How To Overcome Writer’s Block: Three Tips

This post about how to overcome writer’s block is very different from one of my favorite “advice” posts about writing bravely. There, I talk about pushing yourself (in a good way) to write what you don’t want to (in a good way) because that’s a strong signal that a breakthrough is coming (in a good way).

This post is not that post. This post is for those writer problems where you’re  trying very hard to write what you think you have to, but deep down, you really don’t wanna.

how to overcome writer's block, writer problems
Want to know how to overcome writer’s block? Stop doing what you think you should. The sad sweat of your efforts will be obvious in your writing.

How To Overcome Writer’s Block: Three Tips

1. Let That Knee-Jerk Reaction Be Your Guide

Over the weekend, I had a lovely client phone call with a person who was trying to decide between categories. Is the idea a chapter book? A picture book? An article? Someone had told this client that it would make a great novel, but the problem was…she just didn’t wanna write a novel. Her manuscript is too short to be a novel and she didn’t want to flesh it out. Full stop. That’s it and that’s all.

Could it have worked as a novel? Sure. I thought so. Other people thought so. It could’ve been a strong contender for a novel.

But there was a problem.

The writer didn’t wanna!

And sometimes that is the best reason not to write something the way you’re being told to write something (unless, of course, you are a contracted writer employed by someone to write something a certain way, then you should probably avoid “freestyling”). Why?

It’s Easy To Tell When The Passion Isn’t There

If you are just writing YA because you think that’s where the market is and you’re writing a kissing scene because you have to (even though it makes you cringe) and you are putting swear words in because that’s what all the kids want these days, etc. etc. etc. Are you being true to you?

Another phone call last week. A woman had been told by several people (not in the industry, so with questionable experience, see below) to abandon her ambitious multiple-POV narrative and make the story more streamlined. That’s sometimes good advice–people can get in over their heads when they experiment with advanced narrative techniques.

But the multiple-POV idea had been with her since the very beginning, since the first dream she had for her novel. Could she get rid of it? Sure. Would she still have the prospect of a novel without it? Yes.

But…

(say it with me here)

she didn’t wanna!

And sometimes, that “don’t wanna” instinct is a good guide. (Sometimes it’s not. Like, I don’t really wanna pay my mortgage every month, but I probably should…)

2. Be Selective About The Feedback You Follow

The issue with writing feedback is that, sometimes, it can be wrong. Sometimes the problem is that the advice-giver doesn’t know what they’re talking about. (I often see this problem with people who have asked family members or children for feedback.) Sometimes the issue is that the advice they’re giving is the wrong advice for you and your project.

I often encounter writer problems where the issue is conflicting feedback. They are stuck. They don’t know how to overcome writer’s block when there’s not a clear path to follow.

The more feedback you receive, the more different people you work with, the more you will develop your own compass. This will help you parse through feedback and know whether or not to act. Does this feedback feel right? Does it make sense? Does it stir up your inner “don’t wanna”?

Not All Feedback Is Created Equal, And Not All Feedback Is Going To Be Useful

I just responded to an email from another client. This client had some rebuttals to my notes, and we probably have some disagreements about the project. My advice to him? “Take the wisdom and leave the rest.” I stand by my feedback, even though I understand his points. But if my advice isn’t working for him on certain things, then he can move forward, having at least considered it. I count that as a win, because the advice–even if he didn’t end up taking it–helped this client make more conscious choices about his story.

Sometimes realizing you don’t wanna do something is a great way to resolve your questions about how to overcome writer’s block.

So following unqualified feedback can be dangerous, because, simply put, people love to give uninformed opinions. But even more seriously, following your own advice can sometimes be even more dangerous. Because, as humans, we are prone to having a very skewed sense of what “should” be. A lot of human misery sprouts from these ideas we get about what everyone else thinks we should or shouldn’t be doing.

Examine your motives. Are you only writing something a certain way because you think you “should”? Are you acting on advice you received but didn’t like?

3. Find Your Passion Again

The real issue is that writing that comes from a “should” place is not likely to sell. I talk about this in my post about children’s book writing trends. Because if you’re not having fun, and if you don’t have the passion for the project, that will eventually show on the page, no matter how good you are.

If you’re slogging through it, imagine how un-fun it’ll be to read. (This, by the way, is the issue with most synopses. It falls under the category of classic writer problems, because writers hate writing them–and it shows.)

Sure. There are some projects that are just a bad idea, no matter how much energy and love you pour into them. My favorite example is the 200-page picture book. It’s most likely never gonna happen. So if your heart’s desire is a 200-page picture book, then, yes, you may want to take some advice about basic feasibility. But if your project is do-able, market-wise, but you just don’t wanna do it, listen up.

