Tag Archives: how to write

28 Jul

How to Write a Book Series: 3 Crucial Decisions

To write a series of books, my biggest tip is to plan ahead. You may get by with writing one book on the fly—plenty of people do that. But for a series to hang together, to have cohesion and coherence, planning is essential. Here are three decisions you should make early in the planning process.

Decision #1: What type of series will you write?

Strategies for a series vary widely. For THE HUNGER GAMES, the story is really one large story broken down into several books. Or, to say it another way, there is a narrative arc that spans the whole series. Yes, each book has a narrative arc and ends on a satisfying note; however, we read the next book because we want to know what happens in the overall series arc. Jim Butcher’s ALERA CODEX is another series with an overall series arc; it was fun to hang out in this world for a long time.

On the other hand, series such as Agatha Christie mysteries (in fact, many mystery series fall into this category) are stand-alone books. What continues from one book to the next is the characters, the setting and milieu, and the general voice and tone of the stories. Once a reader gets to know a character, s/he wants to spend more time with that character. These readers just want to hang out with a friend, your character. A sub-category is the series of standalone books that adds a final chapter to set up the next book in the series and leaves you with a cliff-hanger.

I distinctly remember when I first read Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter series about Mars. Each story is a standalone novel, but he hooked me hard. I started reading at noon on a Saturday and found myself hotfooting it to the bookstore at 4:30 pm because they closed at 5 pm and I had to have the second book to read immediately.

Rarer is the series that crosses genres. This type series begins with one genre, but moves into other genres as the lives of the characters progress. For example, a romance might continue with a mystery for the second book. And the third might move into a supernatural genre. These are rarer because one reason a reader sticks with a series is that they know what they are getting. It will be this type of a story, told in this sort of way and will involve these characters.

On the other hand, some series unabashedly cross genres but they do it for every book. Rick Riordian’s Percy Jackson series is a combination of mythology and action/thriller with a dose of mystery.

Notice that this decision centers on the plot of the stories in the series. Will you plot each separately, or will there be an overall plot?

Decision #2: Characters

Besides plot, you should make decisions about characters, and as with plot, you have choices. One choice is an ensemble cast that will carry over from book to book. Here, you have Percy Jackson, his friends and his family as constants. Each book introduces new characters, of course, but there is a core that stays the same.

Another option is to have just one character remain the same. Agatha Christie had Hercule Poirot traveling around and the only constant was the gumshoe and his skills.

Whether you choose one character or an ensemble, you can add or subtract as you go along. But the characters must be integral to the story’s plot.

In developing series characters, think about cohesion and coherence.

Cohesion: Elements of the story stick together, giving cohesion. For example, if one alien in the family can use telekinesis (moving objects with your mind), then that possibility should exist for all members of the family. Of course, some might not have the power, or it may develop slowly for a child, but the possibility should exist.

Coherence: Elements of a story are consistent from book to book. If Kell’s eyes are silvery in book one, they are silvery in books two, three and four.

Decision #3: How long do you want the series to continue?

Many easy readers series go on forever. Think of THE BERENSTAIN BEARS, who continue their adventures and lives throughout multiple volumes. For this type series, the story possibilities are endless. Or think of a TV series, where the situation set up is rich with possibilities. I Love Lucy ran for years and years on the premise of a slightly crazy wife of a musician.

On the other hand, some series have a finite life span. For stories with a narrative arc that spans a series, the life span is built into the plot. However even for these, there can be spin-offs into related series. Think of Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and Heroes of Olympia series. The A to Z Mysteries by Ron Roy and John Gurney had a built-in limit of 26 books.

The Buddy Files Series, Book 1, by Dori Hillestad Butler

The Buddy Files Series, Book 1, by Dori Hillestad Butler

Sometimes, the length of a series depends on the publisher and the early success of the series titles. When Dori Hillestad Butler’s first book in The Buddy Files series, THE CASE OF THE LOST BOY, won the 2011 Edgar Award for the best juvenile mystery of the year, the publisher contracted for more.

For Sara Pennypacker, author of the CLEMENTINE series of short chapter books, the answer of series length depended on something else. In a presentation about writing, she said that she had to ask herself what she wanted to say to third graders. She came up with eight things. Pennypacker focused on the themes of each book (friendship, telling the truth, etc) and found that eight was the natural stopping place for her. Of course, she reserves the right to many more, if other themes present themselves. But she deliberately stepped away from doing a Christmas book, a Halloween book, a 4th of July book, a fall book, a back-to-school book and so on and so forth.

