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!
Today, I want to talk about character thoughts, or more specifically, Characterizing Thoughts. What are those, you ask? Well, there are eight types that I’d love to dive into.
Character Thoughts vs. Characterizing Thoughts
Character thoughts can be anything your character thinks (and central to my idea of interiority), but Characterizing Thoughts? Those are thoughts that tell us something that contributes to the reader’s understanding of character.
In fact, I posit that there are Eight Core Types of Characterizing Thoughts!
Thoughts that convey: Who the character is
These are things like, “I don’t like to lose,” “If there’s another fight brewing, I’m calling it quits”
Thoughts that convey: Character change
These are things like, “I can’t do this much longer,” “It’s time to let go, I think”
Thoughts that convey: What the character cares about
These are things like, “I’ve never had a home before and I think I like it,” “When you look me in the eyes, I feel seen”
Thoughts that convey: What the character wants (objectives)
These are things like, “I’m going to get that scholarship or die trying,” “There’s only one girl taking Tyler to prom”
Thoughts that convey: Why XYZ matters to character (motivations)
These are things like, “This dog has treated me better than any of you, so he’s coming with me,” “Winning this isn’t just a victory for the team, it’s a victory for anyone who’s ever heard ‘no’”
Thoughts that convey: Context and story based information
These are things like, “I’ve been sitting here for three weeks, looking for a text that isn’t coming,” “If Gemma doesn’t come home from work soon—and goodness knows she probably won’t—I’m in the clear”
Thoughts that convey: Stakes and tension
These are things like, “I hear him coming up the stairs and I can’t keep this sneeze back any longer,” “Without Christian, I am nothing”
Thoughts that convey: Voice
a. These are things like, “It’s beautiful day in this lousy neighborhood,” “You complete my soul, you gorgeous creature”
Why Are These Types of Character Thoughts So Important?
Because we can’t know this type of stuff about a character without being told. Like, if a character is walking around, ready to draw the line in a relationship with another character, that idea will probably start percolating in their thought process, and then they may give their enemy character an ultimatum in dialogue. But without this thought process first building up in interiority, the eventual confrontation won’t be nearly as powerful.
Same goes for tears. If you only show a character crying, without diving into the thoughts behind the tears, then readers won’t feel the emotion of the moment. Readers don’t cry just because a character is shown crying. Instead, readers I want the thought that touches off the tears—the insight or realization that pushes your character over the edge. That is what readers are going to be connecting to more than just the visual of the character crying.
But let’s take this a step further.
Layering Characterizing Thoughts
The examples I gave earlier, about the eight types of Characterizing Thoughts, were somewhat basic, to help illustrate each kind of thought a character could have and what they convey.
But the truth is, as human beings. we’re more complex than that. Our thoughts are multi-faceted and layered. So must your character’s thoughts be too.
That’s when we can start combining types of thoughts together:
For example: Take a look at this thought a character could have:
“Without Christian, I am nothing.”
This thought combines “What the character wants” with a sense of “stakes.” The character wants Christian and the character believes they will amount to nothing if they don’t get together with Christian.
Another example is:
“I’ve been sitting here for three weeks, looking for a text that isn’t coming.”
Lots to unpack here. We get a sense of what the character wants, again, which is a text from the object of their affection, their lost friend, or whoever isn’t texting. We get some context—it has been three weeks—a sense of the character and their worldview, in that they pessimistically believe the text won’t come, rather than optimistically hoping it will, and finally, even a sense of change, I’d argue. The next sentence may well be something like, “I can’t wait anymore” or similar. It implies that three weeks has been enough and now … the character will do something different.
A lot of similar layers in “If there’s another fight brewing, I’m calling it quits.” This character declares who they are—a pacifist averse to fighting. They are probably at the end of their rope in a turbulent relationship. We also get stakes (one more fight equals quits), and also context: there has been a lot of fighting, and one more will break the proverbial camel’s back.
Even though I’ve nested all of these examples under one primary category, I hope you can see that they are rich with additional information for our reader-detectives to discover!
Digging Even Deeper With Character Thoughts
Another way to make a character’s thoughts more complex is to work in tension or conditional language into many of them. For example, if X, then Y. The action and the consequence. “If there’s another fight brewing, I’m calling it quits.” Well, when this character’s partner comes into the scene looking to pick a fight, readers will be primed to see what happens next. Will the character keep their word or will they cave?