Step Away From The Word Processor

Do some freewriting or daydreaming. Try to reconnect with what inspired you about the story in the first place. Did you start with an idea and then lose it during the writing process? Were you forced to make cuts or changes that you didn’t agree with, deep down, in order to please someone else?

This rut often happens when we get away from our vision and away from ourselves. The lesson? Just because you feel like you should be good at something or you want to be good at something, try to develop your authentic writer self. What do they want to do? What excites them? Start–or very likely, get back to–there.

Wondering how to overcome writer’s block? Get some feedback you can trust. I even help writers synthesize conflicting critiques they’ve already gotten. I am also great at giving you permission to try the thing you deep-down-want-to-try, if that’s what’s been holding you back. Hire me as your book editor today.

Callout for Successful Query Letters!

Have you gotten an agent or a publishing deal with a compelling query letter? Would you mind sharing that letter with me so that I can use it in a very exciting class that I’m teaching? (I can’t reveal the class just yet, but stay tuned for news this fall.)

I am always on the lookout for awesome examples of query letters, but I obviously can’t use a query from my agenting days without the author’s permission. If you’d be willing to generously allow me to reprint your query in an online class and discuss its strengths, I would be so grateful! (I’ll even throw in access to the online class for free to the writers whose queries I end up picking!)

This callout is for queries you’ve used successfully to get an agent or a publishing offer. They can be in any category or for any genre.

Please email them copied and pasted or as attachments to: mary at kidlit dot com

Thank you so much for your willingness to share your awesome queries with the next generation of aspiring writers!

How to Write Big Character Life Changes

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.

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Rendering character life changes on the page takes a light and thoughtful touch.

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

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, making meaning when writing, characterization, character detail, character backstory, how to convey emotion in writing
Sometimes writing emotional meaning feels like juicing truth out of a rock. A very meaningful rock.

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.

Writing Tension Instead of Teasing

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.

writing tension, tension in novel writing, creating tension, tension in a story
Tick tick tick, keep that tension high without teasing…

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.

Seeking Writing Service Providers!

Do you (or someone you’ve worked with) provide non-editorial services to writers? Services can include:

  • Graphic/cover design
  • Book layout
  • Formatting for Kindle/ebook publication
  • Book production
  • Self-publishing consulting/services
  • Marketing/PR
  • Social media support
  • Ghostwriting
  • Illustration

This is an opportunity to be included in a resource guide.  I’m always getting requests for ghostwriters, cover designers, book formatting, etc.

Please contact me at mary@kidlit.com or leave links in the comments. For all service providers, I will ask for examples of successful work you’ve done, so be prepared to talk about your services, your experience, and give a sense of your pricing. If you’re a writer who has used a service that you are THRILLED with, please spread the good word and let me know. Thank you so much.

Delaying an Agent Submission

Delaying an agent submission isn’t usually on a writer’s radar. Most writers very much want an agent to request their manuscript, so why would they delay? There is a really compelling reason to be strategic in capitalizing on an agent’s interest.

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If an agent requests a full manuscript, they’ll be willing to wait until you revise. They want to see a strong project, too.

Submitting Too Soon

Writers are humans. They are, whether you want to think so or not, vulnerable to the quirks of human nature. And one of those foibles is impatience. A lot of writers tend to submit their manuscripts before their manuscripts are ready.

I have been beating this dead horse for about ten years, but it’s true. In a lot of cases, writers are too eager to get their work out there, so they gear up for submission to agents or publishing houses one or two revisions before they should.

It’s okay. It happens to everyone. But this is my level-headed plea that you try and recognize if this is happening to you. Did you rush into submission? Are you about to send some manuscripts out that may need more revision?

Did you put your work away for a few months before doing one last pass? (Nobody ever follows this advice, but if writers disciplined themselves into delaying an agent submission, the slush may be a very different place.)

Too often, writers really want to see the fruits of their labor. They want to get “out there”, like, yesterday, and see if their project is worth anything. I get it, I really do.

But this sometimes results in a submission that will get rejected because it hasn’t had enough time and revision. And then you may have shut the door on a promising potential agent/writer relationship.

Twitter pitch contests and similar opportunities only tend to make this worse, because they create this false sense of urgency. That you need to submit now now now or you’ll miss your chance forever.

Worth the Wait

Here is an excerpt from a conversation I had with a client. This client wanted my blessing to send the first 50 pages of a manuscript to an agent. The manuscript needed some work. This is how I responded:

Looks like you’re moving ahead full steam with this submission. However, you told me that you originally wanted to wait. Now it sounds like you talked yourself out of it. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity! I need to do it!” Well, I’m about to suggest some serious revision. And I worry that you’ll be tempted to rush through it in order to submit.