9781629440217-Perfect-PB-CS.inddMy books, THE ALIENS, INC. SERIES, just released in August, 2014, is about an alien family that is shipwrecked on Earth and must figure out how to make a living. It’s been interesting developing these stories and thinking about these three issues.

They accidentally fall into party planning and each book features a different type of party or event put on by Aliens, Inc, the family’s company. KELL, THE ALIEN, the lead-off story, is about a birthday party and of course, it is an alien party. Can the aliens pull off an alien party? The second is about a Friends of Police parade, entitled, KELL AND THE HORSE APPLE PARADE. Book 3, KELL AND THE GIANTS, explored the world of tall and how to keep a giant secret.

Can you tell just from the description some of the decisions I made? There isn’t an overall series arc. Rather, the characters, setting and milieu are set up and there could be endless stories in the series. However, like Butler’s dog mystery series, I am starting with four books and their success will determine future titles. There is a main character who is surrounded by friends and family and, of course, a villainess. These characters weave through the stories and provide cohesion and coherence.

Plan ahead and your series will be stronger. For those who accidentally fall into a series, it will be harder to sustain coherence. You may realize in book three that it sure would be nice if your character had to wear glasses. Yes, you can add it—but you run the danger of it being obviously done for the story itself. So, in my series, early readers have questioned things like the art teacher who is from Australia.

They ask, “Does it matter that she is from Australia?”

“Not yet,” I answer. I just know that I have seeded these early manuscripts with possibilities. If the series goes to books 5-8, I will have hooks to draw upon. So, while I haven’t plotted those books, I have still allowed room for them.

Resource: Writing the Fiction Series: The Complete Guide for Novels and Novellas by Karen S. Wiesner (Writer’s Digest Books)

Want to write a series? What is your favorite series and how will your stories compare?

02 Jul

NOVEL REVISION CHARTS: 2 Tools for Smart Re-Thinking of Your Story

An aid to smart revising based on Darcy Pattison’s techniques

Guest Post by
Claudia Finseth

I recently took Darcy’s Whole Novel Workshop and read her book, Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise. Between the two, there was a great deal of valuable new information to process. I’m very visual, so one way I worked through and organized the information was by creating charts. To what are mostly Darcy’s ideas, I added a few of my own, and some I’ve learned in other workshops. Darcy has asked me to share these charts here on her blog.

The first chart is The Novel Revision Chart. As Darcy teaches, there are many types of revision to consider once we have a draft of a novel.

Finseth's Novel Revision Chart

This Novel Revision Chart show the different types of revisions and helps you prioritize the revision tasks. CLICK TO VIEW FULL SIZE.




Darcy’s workshops are based on critique groups. Participants work in groups of four, reading and commenting on each other’s manuscripts and. Taking the three critiques of my novel, I made a list of all the types of revision my group suggested for my novel: not letting the tension flag, pulling all my theme threads all the way through the novel, keeping my character age-appropriate, etc.


Attend a Novel Revision Retreat

The Darcy Pattison Novel Revision Retreat will come to the Boston area in August, 2014. There are a limited number of spaces still available. See Anne Broyles site for details. Also available is a Build Your Website session and a Picture Book Workshop. Hurry! Spaces limited! And time is short!


Then, I identified where these types of revision landed on the Novel Revision Chart. If they landed somewhere on the Incremental Revision line, I figured I could work with what I had already written. The three types of revision mentioned in the previous paragraph all land there. If, however, the needed revisions landed on the Quantum Leap Revision line, then I figured maybe I should scrap this chapter or that and write it again from scratch. Or write the whole novel again in a new draft. Or take the novel apart and reorganize it in some major way. For instance, my second novel is probably really three novels. (Sigh.) But better I realize that now than waste time trying to fix it the way it is.

The point is, this chart can help writers identify how major or minor the next revision needs to be, as well as what kind of revision needs to be focused on next. It can save us spinning our wheels on the wrong kind of revision. How many times have we worked on verbs or sensory detail when what we needed was to introduce another character or change the beginning? Trust me: been there, done that, and it’s very annoying to realize I should have been working on a totally different kind of revision. The chart can make us smarter revisers.

The Line Edit Revision part of the chart is a reminder that the final revisions you do, once the novel is firmly shaped and sparkling with life, and just before submission, need to be these five types of micro-edits. Therefore, it is at the bottom of the chart.

Checklist for Revising Scenes.

But before we do any line editing, there’s the second chart to look at, A Checklist for Each Scene. As the first chart is a way of evaluating the revision needed overall, this second chart is for scene by scene revisions. As Darcy explains in Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise, each scene is a kind of whole of its own. Taking one scene at a time, a writer can use this chart in conjunction with Darcy’s book to make sure each scene includes all the elements required to create a tight, compelling scene that propels the reader into the next one.