The more layered and nuanced a thought is, the more you’re giving your reader to do and sink their teeth into. And layering multiple kinds of thoughts together, to reveal something new about your character is an excellent way to keep your reader engaged and an active part of the story.
And if you’re wondering how to properly format a character’s thoughts on the page, check out this article on formatting interiority.
This idea of character and digging deeply into this nuanced topic is at the cornerstone of what I teach as a developmental editor. Let me bring this level of nuance to your project personally.
To celebrate the release of DIMENSION WHY: HOW TO SAVE THE UNIVERSE WITHOUT REALLY TRYING and my podcast interview with John Cusick, author and literary agent at Folio Jr. (and dear friend), I’m giving away a finished copy of his latest middle grade, DIMENSION WHY (September 2020, Harper)!
Listen to our podcast interview here:
And fill out the form below to enter the giveaway by the deadline: November 6th, 2020!
After a lot of work and time and the wonderful contributions of many real writers, just like you, I’m thrilled to introduce my ebook, Successful Query Letters: Query Letters That Worked. Check out the cover. Ain’t she a beaut?
Forty-Three Real Query Letters From Real Writers
One drawback of being a querying writer is that you don’t have access to a slush pile, so you don’t know what everyone else is doing. Critique partners share manuscripts, but maybe not queries. It’s tough to get your hands on real query letters from real writers.
Well, I had my own slush pile for five years as a literary agent, and I have reviewed hundreds of thousands of queries over the last decade-plus. Not only have I collected forty-three query letters from real writers (some of which have gone on to gain representation and even book deals!), but there are queries in every category, and I dissect each one with margin notes and overview feedback.
My goal with this ebook was to make it as comprehensive as possible, with as many examples as possible, to be the ultimate query letter resource and learning tool.
Get Your Copy Today
This ebook is only available from the Good Story Company store as a digital PDF download. It will be delivered to your email inbox as soon as you check out for your reading and learning pleasure!
The idea of author platform is vitally important to all writers, but today’s question is about how it relates to writing nonfiction for children. Here is Dena’s question:
I know for NF you need a strong platform, but what if you’re not a teacher? What sort of platform do you need for NF in the MG and younger age range?
Platform and Nonfiction for Children
When we sit down to write fiction, “write what you know” is often enough to get us started. We’re making it all up, anyway! Well, not so in nonfiction for children. There, the idea of qualifications—including our author platform, professional identity, areas of study, etc.—comes into play. The question becomes:
Who are we that we can (and should) write this particular story?
After all, if I’m a parent looking to buy a book on bugs to supplement my child’s learning, do I want a book written by Carl, an enthusiastic but amateur bug fan, or Peggy, a trained entomologist (bug expert) working in the field? I think we can all agree that the latter would seem most qualified. (To be clear, not everyone who writes nonfiction needs to be a PhD level expert in their field. But qualifications like “teacher” or “scientist” don’t hurt when you are writing about relevant topics.)
Does that mean Carl’s story lacks value—educational, artistic, or otherwise? Is Peggy’s book better simply because of her experience? Not necessarily! Carl could have an amazing piece of nonfiction for children on his hands. But now Carl does have to overcome some bias in the marketplace, because he may not be seen as the most credible or desirable source.
In other words, Carl does not have the best platform for writing in his particular nonfiction area. Is this a dealbreaker?
Getting Around Platform
There are ways for Carl to build his case—and his platform—that will allow him to pitch his nonfiction for children and attempt to have his project considered seriously. (Explore the topic of author platform for fiction writers.)
First, Carl can do comprehensive research and include a bibliography and author note at the end of his nonfiction manuscript, which shows how he arrived at his data. When we write nonfiction for children, we aren’t discussing the topics at the graduate level. Writers are generally painting in broader strokes and avoiding too much jargon. So it’s easier to research a topic intended for a children’s audience than, say, a thesis dissertation defense.
That being said, the quality of your research counts here, especially if you are trying to compensate for a lack of credentials. Publishing credits, even if they’re not in your current interest area, also establish credibility and can offset your lack of platform.