You seem to have a very hard time managing whether or not you’re comfortable waiting. “Not sure I can tell her to wait?” Why the heck not? I think you might be making these situations into life-or-death, now-or-never in your head. They’re not. Plus, if you send the first 50 and it’s well-received, I think you’re going to be up against this very same dilemma again if an agent requests a full manuscript. Immediately, it’ll be, “What do I do? Do you think the next 200 pages are okay to send?”

I suggest delaying an agent submission until the whole thing is ready. To pull off a successful revision will take months. We’ve had extensive discussion about what happens when someone submits, then revises, and realizes, “Oh man, I submitted too early.” Even though it seems like you’re self-aware enough to know that you might be doing this, you still keep doing it, or wanting to do it.

You’re investing a lot of time and energy to get editorial feedback so that, I would imagine, you can revise your manuscript into submission-ready form. So do you want to submit early anyway? I would say no. Not only can you tell someone to wait on a submission, but there are contests running constantly.

This attitude of do-or-die, now-or-never is not going to serve you. It’s going to result in nothing but little bursts of anxiety when, frankly, you should forget completely about submission and focus on your book. Your strongest shot at publication isn’t getting into a closed agent’s inbox via the Twitter contest back door, it’s having a rock solid manuscript to impress them with.

Delaying an Agent Submission

Maybe now I’ve convinced you that a strong project, no matter when it arrives, is your best asset. That delaying an agent submission while you revise is a good thing. And that the Twitter pitch contest isn’t going anywhere.

But what if an agent requests a full manuscript after you’ve submitted an initial sample? Do you rush into sending a revision to a literary agent?

Nope! You can absolutely tell an agent that you need to go do some revision, and you’ll be back.

Thank you so much for your interest. I’m doing one more revision pass, and I’ll submit as soon as I’m ready.

Boom! You don’t even have to give a timeframe. That might put even more arbitrary pressure on you that you don’t need. In most cases, agents will understand. They want to see a strong project, too, even if it takes a few extra months.

So cool your jets. Revise a little more. And come out of the gate with something that demands attention. It’ll be worth it.

Need help getting a manuscript submission-ready? Hire me as your developmental editor. My “Submission Package Edit” gives you notes on everything an agent or publisher will want to see.

Writing Compelling Novel First Pages

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.

novel opening, novel first pages, starting a novel, how to start a novel, first novel pages, novel opening
Don’t underestimate the importance of your novel opening pages. But don’t try to do too much, either. It’s a tight balancing act.

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).

You want your readers to get a foothold in the story. The way they do that is to sink into a moment they can lose themselves in. If you open with a bullying scene, let’s get that scene from beginning to end. Let’s get dialogue. Let’s get action. Let’s get a sense of our character as he or she experiences this, otherwise called interiority. Put the reader in the moment.

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!

Avoiding Transition Words in Writing

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, writing transitions, manuscript writing, transition words in writing
Instead of telling readers where you’re going, then going…just go.

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.

Writing Child Characters

If you want to write children’s books, writing child characters has to be a special interest, and always top of mind. The thing is, children are different from adults. For a lot of wonderful reasons. For some people, it’s very easy to channel their childhoods onto the page. For others, it takes constant work and course-correction. Here are some tips.

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Writing child characters takes strength and vulnerability.

Writing Child Characters Believably

Nailing the mindset of a child the same age as your protagonist is crucial. As I write in Writing Irresistible Kidlit, and as I’ve said at many conferences across the country, kids have amazing built-in BS detectors. It’s hard to ring true with them because they are so absorbed in their experience, they’ll be able to pick out those who can’t connect to it very easily. (It’s the bane of every parent’s existence to be called out for not understanding, after all.)

For a lot of writers attracted to children’s books, this comes rather naturally. There is something about a young child’s experience that they remember from their own lives. They remember being a child and have something they want to say about it. Or they have a child the age of their protagonist to connect with. Something about parenting children has inspired them.

No matter where you stand, it’s always a good idea to get back in touch with your inner child–because that’s key when writing for children.

Remember Your Childhood

You may want to bean me with a yoga mat for this suggestion, but I am a big fan of journaling to help you get into (or out of) a particular headspace. When trying to connect with your inner child, don’t hesitate to write letters to that age of child, write letters from that age of child, or write diary entries as that child. Don’t try too hard to think, don’t judge yourself for what you’re writing or its quality.

Simply write. (Ha ha, easier said than done.)

Soon enough, you may find that words are starting to flow and ideas, memories, or feelings may surface after a long, deep sleep. The key isn’t just to do this once. If you want to write for a certain age group, do this over and over and concentrate on what it was like to belong to that age group.

Also, and this goes without saying, this is one of those exercises that only works if you do it. Thinking about doing it and doing it aren’t the same thing.

