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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Making the Most of a Critique Group

I’ve released a new book on the craft of writing, called You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. To celebrate the release, I’m sharing a excerpt from the chapter on Critiques. Last week I shared the intro to the chapter and advice on getting feedback from family and friends. Today, let's look at getting feedback from other writers.

Critiquing with Other Writers

Joining a critique group is often a great way to get feedback as well as emotional support for your journey as a writer. Reach out through local writing groups, writers’ discussion boards, or Goodreads author groups. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) “Blueboard” discussion boards have a section specifically for arranging manuscript critique exchanges. This section is available to SCBWI members only. You can also try putting up notices in libraries, bookstores, and cafes. (Be careful about listing personal information, and make sure you meet strangers in a public place.)

When you critique each other, try to keep in mind the “sandwich” method of giving feedback. You start by saying something you like about the manuscript. Then you offer some suggestions or ask questions. Finally, you end with more praise. When the more critical comments are sandwiched between compliments, it’s easier to accept the advice. Note also that you should be offering advice, not criticism. What’s the difference?

Your story is boring. – Criticism

I didn’t notice a lot of conflict. Maybe if she had a stronger goal, with higher stakes, the story would be more dramatic. – Advice

Your character is a brat. I hated her. – Criticism

I couldn’t really identify with your character. I wonder what about her appealed to you? Maybe if the reader understood her better, she’d be more likable. – Advice

Conferences are a way to meet other writers
Criticism points out a problem, often in a mean way. That tends to leave the writer discouraged and not wanting to write anymore. Advice points out problems in a gentler way, ideally with ideas for fixing the problem. Suggestions should be presented as options, not absolute truth. Advice acknowledges that this is only one reader’s opinion; others may have a different reaction, and ultimately it’s the writer’s goal that matters. Good advice leaves the writer enthusiastic about working on the story.

Have you struggled to find a good critique group, or do you have a success story to share?


Over the next few weeks, I'll be discussing critique group challenges and characters, and then offering advice on taking classes and hiring a professional editor.

You can get this whole essay, and a lot more – including a chapter on Advanced Critique Questions – in You Can Write for Children: A Guide to Writing Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers.

Remember the magic of bedtime stories? When you write for children, you have the most appreciative audience in the world. But to reach that audience, you need to write fresh, dynamic stories, whether you’re writing rhymed picture books, middle grade mysteries, edgy teen novels, nonfiction, or something else.

Order for Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.

Sign up for Chris’s Workshop Newsletter for classes and critique offers.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Critiques, Critiquers, and Critiquing

I’ve released a new book on the craft of writing, called You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. To celebrate the release, I’m sharing a excerpt from the chapter on Critiques. Here's part one, part of the intro plus advice on getting a critique from family or friends.

Why Get a Critique?

If you are not writing for publication, and you don’t care about improving as a writer, you don’t need to take criticism from anyone. That’s fine; it’s totally your decision. But if you do hope to publish your work, or if you simply want to learn to be a better storyteller, you’ll need to get feedback at some point. Few people are good at analyzing their own writing, so getting critiques is an important part of editing and learning how to improve your writing.

Getting critical feedback can be painful. Sometimes this comes from the critique partner being unnecessarily harsh. At other times, it comes from the writer being overly sensitive. If your manuscript is your “baby,” you might not appreciate any comments that suggest it isn’t perfect. But praise alone won’t help you improve your writing.

Try to keep in mind that a critique isn’t an insult. It’s a way to help you make the manuscript even better. Also, it isn’t about you as a person, or even you as a writer. It’s about this particular manuscript, at this moment in time. If the manuscript is flawed, that’s all right. In fact, it’s usually a necessary part of the process. Most writers produce horrible, ugly, embarrassing manuscripts in the early stages. It’s the editing that makes those stories wonderful. A quote contributed to several different authors is “You can’t edit a blank page.” Get something down, and then figure out how to make it better. Getting a critique can help you figure out how to make it better.

Finally, any critique advice is a matter of opinion. If several people are pointing out a problem, there’s likely a problem. But if only one person makes a comment, and it doesn’t resonate with you, it’s fine to ignore it or get a second opinion. Ultimately you have to write something that pleases you; it’s not your job to change your manuscript based on every piece of advice that anybody cares to give.

You can get feedback in several different ways. Today we'll look at getting critiques from family members or friends.