A great way to build your platform would be to ask a consulting expert to contribute—and transfer some of their credibility to your project. In your pitch, it would look compelling to say that you’ve reviewed your nonfiction for children about dealing with feelings with a child psychologist or school counselor, for example.
Bolstering Your Nonfiction for Children Platform
In addition to the strategies listed above, you should also think about building your platform as you get into the submission process. In an add-on to my WriterType Marketing Roadmap resource (called Repurpose Your Content!), I divulge ways to spin any content you create or research you do.
Why not try to publish a nonfiction article on the same topic in a children’s publication or newsletter? You’ll now have a writing clip in your new field to add to your platform. The research has already been done. It’s literally a free opportunity to build your author platform.
In a similar vein, find an expert in the field and interview them for your blog, newsletter, or podcast. They may even sign on to consult on your manuscript. Now you have some social media content for your platform, a valuable connection, and another inroad with your topic.
Think creatively if you don’t have a nonfiction for children resume already in place. You may have to work harder, but victory will be that much sweeter!
For in-depth personalized advice on your children’s nonfiction, hire me as your picture book editor.
Title formatting is a pretty straightforward question, but one that many writers are confused about. Carolyn recently wrote in to ask the following question:
When writing the titles of book for comps (as well as your own title), should they be underlined? Or written in all caps?
Title Formatting is Different From Manuscript Title Formatting
Clear as mud, right? The “sometimes” really isn’t in there to be difficult. However, the first thing I want to mention is that everyone approaches title formatting differently, as you will see.
Generally, with published works and publication names (including magazines and newspapers), I recommend italics with standard title capitalization. Here’s a handy widget that will help you know which words to capitalize, as title case capitalization can be confusing.
If you are referencing a published work or publication, be sure to use the same capitalization as the publisher of the work or the publication use. If you are referencing a published article or essay, use quotation marks instead of italics, and refer to how the article or essay is capitalized where it was originally published. Easy!
Where things get muddy is that you have written a manuscript, not necessarily a published one yet—which is why you’re submitting in the first place. So does it get treated the same in title formatting as a published work?
That depends on the writer.
Manuscript Title Formatting
I have seem all kinds of title formatting choices for manuscripts. Some writers use italics, though the work is not yet published. Some writers use quotation marks. Some writers use all caps.
Purely anecdotally, and form my experience referring to manuscripts within the industry, I prefer all caps for unpublished manuscripts, and the above formatting conventions for published works.
Yes, this means that your query letter may have one formatting (italics) for the comp titles you’re citing, and one formatting (caps) for your manuscript title.
This may look like torture to you, but you would be operating very much in the realm of normal for the industry. This would be my personal choice and recommendation. (You can find more thoughts on email query letter formatting here.)
Consistency is Key in Title Formatting
But we are all unique snowflakes and some other writers or professionals may disagree. Variety is the spice of life! I would, however, counsel you to avoid too much variety … within your query letter and manuscript.
All that is to say, whichever choice you make, stick with it consistently. Don’t refer to your manuscript title in all caps, then use quotation marks later in the letter or manuscript. You could risk a sloppy-looking submission, and nobody wants that.
Does your query letter or submission package put your best foot forward? Hire me for a query letter edit and find out your unique strengths and opportunities for growth.
How to hit the right emotional note to attract a reader—or melodramatic vs dramatic—is a key consideration of writing relatable fiction. It’s a juicy question! We want our readers to know that something BIG is happening, but we don’t want to lose them with purple prose. How can we pull this off? Read on!
Melodramatic vs Dramatic, A Definition
It’s important to think about toning down the high emotional description, especially during really emotional events. That’s when you want to rein it in, which seems counterintuitive, I know, but when the situation is screaming and the character is screaming, and the tone of the writing is screaming, that’s overwhelming and can stop feeling authentic.
In the fight of melodramatic vs dramatic writing, I define them this way:
Melodramatic: Inauthentic high emotion that has the potential to distance the reader, including use of histrionics, purple prose, and ?!?!?!?!?!?!??!?!? Facebook punctuation.
Dramatic: Appropriate language and character expression that capture the tension and emotion of a high-impact moment which let readers know that emotion is called for, without going over the top.