Connect With Modern Kids

Not in a creepy way, obviously. But another piece of the puzzle if your childhood muscles are rusty is to be in the same room as living, breathing children for a while. Volunteer for story time at the library, hang out with nieces and nephews, offer to host your teen’s next sleepover or sports party. Don’t lurk, but don’t close your listening ears or your observation eyes, either.

Childhood is different today than it was in your time, even if your time was a few years ago. A lot of the feelings might be the same, but the plot points are new. There are different issues at play. The world is different. Scarier. Bigger. Smaller. Bullies can do their dirty work on a screen or with guns instead of with their fists, for example.

Channel your inner child, but talk to contemporary children as well. They’re fonts of information and they will be more than willing to share if they believe you to be genuinely interested in their experiences.

Read, Read, Read When Writing Young Characters

Have I beat this dead horse into the ground yet? Read. Even as you’re journaling to connect with your former self, and hanging out with actual kids the age of your characters, you’ll want to see who else is working in your space, and what they’re doing.

If you’re not already reading in your chosen category, what the heck are you waiting for? If you’re at a total loss for great books, start with award winners. These are writers at the top of their game, and all kinds of age groups, genres and styles are represented. Check out the Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, Newbery, Printz, Belpré, Stonewall, Morris award winner and honor books, and more. Here’s a whole list of all the awards given by ALA. This is certainly not the end-all, be-all of books published that you should be reading, but if you’re desperate for a reading list and don’t know where to start, this will lead you down a great rabbit hole of your future favorite authors.

Writing Picture Book Characters

Special considerations for writing picture book characters (and, to an extent, early reader and chapter book) include remembering that these kids are still very much developing. Their worlds are quite small. They have a family and home that fill up most of their lives. They are learning a lot and being told what to do constantly by parents, teachers, siblings, etc.

As such, your books for this age group need to empower and inspire. Kids need to be put in the starring role, to solve their own problems. Well-meaning and wise adults cannot solve everything for them. For these ages, play on universal themes like love, loss, friendship, overcoming challenges, and trying to find what makes you special. These ideas will resonate in a big way with little kids who are still extremely egocentric. (This is not a slight. Developmentally speaking, young kids have a hard time differentiating that others are different from them and not simply there to suit their needs until they’re two or three.)

Think of what’s important to the littlest kids in your life. Writing young characters for picture book and connecting with children the age of your readers is especially important when writing for the youngest age groups, because you may not have very distinct memories of what it’s like to live in the moment and feel everything as intensely as little readers do.

Writing Middle Grade Characters

I love writing young characters for this age group. Nowhere else is the split between child and grown-up felt so acutely. Middle school-aged readers (and those slightly younger) are in frenzy of activity around developing their identities. Yet they also crave a safe haven when life gets to be too much, or when they get in over their heads. To all the world, they might be confident young citizens…but sometimes they’d much rather run and hide under their covers or have Mama bring them hot chocolate after a rough day.

Identity, friendships, and realizing that the world has shades of gray (including their suddenly fallible parents) are key themes for middle schoolers. Issues like communication, bullying, and figuring out one’s own moral code and integrity will come up a lot in the most emotionally resonant plots.

Though many of us probably don’t want to go back to middle school–it was such a cruel and confusing time–this is the proving ground for your middle grade characters. Where they figure out who they are, who they want to be, and how to start bridging those gaps. If the split between childhood and teenage-dom isn’t felt in your MG fiction, put this idea on your back burner as you revise.

Writing Young Adult Characters

Teens aren’t just miniature adults with fewer responsibilities. They certainly can seem that way sometimes, but assuming this is a big disservice to the age group. Teens don’t want to read your romanticized version of teendom. They experience everything in larger-than-life terms (which makes for great fiction). Their problems are incredibly real to them. And they don’t have the tools necessary to put their lives in context yet, or deal with their problems in healthy ways.

Remember, teens were kids just a few years ago, even if they’ll do anything to distance themselves from that idea and prove that they know better. At the same time, teens do have moments of clarity where they’re aware of their limitation. This vulnerability is an incredible thing to write into. It’s what makes YA so alive and electric.

The teen years are full of defining experiences, big questions, big fractures, and the seeds that will stay with a person for their entire lives. Who were you when you forged your identity? How do your teen characters grapple with this responsibility–if they want to touch it at all? How are they still children, deep down? This split-personality element of YA is so interesting to write.

No matter how old your characters, or how you get into the headspace of writing them, you just need to keep authenticity in mind. Write from an authentic place, and you will attract readers who value vulnerability, truth, and genuine prose. Sorry to go all Brené Brown on y’all, but I like to be reminded every once in a while of what we all aspire to.

Are you striking the right tone, voice, and emotion in your children’s fiction? Hire me as your developmental editor for anything from picture books to young adult novels.