting, you need to inject some. Ideally, you wouldn’t have a scene or chapter without capitalizing on tension that’s currently happening.
Conflict is the engine that drives plot forward. You should be creating tension on the page at all times, no matter what else is going on. That’s why exposition in writing — like big globs of worldbuilding, information, or backstory — tends to fizzle out quickly. Action is the easiest way to create tension in a story, whether it comes from something happening in your world or character conflict.
Teases are a cheap fix. If you really want to hook readers and keep them engaged, really invest in writing present moment tension.
Are you orchestrating the right amount of tension? Bring me on as your developmental novel editor and we can dig into your plot together.
Oceans of ink and blog posts have been spilled talking about novel opening pages. And with good reason. Your novel first pages are the only thing an agent gets to see before they make their decision about you. Well, that and your query letter and synopsis, which is why those are such hot topics. But how do you nail your novel’s opening pages? The advice may be simpler than you think.
Great Novel First Pages Start With Conflict and Action
I cannot overstate this point: Conflict and action hook a reader and transport them into your story. This is exactly the goal of your novel’s opening. So start in action, start with conflict. You may want to use a smaller, scene-specific conflict (or “bridging conflict“) to get readers on the bus initially. That also puts less pressure on you to start with mind-blowing high-stakes conflict, which can be difficult to pull off before the reader knows your character.
Basically, you want to give them just enough of your character so that they care, without over-indulging in information (see next section). And you want to put the character in motion. They want something, they’re experiencing an obstacle, they are frustrated or full of longing. This is a good state for your character to be in.
And, very importantly, they are starting in action, where they’re either being frustrated by an obstacle or striving toward something. You need that balance of internal conflict and external conflict.
If you start with too much external action right away, readers may not care because they don’t know the character, their objectives, or motivations.
If you start with no external action, then it’s easy to get bored. For example, a character sitting in their room, philosophizing about life and all the ways in which it has gone wrong. Maybe you start with generalities, for example:
Life can be funny sometimes. I spent 13 years thinking I was normal. Totally lame. And then one day, everything changed.
But the character is just sitting and thinking. There’s no action. This is 100% internal conflict, and you want to avoid it because nothing is actually happening.
Avoid Too Much Information in Your Novel Opening
In the same vein, information overload can sabotage your novel opening pages in other ways. You might start with action, like the character getting bullied, but then you stop and go into great detail about the school, everyone in it, and the character’s history with the bully since kindergarten.
“Context is important!” you say. But you can absolutely have too much of a good thing. If you start off your novel with a ton of information about everyone we’re meeting and all of the details of a character’s life, the plan will not get off the ground, so to speak.
There has to be a balance of action and information, and if in doubt, action should win out. For every piece of information that you introduce in the first few pages of your novel, ask yourself: Does this really, really, really have to be here? Otherwise, you may insert it later, or not at all.
Pick a Moment You Can Sustain
Finally, to tie your novel opening together, you need to pick a moment you can sustain for two or three pages without either stopping the action to give tons of information, and without leaving the moment to go into backstory (more information).
If you currently start with general philosophizing (per the example above), a ton of information, a lot of jumping around in time to gather various details, or without a sense of balanced internal and external conflict, it’s time to take another look. Your beginning really is your make-or-break. So it’s your job to make it good.
Struggling with your first pages? My Submission Package Edit revamps your first ten manuscript pages, query, and synopsis, so you can make an amazing first impression in the slush. Hire me today!
Oftentimes, manuscripts are cluttered with transition words, like “then”. These tend to just be filler. Here’s why it’s better to cut down on transition words in writing and streamline your manuscript. Some writers won’t be affected by this at all, but others may recognize themselves in this article.
Transition Words are Filler
For fun, here’s a list of transition words. A lot of these words and phrases are more at home in an essay. Writers of fiction will especially want to pay attention to the Time/Chronology/Sequence list.
Some writers use these words a lot. “Then” and “Suddenly” and “Just as” hang out and take up space at the front of many paragraphs. Some writers absolutely don’t have this issue, but others can’t help but be conscious of the passage of time. They use transition words and phrases to introduce action that’s about to happen.
Here’s the thing. Instead of introducing that action is coming, then describing the action–take a shortcut. Simply describe the action. For the most part, transitional words and phrases are filler.
Action is, by and large, written in chronological order. So words like “Then” to link descriptions aren’t necessary. Your reader will know that one event follows the other. If your manuscript suffers from inflated word count (50k words plus in middle grade, 90k words plus in young adult), you may want to really drill down to the sentence level. Are you overusing transition words and stating the obvious?
Try trimming them and you might see that your writing takes on a new and refreshing tightness and simplicity.
A Few Exceptions That Require Transition Words
There are two notable exceptions to my advice. In picture books, transition words in writing really do keep things moving. Picture book action tends to be very quick–writers are expected to do a lot in about 700 words. Sometimes, time and action move quickly. Actions are described in a few sentences. So transition words help things flow, and they help keep younger readers engaged.
In work for older readers, there are instances where you will want to use compressed narration, or when you’re hopping around in time. If you are making a transition between scenes and need to splice your timeline together, transitions are totally fine.
They’re also a good idea if you’re going into flashback or moving around in any order other than chronological. Remember, if you take a time leap, you will always want to ground your narrative relative to the scene you just departed.
Transition words help keep your reader’s feet on the ground, so they know exactly when and where something is happening in relation to a previous passage.
Streamline Your Writing
The big takeaway is that writing works best when it is tight and functional. Flourishes are, of course, allowed. Sometimes extras help define your voice and identity as a writer. But a lot of filler can creep into writing and make it dull and heavy. Are transitional words one of the things you could trim from your work?
Voice is a crucial component of publishable writing. Hire me as your developmental editor and we can take your work to the next level together.