Obviously, the melodramatic vs dramatic definitions above are heavily biased, but when we write for kids, I really want to stand up for authenticity first. That’s what will come across as true and vulnerable to your readers. Let’s see it in action. For example, imagine that a kid learns that their parents are getting new jobs and moving across the country.
Sure, if your character has a melodramatic flair, you may have a BIG reaction. After all, this is a big moment and directing reader attention to big moments is important.
However, if your character is always acting like someone died, you are at risk of purple prose. You are also blunting readers to what’s important and potentially abusing the Law of Diminishing Returns.
Here’s an example of melodramatic writing:
Katie fumed at the top of the stairs, having overheard the monstrous, devilish, life-shattering news. They were moving?!??!?!?! How could her parents do this? It felt like her soul had been rent from her body and dashed against the cliffs of despair. She could die. Maybe she had? Maybe this was hell itself? One thing was clear: life as she knew it was utterly and completely over.
Now, let’s consider how to take this dramatic situation and give it a bit more finesse. After all, we want to make sure it lands as serious in Katie’s world, but maybe without quite so much flailing and rending and dashing. For example:
Katie froze at the top of the stairs, her hand gripping the banister. But Rochester was hundreds of miles away—from her school, her friends, the only house she’d ever know. If she left behind all of the things she considered hers, that had gone into the last thirteen years of her life, who would she be, even? Would she still be Katie Higgins in Rochester? Or someone else, new and strange? The familiar design of the wallpaper swam in front of her eyes. Soon this would be someone else’s house. And soon she’d have to answer all of these strange new questions for herself.
What’s interesting is that I took a very subdued approach here. Yes, there are BIG questions and ideas, but the thoughtfulness helps to bring a lot of the main issues to light. She stops to consider the ramifications of this—or the stakes. That, to me, establishes the impact more than purple prose ever could. It gives me a portrait of a character thrown into a real identity crisis. It wins the melodramatic vs dramatic face-off because it considers the practical effects of this news. That carries a lot of weight that, to me, is truly heavy and dramatic, rather than being excessively bloated and melodramatic. It captures the stakes, not the freak-out.
Struggling with tone and description? Hire me as your novel editor and we will find your unique writing voice together.
It has been a while since I’ve gone question-fishing, but as we get into the fall, I want to make sure that I’m covering topics you’re interested in. This blog is about you, after all, and not just my blah blah blah. (Though there’s a lot of that, too! 😂)
Please leave your most pressing children’s writing and publishing questions in the comments, below, and I will pick some to answer in the coming months on the blog!
(If you’ve never commented before, your comment will go into my moderation queue. Don’t worry—it has been received and will be posted, even if you don’t see it right away.)
A simile is a comparison that uses “like” or “as” to draw a connection between two things. Sometimes, images illuminate our understanding of what a writer is saying and bring us to a new level of awareness or appreciation. Other times, the simile is overkill. Are you guilty of this writing faux pas?
The Point of Imagery
Imagery, including simile, is best when used to evoke a feeling or idea that isn’t clear from the text itself. For example, if you want to say that “she looked as comfortable as a cat on a hot tin roof,” you’d mean that your character is awkward or uncomfortable or, worse, pained by the scene in question.
Imagery in writing is best used when it can bring additional dimension or meaning to a moment or scene that wasn’t there before. Whether or not to use an image, like a simile, should boil down to whether you want to evoke something specific in the mind of the reader. Ideally, something emotional.
However, many well-meaning writers end up with more imagery than they need by overusing the simile in particular. For example:
Grandma Lois had a collection of cactuses. Like a little desert in her living room.
He’d never felt so empty before, as if someone had scooped out his insides with a serving spoon.
The porch sizzled in the sun, like it was an oven turned on “low”. She fanned herself with her magazine.
If you take a look at all of these descriptions, one thing might hit you … like a baseball bat. They’re obvious. And not only that, but they’re redundant.
The use of simile writerly flair to these sentences, but is this something we need in the first place? Or will readers understand what you’re saying perfectly well without the additional explanation that the imagery brings to the table?
Paying Special Attention to Simile
Why have I singled out simile for this article, in particular, as being potentially redundant? Well, the trick is in the comparison. Sometimes, an image will stand alone without explanation. This is called a metaphor if it doesn’t use “like” or “as” and can refer to any use of imagery in your writing. But once you invite a direct comparison with “like” or “as,” it becomes a simile.