Finseth Scene Checklist

After the major revisions and before the minor Line Edit revisions, you should do a scene check. CLICK TO SEE FULL SIZE.



I have these charts before me as I work. They are quick reminders of each step needed to flesh out and deepen a scene and ultimately write a novel that editors will want to publish because they are so rich and satisfying a read. I’ll make checks on the charts as I go, when I think I’ve accomplished each type of revision. And when I’m “done” I’ll put a big exclamation mark in sharpie marker, or a smiley face, or perhaps I’ll save them for the next novel.


Claudia FinsethClaudia Finseth is a writer and author living in Tacoma, Washington. She is published in non- fiction adult, poetry and short children’s stories in Cricket Magazine. Her goal now is to become an adept at the novel form. “Novels are hard!” she says. Her website is claudia.finseth.ca.

30 Jun

Do You Fear Starting a New Novel?

Today, I stare failure in the face.
Today, I am scared.
Today, I see possibilities as the possibility of failing.

In other words, I have finished all my self-imposed deadlines on other projects and cleared my plate of other tasks, so that I can start a new novel. And it terrifies me.

It’s an ambitious project, something I expect to turn into a trilogy. I have such hopes for this project: hopes that it will reach new readers; hopes that it will be fun to write and promote; hopes that it will be (I’m afraid to even say it!) a breakout novel for me.

And I am scared.

I’ve done my homework. Volcanoes feature large in this story, so last month while I was in the Pacific Northwest, I visited Mt. St. Helens.

Darcy Pattison at Mt. St. Helens

I recently visited Mt. St. Helens for research on the background for a new novel.



I’ve written samples for this story from different points of view, and even sold a short story based on the back story.

And yet–I am scared to sit down and start this. Yes, I’ve written the book on starting a novel and I’m still scared to start again. As ART AND FEAR puts it, I am scared that my fate is in my own hands–and that my hands are weak.

I SHOULD see the great possibilities of success.
I SHOULD approach this with excitement.
I SHOULD be so ramped up by now that the words would flow, as if bestowed from above, with angelic music swelling and…

No. Writing is work. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done or ever hope to do. But it’s also the most exciting, most fun, and most rewarding work I will ever do.

So, at 8:30 this morning, I’ll turn on my Freedom app, giving myself three hours of uninterrupted time. I will make a start. A messy start. But a start. And that will be enough for today. Just make a start, that’s my goal for today.

12 May

Scene: Fast or Fast-Paced?

Is your scene fast or fast-paced? There’s a difference, an important difference.

A fast paced scene has lots of small changes happening, which keeps the reader on the edge of his/her seat. Think of it as the last few minutes of a basketball game where the ball changes hands often, and the score bounces back and forth.

These could be called small zigzags of action and emotion, or it could be a rapid list of beats or actions. Each action lasts a short time, before something else happens.

Fast-paced scenes aren't necessarily fast scenes.

Fast-paced scenes aren’t necessarily fast scenes.




A fast scene means that the whole scene is quickly over. The entire beginning, complication, development, and resolution of the scene takes just a few moments, a few lines.

Fast-paced scenes are almost always welcome.
Fast scenes have a place in fiction when you need something to happen in an economical manner.

However, you should avoid fast scenes for the Big Moments in your story. These are scenes such as the Opening, the climax of Act 1 (sometimes called the Inciting Incident) which moves the action into Act 2, several big moments in Act 2, the scene that send the action into Act 3, and of course, the Climax scene. Those scenes need to take up more space, and should probably be fast-paced. But there’s more happening, emotional content, twists, and surprises; these are extended scenes. These are the things that make a scene big. Of all the scenes, the longest will probably be the Climax scene, by a matter of pages.

There are fast-paced, fast (or short) scenes.
There are fast-paced, medium length scenes.
There are fast-paced, long scenes.

Make sure you know when and where to use each one.

14 Feb

How to Ruin Your Novel’s Opening with a Few Wrong Words

Choosing the right set of words–the diction of your novel–is crucial, especially in the opening pages of your novel. Novels are a context for making choices, and within that context, some words make sense and some don’t.

A novel sets up a certain setting, time period, tone, mood and sensibilities and you must not violate this. If you are writing a gothic romance, the language must reflect this. For thrillers, the fast paced action demands a certain vocabulary. Violating these restrictions means a bump in the reader’s experience that may make them put down the book.