I help!
Family and Friends

You may have family members or friends who are happy to read your writing. Usually these people are not experienced writers. That means they may not know how to identify story problems or give advice about them. Still, they might be able to offer opinions from a reader’s perspective.

When getting critiques from family and friends, it’s best to keep your request simple. You might ask your readers to mark any place they:

  • Are bored
  • Are confused
  • Don’t believe things would happen that way

That’s simple enough for anyone to follow, and it should point out trouble spots in the manuscript. For a little more detail, Freelance Editor Karen R. Sanderson offers this list to provide guidance to your critique partners:

Critical: Please provide an honest response, not only compliments.

Real: Does it feel real and does the dialogue read like people actually talk?

Imagery: Can you imagine the scenes, places, and people?

Timing: Did the timing of events, chapters, and character introductions make sense?

Interesting: Did it capture your interest or were you ready to put it down after the first paragraph?

Questions: Did you have questions? Were you unsure of what was happening or why?

Unique: Is it unique or is it like a dozen other books you wished you hadn’t purchased?

Engaging: Were you engaged in the characters, the scenes, the events?

By giving a little direction, you emphasize that you truly want feedback (not only compliments), and you encourage people to look at the bigger picture and not just mark any typos they notice. Otherwise you may only hear good things. Praise is delightful, but when it comes from people you know, the rave reviews do not necessarily mean your work is wonderful. It could mean those people don’t want to hurt your feelings. It could mean they don’t read enough in this genre to tell good from bad. Or it could simply mean that they like you and are predisposed to enjoy anything you write.

The latter issue is especially common with reading stories to your children, grandchildren, or students. They enjoy the attention and it’s fun to hear stories read aloud. People who know you well may also recognize family stories, which would not have the same appeal to an outside audience. For example, if you base a story on the antics of your family’s cat, your children may love it, but it may not resonate the same way with strangers.

Many professionals warn against taking feedback from non-writers too seriously. Editors and agents do not want to hear in your query letter that your children, grandchildren, students, etc. loved your work. That’s meaningless and might be taken as a sign that you are not a serious writer.

On the other hand, sometimes family members and friends offer blunt, even brutal, criticisms. Some people seem to think it’s OK to be rude to a loved one in a way they wouldn’t behave to a stranger. Some people may even be secretly trying to discourage you, so you’ll spend more time on them and not your new hobby. Others may honestly be trying to help but not know how to give balanced, encouraging feedback. Or maybe they don’t understand the kind of writing you are doing. Someone who only reads epic fantasy novels for adults may not be the best person to give feedback on a picture book for young children.

In short, feedback from friends and family can vary greatly in its helpfulness and hurtfulness. It can be especially crushing to hear negative reactions from a loved one. If someone’s comments make you feel sad or discouraged, maybe you don’t want to share your stories with that person in the future.

Of course, if you are not really ready to hear any criticism, don’t ask for it. It’s fine to share your work with family members or friends and let them know that you do not want comments, you simply want to share. If they insist on trying to provide criticism anyway, interrupt them. Make it clear that’s not their job; you only want support.

What challenges have you faced in getting feedback from family or friends?


Over the next few weeks, I'll be looking at getting feedback from other writers – including critique group challenges and characters – as well as taking classes and hiring a professional editor.

You can get this whole essay, and a lot more – including a chapter on Advanced Critique Questions – in You Can Write for Children: A Guide to Writing Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. In this book, you will learn:

How to explore the wide variety of age ranges, genres, and styles in writing stories, articles and books for young people.
How to find ideas.
How to develop an idea into a story, article, or book.
The basics of character development, plot, setting, and theme.
How to use point of view, dialogue, and thoughts.
How to edit your work and get critiques.
Where to learn more on various subjects.

Order for Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.

Sign up for Chris’s Workshop Newsletter for classes and critique offers

Monday, July 13, 2015

Writing for Children or Teens: Happy Endings

To celebrate the release of You Can Write for Children: A Guide to Writing Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, I’m sharing a excerpt from one chapter on Developing an Idea.” (And while my examples are from children's literature, the information is accurate when writing fiction for adults as well.) Week one started the topic of Developing an Idea, week two introduced the parts of the story or article, and week three covered expanding the middle. Here’s part four:

Happy Endings

The climax ends with the resolution. You could say that the resolution finishes the climax, but it comes from the situation: it’s how the main character finally meets that original challenge.

