Writing for Children And Teens: Should You Outline Your Story Before Writing? by Maureen Hinds

June 26, 2014 by  
Filed under Writing for Children

Maureen Hinds

by Maurene J. Hinds, Contributing Editor, The National Writing for Children Center

Part of the writing process is experimenting. Writers differ on their opinions about outlining–some love it, some hate it, and some are mixed. The decision to outline is a personal one. You need to determine what works best for you. Some writers cannot write without an outline, while others like to jump in and “see what happens.” Some will have the plot up to a certain point, and then write the ending as it comes, not forcing it to go one way or the other. In contrast, some writers start from the ending and work backward to ensure that all the pieces are there that lead up to the end. (This works particularly well with mysteries or stories that have some type of surprise ending.)

Keep in mind that outlines DO tend to change, as do characters as you write more and get to know them better. Yes, characters are known for taking on lives of their own. Many people find that it is best to let the character lead them, as trying to force a character to do something that is not in his or her nature simply does not work (and leads to rewriting it all anyway). Again, it is a personal preference. As you saw with the character profiles, there are several ways to get to know your characters.

An outline does not have to be the standard formats you may remember from school. There are many different ways to visually plot your story. Many writers use sticky notes, or colored note cards, as these can be moved around as needed to show plot progression. Others use spreadsheets with each character or thread listed down the side, and the plot lines across the top. I like to use a big roll of butcher paper. I plot the story across the top, for as long (literally) as it takes on the paper. I then list the actions underneath each chapter or primary scene. This is just a larger version of the spreadsheet. I also use a lot of colored Sharpie pens. And of course, there’s a traditional outline format. If you “Google” outline, you will find lots of examples.

Remember that writing involves a lot of rewriting, no matter if you use a detailed outline and notes or if you “wing it.” Keeping this in mind may help you feel more relaxed about letting things change as they need to so that the story can evolve as it needs to, while allowing required events to remain in place so that your ending makes sense when you (and your readers) arrive.


Common Problems in Manuscripts

April 22, 2014 by  
Filed under Writing for Children

common problemSince I proof, edit, and critique several manuscripts for students, clients, and coaching club members each week, naturally I come across a variety of elements that make a story or article less than it could be.Here are just a few of the most common problems I see, and tips to avoid or correct them:

1) Overuse of participle phrases to begin a sentence. You know what a participle phrase is. It usually begins with a word that ends in the letters “ing.”

Here are some examples:

Tripping over her shoelaces, Mary stumbled onto the sidewalk.

Looking over his shoulder, Jeff called out to Michael, “Be careful!”

There is nothing wrong with beginning a sentence with a participle phrase. But when you do it too often, it begins to draw attention to itself and distract the reader from the action of the story.

When you finish writing a story, go back over it and circle all the sentences that begin with a participle phrase. If you have several of these phrases on each and every page, change most of them. Like this:

Mary tripped over her shoelaces, which sent her stumbling onto the sidewalk.

Jeff looked over his shoulder and called out to Michael, “Be careful!”

2) Dislocating or projecting body parts. Yes, many writers actually do this in their stories and articles. The most common example of this is characters whose eyes leave their bodies. Here’s what I mean:

I was angry at Mark. I shot my eyes across the room at him.

Yikes! Poor Mark. Was he left holding those eyeballs, or were they just stuck on the front of his shirt or something?

3) Dialogue that is punctuated incorrectly. The most common example is when characters laugh words. They simply can’t do this.

Try it yourself. Can you laugh and speak at the same time? Not really. Yet, when you use a comma to separate the dialogue tag from the dialogue itself, you are indicating the words were laughed. Here’s an example:

“You are such a comedian,” Mary laughed.

To avoid this mistake, simply use a period after the dialogue, creating two separate sentences. Like this:

“You are such a comedian.” Mary laughed.

It’s easy to avoid these common mistakes once you’re aware of them.

Happy writing!

Fiction Tip: Do You Really Have a Story? by Suzanne Lieurance

April 22, 2014 by  
Filed under Writing for Children

two kidsAll writers get rejection slips. It’s just part of writing if you submit your work to publishers. But if you’ve been seriously writing fiction for quite a while, yet ALL you’ve received for your work are rejections, then take a closer look at one of your short stories. In fact, do you really have a story – or do you have what editors call “an incident”?

A story has a protagonist who has a big problem to solve. As the plot thickens, this character struggles and struggles to solve the problem. As he does, he encounters obstacles at every turn until, finally, he is able to solve (or at least resolve) the problem. In doing so, this character changes or grows somehow, so he is no longer the same person he was at the start of the story. He may be a little wiser now, or a bit more careful, or maybe he just has a better understanding of what he wanted in the first place.

An incident is simply a series of actions and occurrences in a character’s life. But these things don’t change the character. By the end of the final page, he is exactly the same person he was on page one.