Let’s look at some examples. This is from my book, SAUCY AND BUBBA: A HANSEL AND GRETEL TALE.
S&B COVER3-CS.inddJust from the title you know that this is a contemporary retelling of Hansel and Gretel and this sets up expectations for the language that will be used. This is a first look at Krissy, the stepmother.

Krissy was singing to herself. Gingerbread days were filled with music, too. Once a month, Krissy made a gingerbread house and took it into town to sell to the bakery for $200. The bakery displayed it in their picture window for a month, and then donated it to a day care. Each month, Krissy checked out a stack of architecture books and pored over them.

Let’s substitute a couple words and see if it bothers you as a reader:

Krissy was caterwauling to herself. Gingerbread days were crammed with music, too. Once a month, Krissy slapped together a gingerbread house and took it into town to peddle to the bakery for $200. The bakery displayed it in their picture window for a month, and then dumped it off at a day care. Each month, Krissy checked out a stack of architecture books and flipped through them.

I’ve been extreme here in word choice, of course. The key is to listen to your story. Where are the places where a single word might interrupt the narrative? Work hard to control your word choices and the overall diction of your story. And I’ll stay with you for the whole book.

03 Feb

NonFiction Picture Books: Research Required

How much research do you need to do for a children’s nonfiction picture book? Tons!

Nonfiction means that you have the facts straight, ma’am.

3 sources agree. Traditionally, writers look fora at least three sources to back up each piece of information. This means the content isn’t just a personal opinion or a poorly researched fact. Facts should be replicated in multiple studies and corroborated by multiple experts.

Primary sources. Just as in any nonfiction writing,it’s important to go to the primary source of information. Talk to scientists, look up research reports and email the authors of the study, go out and try something for yourself.

Dig deeper. Nonfiction picture books should dig deeper for information, for the meaning and interpretation of the facts, and for context. A biography of Shirley Temple, for example, would likely consider the Depression Era and the effects it had on the burgeoning film industry. For some, Temple’s films were seen as a cheap escape from the harsh realities. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said about her, “When the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during this Depression, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.” And of course, if I was writing a book with that quote, I would have to tell you where I found it. (It’s quoted here in the UK Guardian.)

Tools for Research

My favorite tools for researching for a nonfiction children’s book include:
Google, GoogleScholar, and more. Here are tips and more tips for searching on Google. Did you know you can restrict the search to a certain website or ask Google to only tell you about information posted in the last year? GoogleScholar searches research journals. See the full list of Google products here.

Wikipedia. I know, people feel that Wikipedia is unreliable. But Clay Shirky argues in his book, Here Comes Everybody, that over the long run, it’s more reliable because so many people are able to edit it. Crowd-writing-and-editing is both the strength and weakness of Wikipedia. And yet, I find it great for an initial look at a topic; and the references are often the primary sources that I need. Don’t discount this one.

Library Databases. I recently taught essay writing to a group of home-schoolers and we took a field trip to a public library to look at their databases. These are databases that either aren’t available on the web, or cost too much for an individual to subcribe to. Most public libraries subscribe to an incredibly rich set of databases that offer a world of information; often these are available online through your library’s website. It’s one of the first places I look for info.

Follow up leads. Often these resources will send me off in multiple directions scrambling for more information, emailing scientists, reading dense research reports and so on. It’s not where you start, but where you end up that matters. Follow the trails, question everything and search for answers.

Two Nature Books as Examples of Research

My two recent nature books took different tracks for their research.

Wisdom, the Midway Albatross: Surviving the Japanese Tsunami and other Natural Disasters for over 60 Years required me to interview the biologist on Midway Island about the conditions there during the tsunami and its aftermath. I also looked at video of the tsunami that hit Japan, debris fields in the Pacific, and photos of the desolation on Midway Island. Researching the life and times of the 60 year old bird–the oldest known wild bird in the world–meant going back in time to find out what storms had hit Midway in the last 60 years. Other issues arose: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, longline fishing and more. Each subtopic meant delving into the research to find details to include in the story. Though it is only 850 words long, it entailed a lot of primary research.


AbayomiCover-250x250-150Research for my latest nature picture book took a different tack. Abayomi, the Brazilian Puma: The True Story of an Orphaned Cub The illustrator, Kitty Harvill lives in Brazil half the year and is involved in the environmental art community there. She heard about an orphaned puma cub and suggested the story. Because she knew the scientists involved, it meant lots of interviews, including Skyping with the scientists.

The reports about where the cub was orphaned included coordinates for the chicken farm where the mother was killed. I looked on GoogleEarth and found images of the exact locale, which helped me describe the events in more detail. Harvill actually visited the site and took photographs for reference for the art.