In almost all cases the main character should resolve the situation himself. No cavalry to the rescue! Today, even romance novels rarely have the hero saving the heroine; she at least helps out. We’ve been rooting for the main character to succeed, so if someone else steals the climax away from him or her, it robs the story of tension and feels unfair.

Keep the child in charge
Here’s where many beginning children’s writers fail. It’s tempting to have an adult – a parent, grandparent, or teacher, or even a fairy, ghost, or other supernatural creature – step in to save the child or tell him what to do. But kids are inspired by reading about other children who tackle and resolve problems. It helps them believe that they can meet their challenges, too. When adults take over, it shows kids as powerless and dependent on grownups. So regardless of your character’s age, let your main character control the story all the way to the end (though others may assist).

For example, Sam Bond’s Cousins in Action series is an ensemble featuring five cousins who have international adventures. The children take turns at being the hero throughout each book. In Operation Golden Llama, three of the young protagonists find themselves kidnapped on a mountainside in Peru. Their eleven-year-old cousin outwits the adults and treks through the jungle to come to their rescue.

Although your main character should be responsible for the resolution, she doesn’t necessarily have to succeed. She might, instead, realize that her goals have changed. The happy ending then comes from her new understanding of her real needs and wants. Some stories may even have an unhappy ending, where the main character’s failure acts as a warning to readers. This is more common in literary novels than in genre fiction.

Tip:

·  How the main character resolves the situation – whether she succeeds or fails, and what rewards or punishments she receives – will determine the theme. To help focus your theme, ask yourself:

What am I trying to accomplish?

Who am I trying to reach?

Why am I writing this?

art by Lois Bradley
Once you know your theme, you know where the story is going and how it must be resolved. For example, a story with the theme “Love conquers all” would have a different resolution than a story with the theme “Love cannot always survive great hardship.”

The next time you have a great idea but can’t figure out what to do with it, see if you have all four parts of the story. If not, see if you can develop that idea into a complete, dramatic story or novel by expanding your idea, complications, climax or resolution, as needed. Then readers will be asking you, “Where did you get that fabulous idea?”


You can get this whole essay, and a lot more – including a chapter on theme – in You Can Write for Children: A Guide to Writing Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and TeenagersOrder for Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.

In this book, you will learn:
  • How to explore the wide variety of age ranges, genres, and styles in writing stories, articles and books for young people.
  • How to find ideas.
  • How to develop an idea into a story, article, or book.
  • The basics of character development, plot, setting, and theme – and some advanced elements.
  • How to use point of view, dialogue, and thoughts.
  • How to edit your work and get critiques.
  • Where to learn more on various subjects.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Developing Your Story for Children or Teenagers

I’ve released a new book on the craft of writing, called You Can Write for Children: A Guide to Writing Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. If you are just starting out, this book will get you going. If you have some experience but need help developing your skills, this book will do that as well.

To celebrate the release, I’m sharing a excerpt from one chapter on “Developing an Idea.” Week one started the topic of Developing an Idea, week two introduced the parts of the story or article, and here’s part three:

Building the Middle

If a character solves his goal easily, the story is boring. To keep tension high, you need complications.

For short stories, try the “rule of three” and have the main character try to solve the problem three times. The first two times, he fails and the situation worsens. Remember: the situation should worsen. If things stay the same, he still has a problem, but the tension is flat. If his first attempts make things worse, tension rises.

For novels, you may have even more attempts and failures. In my first Haunted book, The Ghost on the Stairs, I made sure each ghost encounter felt more dangerous. As Tania tries to get closer to the ghost in order to help her, Jon worries that she will go too far and be injured or even killed. With enough variety, you can sustain this kind of tension indefinitely (witness the ongoing battle between Harry and Voldemort in the seven-book Harry Potter series).

You can worsen the situation in several ways. The main character’s actions could make the challenge more difficult. In my children’s mystery set in ancient Egypt, The Eyes of Pharaoh, a young temple dancer searches for her missing friend. But when she asks questions at the barracks where he was a soldier, she attracts dangerous attention from his enemies.

The villain may also raise the stakes. In my Mayan historical drama, In The Well of Sacrifice, the main character escapes a power-hungry high priest. He threatens to kill her entire family, forcing her to return to captivity.