Does your fiction contain all of these story elements? If not, chances are you have written an incident and not a full-fledged story, and that just may be why your work keeps getting rejected.

Give your main character a big problem to solve right at the start. The problem could be something he wants, or somewhere he must go, or someone he must find. As he tries to solve his problem, give him plenty of obstacles to make things get harder and harder for him before he is able to solve the problem.

Finally, before you mail your manuscript off to an editor, ask yourself this question, “How has my main character changed or grown as a result of struggling to solve his problem?” If you can easily answer this question, and your manuscript is well-written, then you probably have a great story. And it should be only a matter of time before you receive your first acceptance letter.


Many Children’s Writers – and Even Published Children’s Writers – Find Critique Groups to Be Helpful

April 9, 2014 by  
Filed under Writing for Children

critiqueThrough the years I’ve belonged to several critique groups myself.

Quite often though, I’ve seen writers get discouraged from the feedback they received through critique groups and a few of these writers even gave up trying to write for children.

That should never happen!

Here are some tips for helping everyone make the most of a critique group:

1. Be sure to join or start a critique group that includes at least a few published children’s writers. If no one in your group has been published, it is a case of “the blind leading the blind.” Writers in the group might not know what to look for in a manuscript. As a result, comments and suggestions will be based more on personal tastes rather than any real knowledge of what makes a children’s manuscript marketable.

2. Make sure the comments and suggestions given to each writer are positive and constructive. Too often, manuscript critiques turn into attacks on a manuscript rather than any positive and constructive criticism of the work itself. Also, beginning writers tend to nit-pick over small details (the color of a character’s hair or the word used to describe something) rather than the elements that will make or break a story – elements such as conflict, rising action, point-of-view, etc.

3. Start by critiquing short pieces rather than novels-in-progress. I recommend this for a couple of reasons.

First, critiquing short pieces will allow time for everyone in the group to submit work for critique at each and every session. You want each person to feel he/she received something of value at each session. With shorter manuscripts there is less of a tendency to get bogged down with a single manuscript and spend too much time on it, leaving little or no time for critiquing all the other manuscripts presented for critique.

Second, shorter pieces are easier to critique, especially if everyone is checking to see if these short works include all the key elements of a marketable story. It’s often difficult (particularly for beginning children’s writers) to identify just what needs to be changed or revised in the chapter of a novel, for example. But generally, the problems in a short work, like a picture book manuscript or a short-story, can be easily identified if writers know what these are.

4. Give yourself time to get to know and trust each member in the group. Your critique partners can become valued friends and associates over the years. But it takes a while to really get to know and trust someone new.

When you join or start a critique group, before each and every meeting, remind yourself to be positive, helpful, and constructive in your criticism.

Try to never leave the session knowing that you’ve made a writer feel hopeless about his or her work. Do everything you can to make each writer in the group feel comfortable, even if you are not the leader of the group.

Over time, members will begin to trust each other and be willing to share more and more of their work with the group.

5. Celebrate each member’s publishing successes.


Happy writing!

Suzanne Lieurance

Writing a Rebus Story

April 6, 2014 by  
Filed under Writing for Children


rebus story
by Renee Kirchner, Teaching Tips Contributing Editor

A rebus story is a story that is not just made with words. It is a story that combines words and pictures. The picture can represent an entire word or part of a word. The reader will have to sound out each syllable of a word when they read the rebus story.

This type of story writing is an excellent way for young writers to begin writing stories. They can draw pictures for some of the longer words that give them difficulty.

The best way to begin to write a rebus story is to write out the entire story in words. Then go back and read the story out loud to yourself. Listen to each syllable of each word. For example: Sunday (This word could be represented by a picture of the sun and the word “day”).

Use the following story starters to write a winter rebus story.

1. I was sledding down a giant hill when suddenly….

2. Sharp icicles hung from my garage. I saw the neighborhood bully walking by just as some of the icicles started to break loose. He….

3. I made a nice round snowman dressed in a hat and scarf. When I woke up the next morning he was missing. What happened to him?

4. I was skating on the pond by my house when suddenly the ice cracked. I hollered and hollered for help. I started slipping into the freezing water…

5. Describe the most beautiful sunset you have ever seen. What were you doing while you watched it?

6. In my hometown it never snows. I knew it would take a miracle to get snow on Christmas Eve. The weatherman said it might happen this year …..

7. I had never been snow skiing before. I went to ski school and you will never believe what happened to me. I started down the hill….

8. My friend dared me to stick out my tongue and touch it to the freezing cold light pole. Now I am stuck. What will happen to me?