For this story, the context meant even more research. Why are pumas important in the Brazilian ecosystem? It turns out that there has been an increase in Brazilian Spotted Fever (similar to Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in the U.S.). The largest rodent in the world, the capybara is the primary host for the ticks that carry the fever; and the biggest predator of capybaras are pumas. I researched ticks and tick-borne diseases, checking the World Health Organization to confirm that the fever has increased in Brazil. I looked at capybaras and their habitats. Puma diet consists of many other small mammals, including rodents. Were capybaras a large portion of what they ate? The questions went on and on.

Through it all, though, there was this main question: where is the story?
For me, it’s not enough just to recite facts. I want the emotional impact of those facts, the story. I found it in the original report of the cub who was orphaned. The owner of the chicken farm where the mother was killed said that he had no idea pumas might be involved in stealing his chickens. He said, “I’ve lived here for over 40 years and I’ve never seen a puma.”

That thought sat around for a long time, before it became the basis of the story: pumas were invisible.

Nonfiction picture books require meticulous research and each project takes on a life of its own.


Check out other 2nd Grade Picture Books for examples of nonfiction titles to study.




05 Dec

Frosty the Snowman’s Top 5 Writing Tips

Happy Holidays

Just got an e-newsletter from the North Pole and Santa passed along these writing tips from the Frosty the Snowman, posted for the young-at-heart who are writing novels this year.

Back by popular demand is my series on writing tips from popular Christmas figures. First published in 2007, they are updated here for your Christmas cheer.

Santa Claus’s Top 5 Writing Tips
12 Days of Christmas Writing Tips (live on 12/3)
The Gingerbread Man’s Top 5 Writing Tips (live on 12/4)
Frosty the Snowman’s Top 6 Writing Tips (live on 12/5)
Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer’s Top 5 Writing Tips (live on 12/6)

Frosty The Snowman’s Top 5 Writing tips

These tips are based on the popular song, “Frosty the Snowman.” Read about the history of this song. Oh, what a great 3-D snowman cake pan!

Frosty's Top 6 Writing Tips

Image by Daniel Novta

  1. Frosty the snowman was a jolly happy soul,
    With a corncob pipe and a button nose
    And two eyes made out of coal.
    Frosty the snowman is a fairy tale, they say,
    He was made of snow


    Extended character descriptions.
    Don’t be afraid to take time to describe the main character. One the continuum of character descriptions, this one is longer than you’ll find in most children’s picturebooks. But it works because this is a character story.

  2. but the children
    Know how he came to life one day.
    There must have been some magic in that
    Old silk hat they found.
    For when they placed it on his head
    He began to dance around.

    Point of view. Notice the point of view here. The attention is squarely on Frosty, not on the children who found the old silk hat. When you write a story for kids, you don’t always have to put the child as the main character.

  3. O, Frosty the snowman
    Was alive as he could be,
    And the children say he could laugh
    And play just the same as you and me.
    Thumpetty thump thump,
    Thumpety thump thump,
    Look at Frosty go.
    Thumpetty thump thump,
    Thumpety thump thump,
    Over the hills of snow.

    Language play. This section doesn’t add much to the plot, it’s just pure language play. But this is perfect for the younger audiences, who know that playing around with language is half the fun of reading a story or singing a song. Great onomatopoeia.

  4. Frosty the snowman knew
    The sun was hot that day,
    So he said, “Let’s run and
    We’ll have some fun
    Now before I melt away.”

    Conflict. Every good story needs conflict. And the character’s attitude in the face, well, in the face of certain death, is evident. It’s an attitude of taking joy where you find it and facing the future with courage.


  5. Darcy’s Best Writing Advice: Fiction Notes Books


  6. Down to the village,
    With a broomstick in his hand,
    Running here and there all
    Around the square saying,
    Catch me if you can.
    He led them down the streets of town
    Right to the traffic cop.
    And he only paused a moment when
    He heard him holler “Stop!”
    For Frosty the snow man
    Had to hurry on his way,


    Development of the conflict.
    The traffic cop provides an extra bump of conflict that adds to the story’s development. For picturebooks, it doesn’t have to be much; in fact, it can’t be huge, or you’re writing a novel. This is perfect, just the introduction of an authority figure who yells, “Stop!” but can’t really do anything to stop the breakneck speed of Frosty’s life.

  7. But he waved goodbye saying,
    “Don’t you cry,
    I’ll be back again some day.”
    Thumpetty thump thump,
    Thumpety thump thump,
    Look at Frosty go.
    Thumpetty thump thump,
    Thumpety thump thump,
    Over the hills of snow.