Secondary characters can cause complications, too, even if they are not “bad guys.” In The Ghost on the Stairs, the kids’ mother decides to spend the day with them, forcing them to come up with creative ways to investigate the ghost while under her watchful eyes.

Finally, the main character may simply run out of time. At her first attempt, she had a week. At her second attempt, she had a day. Those two attempts have failed, and now she has only an hour! That creates tension.

Tip:

• For each turning point in the story, brainstorm 10 things that could happen next. Then pick the one that is the worst or most unexpected, so long as it is still believable for the story.

Does your story have twists?
Can She Do It?!

Your character has faced complications through the middle of the story. Finally, at the climax, the main character must succeed or fail. Time is running out. The race is near the end. The girl is about to date another guy. The villain is starting the battle. One way or another, your complications have set up a situation where it’s now or never. However you get there, the climax will be strongest if it is truly the last chance. You lose tension if the reader believes the main character could fail this time, and simply try again tomorrow.

Tips:

• Don’t rush the climax. Take the time to write the scene out in vivid detail, even if the action is happening fast. Think of how movies switch to slow motion, or use multiple shots of the same explosion, in order to give maximum impact to the climax. Use multiple senses and your main character’s thoughts and feelings to pull every bit of emotion out of the scene.

• To make the climax feel fast-paced, use mainly short sentences and short paragraphs. The reader’s eyes move more quickly down the page, giving a sense of breathless speed. (This is a useful technique for cliffhanger chapter endings as well.)


Next week I’ll share an excerpt on story endings. You can get the whole essay now, and a lot more, in You Can Write for Children: A Guide to Writing Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and TeenagersOrder for Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.


Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Parts of a Story or Article for Children

I’ve released a new book on the craft of writing, called You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. To celebrate the release, I’m sharing a excerpt from one chapter on “Developing an Idea.” The first segment was last week. Here’s part two:

A Story in Four Parts

If “beginning, middle, and end” doesn’t really help you, here’s another way to think of story structure. A story has four main parts: situation, complications, climax, and resolution. You need all of them to make your story work. (This is really the same as beginning, middle, and end, with the end broken into two parts.)

The situation should involve an interesting main character with a challenging problem or goal. Even this takes development. Maybe you have a great challenge, but aren’t sure why a character would have that goal. Or maybe your situation is interesting, but doesn’t actually involve a problem.

For example, I wanted to write about a brother and sister who travel with a ghost hunter TV show. The girl can see ghosts, but the boy can’t. That gave me the characters and situation, but no problem or goal. Goals come from need or desire. What did they want that could sustain a series?

Tania feels sorry for the ghosts and wants to help them, while keeping her gift a secret from everyone but her brother. Jon wants to help and protect his sister, but sometimes feels overwhelmed by the responsibility. Now we have characters with problems and goals. The story is off to a good start. (This became the four-book Haunted series.)

Tips:
 
·   Make sure your idea is specific and narrow. Focus on an individual person and situation, not a universal concept. For example, don’t try to write about “racism.” Instead, write about one character facing racism in a particular situation.
 
·   Ask why the goal is important to the character. The longer the story, the higher the stakes needed to sustain it. A short story character might want to win a contest; a novel character might need to save the world.
 
·   Ask why this goal is difficult. If reaching the goal is too easy, there is little tension and the story is too short. The goal should be possible, but just barely. It might even seem impossible. The reader should believe that the main character could fail. (I go into more detail on this in a chapter on Characters in the book.)
 
Is your character just sitting there?

·   Even if your main problem is external, give the character an internal flaw that contributes to the difficulty. This adds complications and also makes your character seem more real. For some internal flaws, see the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.
 

·   Test the idea. Change the character’s age, gender, or looks. Change the point of view, setting, external conflict, or internal conflict. Choose the combination that has the most dramatic potential.

Next week I’ll share an excerpt on developing the middle of your story. You can get the whole essay now, and a lot more, in You Can Write for Children: A Guide to Writing Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers.


Remember the magic of bedtime stories? When you write for children, you have the most appreciative audience in the world. But to reach that audience, you need to write fresh, dynamic stories, whether you’re writing rhymed picture books, middle grade mysteries, edgy teen novels, nonfiction, or something else.

In this book, you will learn:

How to explore the wide variety of age ranges, genres, and styles in writing stories, articles and books for young people.
How to find ideas.
How to develop an idea into a story, article, or book.
The basics of character development, plot, setting, and theme.
How to use point of view, dialogue, and thoughts.
How to edit your work and get critiques.
Where to learn more on various subjects.