In order to make the comparison complete, you are naming at least two things that you then tie together. By naming the first thing and the second thing, you may be inviting redundancy … even unintentionally.
When you think of using simile in your own writing, ask yourself: Would this image best be served as a metaphor instead? Can you trust the reader to get your meaning without indulging in the temptation to explain?
Your use of imagery is a key part of voice. Hire me as your novel editor and learn whether your writing is as effective and evocative as possible.
The unique thing about kidlit is that there are many children’s book genres and categories to choose from, and the divisions in children’s books are much more segmented than, say, the adult fiction world. (The reason for this is simple—your audience is changing drastically in regards to their ability to read independently, they are also changing according to age, maturity, and a ability to process and understand information. These same kinds of changes simply don’t happen as rapidly to readers from other demographics.)
Many children’s book writers are interested in writing for more than one age group. Read on if you want to learn about writing in several children’s book genres and categories.
The Difference Between a Genre and a Category
First, one nit I like to pick: there’s a difference between a “genre” and a “category.” A lot of people call picture books a “genre.” Nope. But this line of thinking is so prevalent that I’m using the keyword “children’s book genres” to talk about categories so that more people find this post now and in the future.
A “genre” is a stylistic description. You immediately know that a romance is going to be a different style of book than high fantasy or hard sci-fi. That’s “genre” at work.
In children’s books, we have different “categories” or “audiences”. Books that fit into these are each written for readers at different ages, of different reading abilities, and in various stages of mental and emotional development. That’s simply because kids from age zero to eighteen make a ton of leaps.
Now that you know the lay of the land of children’s book genres and categories, let’s say you want to write for multiple audiences. This is totally worthwhile, and there’s more commonality between, say, a chapter book and middle grade than a business nonfiction book and a memoir for adult readers. The characters are similar in age, the language is similar, and the intended kid readers are going to be only several years apart from one another.
The first thing to know is that you must be very comfortable with multiple age categories before you attempt to write, say, a picture book on the one hand, and a YA romance, on the other. Understand the differences in your reading audiences in a holistic way first—what will each age of kid want to read about?—and then bolster that understanding by using appropriate language, word count, and character age. These differentiators are the bare minimums when it comes to writing across children’s book genres and categories.
It’s also crucial to understand that these category guidelines and requirements are going to be somewhat inflexible. You can always write a 300-page picture book full of words at a college reading level, yes. But your odds of publishing one successfully in the tradition or indie setting are going to be very low, because such a project is unlikely to speak to your target audience.
It takes many writers a while to learn and deeply understand the needs, requirements, quirks, and sensibilities of one children’s book category. If you can bring this keen understanding to two or more children’s book genres or categories, you may be a good fit to “double dip” or more.
Building a Career in Multiple Children’s Book Genres or Categories
Because of the intended audience in kidlit—children—we face unique considerations when we want to build a career writing across children’s book categories or genres. In my consulting practice, I hear variations of the following question all the time: I write racy erotica, but also board books. How do I market myself without scandalizing children or confusing the BDSM crowd?
This is obviously an extreme example, but the conflict remains. It’s also compounded by the fact that, through about middle grade, your readers are technically and legally unreachable online and you’re marketing to parents, educators, and librarians instead. It isn’t until upper MG and YA where you are actually reaching your intended target audience.
My advice goes back to what I learned as an agent when doing career counseling: You are welcome to switch children’s book genres or categories, if you can pull more than one off well, but only after you’ve established yourself. Write three really strong picture books, then attempt to publish and market a middle grade.
If your audiences are two different, consider setting up multiple areas of your website and social media, or multiple accounts altogether (in the example of your erotica presence vs. your board book marketing). I would discourage aspiring career-makers from hopping around, first to picture book, then young adult, then middle grade, then chapter book.
You can write all of these children’s book genres and categories at one time, if it keeps your creative fires burning, but I wouldn’t attempt to publish them in such a sporadic pattern. Make a name in one arena, then branch out. Otherwise, you may confuse your audience and waste precious energy and marketing resources duplicating your brand-building early on.
Looking for custom career advice? Hire me as your publishing consultant and we can draft your way forward together.