    Hope. Children’s stories may end in tragedy, but the best offer a spot of hope. Notice also the nice repetition of the language play that sends the story off with a nice echo.

11 Nov

Get Your Tone Right

“Young man, don’t speak to me in that tone of voice!”

When you see that bit of dialogue, you know that a boy is talking sarcastically or disrespectfully. We understand that it’s not just the words said, but it’s how the words are used that conveys an attitude.

Humor, irony, satire, pleasantness, excitement, righteous indignation–the audience’s anticipated reaction is what determines the tone with which you write a particular piece. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown has a soothing tone; Captain Underpants by Dave Pilkey has an irreverent, comical tone; Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse has a spare, restrained tone that matches the mood of the Dust Bowl.

I’ve been dealing with tone because I’ll have a nonfiction piece, “Don’t Lick That Statue,” in the June 2014 issue of Highlights Magazine for Children. When you turn in this type of manuscript, they require a letter from your sources that states the article is “appropriate in tone and content” for a young reader. Content is easy: just check and recheck your facts, ma’am. Tone is not so easy. What does it mean, anyway?

Definition of Tone of Voice

Darcy at the Alamo

How would you describe the tone of this photo taken at dawn near the Alamo?

Tone is the atmosphere that holds a story together; it permeates the narrative, setting, characters and dialogue. It can also shape a reader’s response. In a mystery with a dark, gothic tone, the reader is meant to be on the edge of fear.
Tone gives the author subtle ways to communicate emotional content that can’t be told by only looking at what words mean. We also need to look at connotations and how words work within the context of the story.

One of the first ways to get a handle on controlling the tone of voice is to look at the adjectives and adverbs within your story. Specific details can fill the reader’s head with clues about how to interpret the story, but without a physical voice. The tone can be cued by adjectives or adverbs: quietly, he said; angrily, he said; sadly, he said. More experienced writers can convey the same tone with connotations of words and not have to rely on these adverbs.

In other words, the missing words–quietly, angrily, sadly–are communicated by every tool in the writer’s arsenal. That’s a frustrating statement for beginning writers: it’s too abstract. Let’s make it a bit more concrete.

Creating Tone of Voice

Before you begin writing, you should have a tone of voice in mind, so you will be consistent. The tone of voice should shape the story at all stages.

The opening, especially, should begin with the right tone, so the reader knows what sort of story will follow. Descriptions, dialogue, or even first-person statements are all welcome. The opening scene should give the reader a feel for the book that will be consistent throughout. A dark, gothic mystery should never morph into an action/adventure or a fairy tale. Within the dark, gothic mystery, there is room for variation, but there are also boundaries for when it moves outside the right tone. Set your story’s tone early and stick with it.

Recognition and Consistency

Once you have something written that captures the character, the voice of the story and the tone of the story, then you must do two things. First, recognize when that voice and tone is present and working; second, learn to be consistent with the voice and tone.

Put the work aside for as long as you can stand it, then read it with an eye toward where the voice, tone and character are working or not working. Read it out loud, and pay attention to places where there’s a “bump” for some odd, almost indefinable moment. That’s probably a tone or voice problem. Changing mood is fine; changing tone is not. On a very simple level this means that you can’t start a story with a dreamy stream-of-consciousness and end with an action-packed thriller.
Consistency is important even when a story has multiple points of view. For novels that switch back and forth between male and female characters, the tone must still be maintained.

Crafting your Story’s Tone

While much of the discussion about tone of voice revolves around abstract issues, there are some concrete things that can be considered.

Choice of details. Choose the sensory details that bring a story to life. Does it matter that Dracula wears black? Of course! Be sure to include as many senses as possible, pulling in visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory and tactile details.

Plot and organization. Often, picture book stories have simple refrains—which present a reassuring tone by suggesting that there is order in the world. The organization of the text always returns to a phrase that is important; the child knows you’ll get to that point again in the story and feels the ordering of events in the story, which reinforces the tone.

Language and vocabulary. The language and vocabulary used must also support the tone of a story. Choosing the right word is paramount, but also consider how the words work in context. Connotations are words speaking to other words in a story. You may want to alliteration, assonance, or other literary techniques to make certain words resonate. But the technique should be subtle enough to work without calling attention to itself.

Dialogue. Dialogue can carry tone of voice, too. Avoid stilted and extended sections of talking heads. Instead, work for a snappy exchange—or whatever is appropriate for your tone. Sometimes, it helps to be intentional and say to yourself, “My story’s tone is XXX and that means my dialogue should be XXX.” Then evaluate to see where you need to adjust.

Write Your Story Your Way!