Order for Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Writing for Children: Developing an Idea

I’m releasing a new book on the craft of writing, called You Can Write for Children: A Guide to Writing Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. If you are just starting out, this book will get you going. If you have some experience but need help developing your skills, this book will do that as well. I focus on sharing insight and advice on writing well. You’ll find straightforward information and exercises you can do on your own.

In this book, you will learn:
  •  Opportunities for writing for children: Explore the wide variety of age ranges, genres, and styles, in both books and magazines.
  • How to find ideas.
  • How to develop an idea into a story, article, or book.
  • The basics of character development, plot, setting, and theme – and some advanced elements.
  • How to edit your work and get critiques.
  • Where to learn more on various subjects.
To celebrate the release, over the next three weeks I’ll be sharing an excerpt from one chapter on “Developing an Idea.” Here’s the first segment:

Ideas can grow from anywhere
Developing an Idea

People often ask writers, “Where do you find your ideas?” But for a writer, the more important question is, “What do I do with my idea?”

If you have a “great idea,” but can’t seem to go anywhere with it, you probably have a premise rather than a complete story plan. A story should have three parts: beginning, middle, and end. This can be a bit confusing though. Doesn’t every story have a beginning, middle, and end? Technically, yes, but certain things should happen at those points.

1.  The beginning introduces a character with a problem or a goal.

2.  During the middle of the story, that character tries to solve the problem or reach the goal. He probably fails a few times and has to try something else. Or he may make progress through several steps along the way. He should not solve the problem on the first try, however.

3.  At the end, the main character solves the problem himself or reaches his goal through his own efforts.

Thinking is not action
There may be exceptions to these standard story rules, but it’s best to stick with the basics until you know and understand them. They are standard because they work!

Teachers working with beginning writers often see stories with no conflict. The story is more of a “slice of life.” Things may happen, possibly even sweet or funny things, but the story does not seem to have a clear beginning, middle, and end; it lacks structure. Without conflict, the story is not that interesting.

You can have two basic types of conflict. An external conflict is something in the physical world. It could be a problem with another person, such as a bully at school, an annoying sibling, a criminal, or a fantastical being such as a troll or demon. External conflict would also include problems such as needing to travel a long distance in bad weather.

Conflict can be external
The other type of conflict is internal. This could be anything from fear of the dark to selfishness. It’s a problem within the main character that she has to overcome or come to terms with.

An internal conflict is often expressed in an external way. If a child is afraid of the dark, we need to see that fear in action. If she’s selfish, we need to see how selfishness is causing her problems. Note that the problems need to affect the child, not simply the adults around her. If a parent is annoyed or frustrated by a child’s behavior, that’s the parent’s problem, not child’s. The child’s goal may be the opposite of the parent’s; the child may want to stay the same, while the parent wants the child to change.

For stories with internal conflict, the main character may or may not solve the external problem. The child who is afraid of the dark might get over that fear, or she might learn to live with it by keeping a flashlight by her bed. The child who is selfish and doesn’t want to share his toys might fail to achieve that goal. Instead, he might learn the benefits of sharing.

The child should stay in charge of the story
However the problem is resolved, remember that the child main character should drive the solution. No adults stepping in to solve the problem! In the case where a child and a parent have different goals, it won’t be satisfying to young readers if the parent “wins” by punishing the child. The child must see the benefit of changing and make a decision to do so.


Next week, I'll share another way of looking at story structure, using four parts: situation, complications, climax, and resolution. You can get the whole essay now, and a lot more, in You Can Write for Children: A Guide to Writing Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and TeenagersOrder for Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Bandits Peak: for readers who enjoyed Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet

I'm happy to announce my latest novel for young people, Bandits Peak!

Danger in the Wilderness

While hiking in the mountains, Jesse meets a strange trio. He befriends Maria, but he’s suspicious of the men with her. Still, charmed by Maria, Jesse promises not to tell anyone that he met them. But his new friends have deadly secrets, and Jesse uncovers them. It will take all his wilderness skills, and all his courage, to survive.


Readers who enjoyed Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet will love Bandits Peak. This heart-pounding adventure tale is full of danger and excitement. Appropriate for ages 10 and up.

Read a sample of Bandits Peak on my website.
See Bandits Peak on Amazon.
Bandits Peak for Nook.