If all the above feels too abstract, if you want more detailed how-to instructions, if you have trouble recognizing voice much less tone of voice, you aren’t alone. Yet, editors and teachers of writing can’t be more specific. “It depends. . . ,” they say. It always depends on the story, the characters, the setting, the author’s intent, and so many other minor and major decisions about a story.

The tone is the end result, but it is also the beginning. The author must solve the problem of tone of voice in different ways for each story they tell. You have an arsenal of weapons: setting, characterization, language, rhythm, vocabulary, plot, organization. In the end, there are no right or wrong answers; there are only stories that work or don’t work.

Can you suggest stories that portray a certain tone? How would you describe the tone of IVAN, THE GREAT AND MIGHTY? Of HUNGER GAMES?

07 Nov

The 13-Year Picture Book: Anne Broyles

Arturo-high-res.cover

guest post by Anne Broyles

Anne attended a novel revision retreat a couple years ago. Switching from novels to picture books, she applied all the principles of great writing and the result is an amazing story. Here, she talks about her revision process. –Darcy

Arturo and the Navidad Birds

With the publication of my third picture book, I took the chance to reflect on the thirteen-year period that brought Arturo and the Navidad Birds to bookstores. If I’d known ‘way back then what I have learned over these years, the book might have been published earlier but I apparently needed time to learn these lessons!

  • Mouse Ornament

    Mouse Ornament

    Christmas 2000: As I was decorating our Christmas tree with our German foreign exchange daughter, explaining the stories behind many of our one-of-a-kind ornaments, I had the initial idea of a picture book about a grandmother sharing family history with her grandson as they—surprise!—decorate a Christmas tree. As soon as the boxes of ornaments were empty and our tree was complete, I stole off to write four pages of notes, listing possible ornaments and their stories. Working title: The Memory Tree.
  • 1/2001: On breaks from other projects, I mulled over the grandmother and grandson. Who were they and what sort of relationship did they have? Having recently studied Spanish in Costa Rica, I decided to root my story in a family with a Costa Rican-born grandmother and American-born grandson.
  • 2/2001: I spent way too much time figuring out a chronology of the grandmother’s life. How much time did I spend on Arturo’s character? Not enough!
  • 7/2001: I wrote the first draft (2000 words in 3 hours) in English with occasional Spanish words, and compiled a list of possible publishers. The story belonged to Abue Rosa, focusing on her back-story and the ornaments’ history. Arturo was not fully developed in this wordy draft.
  • 9/2001: An editor friend gave her opinion on the first draft (“the idea holds a lot of appeal”) but wondered about the chronology of Abue Rosa’s too-complicated back-story. I realized I needed to get into Arturo’s head more. Around this time, I also asked a Costa Rican colleague for comments on language/cultural accuracy and made some small changes. I also asked several Hispanic friends what they called their grandmothers and discovered a great variety as each family chose its own nicknames (English-speaking North American families may call grandmothers Grammy, Nonna, Memaw, Granny Sue, Oma, etc.)
  • 2003: I sent The Memory Tree to POCKETS magazine. Rejection #1.
  • Mouse_Ornament_Image

  • 2004-2009: Although this wasn’t my main work-in-progress, I did share the story with my two critique groups and a writing revision retreat. With their feedback, I realized that I had a “talking heads” story that was too “quiet.” The numerous ornament stories slowed down the action so I deleted all but a few decorations. The word count decreased, little by little, from 2000 to 933 words.
    One colleague commented that her son would never be so calm, but would find ways to play with ornaments. Her words helped me unlock Arturo’s character— he finally came to life as I added the broken bird ornament to give the story tension and meaning. Up until then it had been “Abue Rosa and Arturo decorate the tree together. Isn’t that sweet?” Now, the story had action/reaction, conflict and resolution.
    One reader disliked The Memory Tree title, which “sounded like a genealogical tree.” I liked her suggestion and changed to “The Empty Christmas Tree”.
    In 2008, I sent the manuscript to two editors. One mentioned “a sweet plot”, the other “liked the Costa Rican references and cultural context” but “the initial string of remembrances isn’t enough to pull me into the story.” Rejections #2 and 3.
  • Between 2009 and 2011. I tightened the story to 738 words and sent the manuscript to six more editors for rejections #4 and 5, three no response even with follow-up, and in 2/2010: Pelican’s Nina Kooij said they would hold the submission on their “possibles list,” but I was free to submit elsewhere.
  • 2010-2011: Eleven years had passed since my initial idea. Was this bilingual, multicultural, holiday book fit too narrowly defined? I put away “The Empty Christmas Tree” and worked on other projects.
  • 1/12: I almost didn’t open my SASE from Pelican since it had been two years since I last heard from them. Nina Kooij asked if the book was still available. Yes, yes, yes!
  • 3/12: Pelican requested a new title “that implies the Hispanic culture.” I compiled a list of 22 titles (my own and friends’ suggestions) and tweaked the manuscript, making small changes that better reflected Hispanic culture. They chose Arturo and the Navidad Birds, which I like because it shows the protagonist, his family’s cultural and language background, and the symbols of the problem Arturo must solve.
  • 5/12: Pelican decided to publish Arturo and the Navidad Birds with my English-with-a-smattering-of Spanish text and a separate all-Spanish text. I cut 100 words to make room for the Spanish text.
  • 7/12: Once I had a complete Spanish translation, I emailed numerous Spanish-speaking friends and professional resources for their opinions. Their responses (we would say this instead of that; we don’t use this phrase in our country) convinced me to make the setting more generically Central American or Mexican. I altered some words/phrases to fit this vision.
  • 9/12: I signed a contract with Pelican.
  • 9/2012-3/2012: I worked with my editor and the illustrator to coordinate text and art. KE Lewis’ lovely paintings brought depth to my words, and I especially love how she showed Abue Rosa’s memories in sepia with the contemporary story in brighter colors. There are lots of details for young readers to discover in the book’s pages, and I was reminded of how important is the illustrator’s contribution to a picture book.
  • 9/2013: Pelican released Arturo and the Navidad Birds.

Arturo-high-res.coverIn hindsight, I realize that my initial idea was more setting than plot. Until I knew both Arturo and Abue Rosa, the manuscript was an exercise in getting to know my characters and making the setting real in my mind. Once I identified a clear problem and brainstormed ways Arturo could try to solve the problem, the story worked. I cut two-thirds of the length, tightened the plot, layered more of Abue Rosa’s culture into the story and built the story’s tension up to Abue Rosa’s statement: “People are more important than things.”

And it only took me thirteen years to get these 32 pages right!



BroylesAnne Broyles
Bio: Anne is the author of ARTURO AND THE NAVIDAD BIRDS, PRISCILLA AND THE HOLLYHOCKS (Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People, Bank Street College’s The Best Children’s Books of the Year, and Massachusetts Book Awards recommended reading list) and SHY MAMA’S HALLOWEEN (Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People, Teacher’s Choice Award and the McNaughton Award). She lives north of Boston with her husband, two cats
and an old black dog named Thor. For more, see AnneBroyles.com

28 Oct

3 Reasons to NaNoWriMo

2013-Participant-Facebook-Cover

Are you ready to write 50,000 words in one month flat?
I am.
For the first time, I will be participating in NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month.

2013-Participant-Facebook-Cover

Why this year? Here are 3 good reasons.

  • Timing. My work schedule has some lag time about now and it’s convenient. That is, I want a new novel done some time next year and by banging out 50,000 words now, I’ll have a rough draft next summer instead of start from scratch. I can’t spend more than a month right now. On the other hand, I do have other projects scheduled and I don’t have more than a month to spend on a new project. And I want to maximize my time and effort. Pouring out a full draft in a month sounds exciting.Because this is going to work really well (do you hear my optimism?), I will also be in better shape next year, when I have time to return to this story. I’ll have a draft, and revisions will be faster for the work done this year.
  • Trust the process. Learning to trust the process must be a life-long project for writers. Because this writer is having to do that over and over this year. So, instead of fighting the process, I’ve decided to embrace the writing process for the month of November.
  • Taking creative risks. Writing a novel is always a risk. In novel revision retreats, I have people walk around and congratulate each other on writing a full draft of a novel. It’s an amazing accomplishment. Each time I start a new novel, I am very aware of the risk, that this novel may be one that lands in a file drawer, or that I will abandon it and not finish. And yet, to be creative means to take risks, to reach for something new and different, and to go where “no one has gone before.” If I’m not taking risks in my work, then I’m going nowhere. But risks are scary and uncomfortable. NaNoWriMo is a contained risk: I only have to write 50,000 words and it’s only for a month. It’s risky, sure. But there’s support, others to follow, inspiration and there’s a definite end to it. I am very glad there will be an end to the month of NaNoWriMo.

Of course, getting ready for this, I’ve been reviewing my book, START YOUR NOVEL. I need to take my own advice!

Are you NaNoWriMoing? (How’s that for turning an acronym into a verb?)
Any words of encouragement for me?

Copyright, 2008-present. Fiction Notes. All rights reserved.
Author Website Resources