9. The animals and birds outside of my house must be very cold. Here is what I did for them.

10. My goals for the New Year are….


Teaching Personification

April 5, 2014 by  
Filed under Writing for Children

personificationby Renee Kirchner,Teaching Tips Contributing Editor

Personification is a type of figurative language in which a non-living object is given human qualities. The verb in the sentence involves a human action. Here are a few examples:

The ocean waves rocked me to sleep.
The wind sang a beautiful song.
The thunder clapped its hands together in perfect rhythm with the rain.
The roses tilted their faces towards the sun.

Personification can make your writing more fun. Your writing will be stronger and more interesting if you try this technique some of the time.

The swimming pool invited me in for a refreshing swim.
The poison ivy vines raced up the side of the tree.
The sunrise painted a beautiful picture in the sky.
The tall grass danced in the wind.

The person reading your writing will understand that wind cannot sing and waves cannot rock you to sleep, but your writing will be more like a poem.

Can you use personification in your writing? Give it a try.

An Exercise in Using Personification:

Fill in the blanks with a verb that gives human qualities to the non-living object in the sentence.

1. The flowers _______________ at me as I walked through the park.

2. The fall leaves ________________ to the ground.

3. The rain __________________ his cheeks as he ran home.

4. The train _________________ the family through the woods and over the mountain.

5. The soccer net _________________ the ball in mid air.

6. The rainbow __________________ the sky with brilliant colors.

7. The thorn bush ________________ at our ankles as we walked on the trail.

8. I watched the flower bulbs _________________ out of the soil after the light spring rain.

9. Spider webs ________________ in the moonlight from the trees in my front yard.

10. The basketball ________________ from my hand as I released my final shot of the game.

Similes – A Teaching Tip

April 4, 2014 by  
Filed under Writing for Children


simileby Renee Kirchner, Teaching Tips Contributing Editor

Similes compare two unlike things using phrases that begin with like or as. Similes help you see pictures in your mind.

Can you see these similes?

The tree was as tall as a skyscraper. The stray dog was as thin as a needle. The playground looked like a busy anthill. Her new tooth was as white as a marshmallow.

Similes are descriptive, colorful, and clever. They help us see objects in ways we never have seen them before.

The swimming pool was as cold as an iceberg. Her hair looked like buttered spaghetti. The water slide was as slippery as a bar of soap. The soccer goal looked like a giant butterfly net.

Some similes are overused and we’ve heard them many times. These are called clichés. Try not to use this type of simile too much. Come up with your own ideas that are even better.

Have you heard some of these clichés before?

Her face was as red as a beet. He was as mad as a hornet. Their mother was as busy as a bee. His cat was as fat as a pig.

The best similes use the five senses of sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell to describe an object. Here are just a few:

The ocean tasted as salty as a pretzel. The cat’s tongue felt as rough as sandpaper. The old sleeping bag smelled like a wet dog. The school bell was as loud as a police siren.

Can you write a simile? Give it a try.

An Exercise in Writing Similes:

Complete the sentences to make your own similes. Try not to use clichés.

1. The candy tasted as sweet as __________________________________________.

2. The ice cream truck sounded like a _____________________________________.

3. Her smile was as wide as a __________________________________________.

4. She ran as fast as a _________________________________________________.

5. The pickle tasted as sour as a _________________________________________.

6. The movie was as sad as ____________________________________________.

7. Their teacher was as smart as ________________________________________.

8. The aquarium looked like a _________________________________________.

9. The berries were as red as a _________________________________________.

10. His old tennis shoes smelled like a ___________________________________.


Getting to Know Your Characters

April 3, 2014 by  
Filed under Writing for Children


character interview
by contributing editor Maurene J. Hinds

Whether you write for children or adults, characters are the driving forces of your stories. What happens to your characters and how they solve their problems are the outlines of plot. A plot can be summarized in three simple questions.

1. What does my character want?
2. What is getting in his/her way?
3. How will my character solve or deal with what is getting in the way?

That’s it.

In order to answer these questions in a way that is compelling and leads to an interesting story, however, you need to know your characters well. Once you have an intimate knowledge and understanding of your characters, you can create interesting roadblocks for them while knowing how they are most likely to respond.

How writers choose to learn about their characters varies greatly. Authors’ personalities are as varied as the characters they write about. Here are some of tools and exercises that writers use.

The Profile

A character profile is exactly as it sounds. It profiles everything you know about your character. Not all of this information ends up in the story, but the more you know about your character, the more authentic he or she will come through in the story. A profile can and should contain as many details as possible, such as:

* Physical description, including age
* Where he or she lives
* Favorites and preferences (favorite color, food, chocolate or vanilla, etc.)
* Likes and dislikes
* Hobbies
* Sports
* Occupation
* Family and marital status

A profile is similar to those email questionnaires that circulate among your friends every now and then. If you’ve ever received one of those emails, consider answering the questions about your character instead (whether or not you reply with those answers is up to you!).

The Interview

This is similar to the profile, but conducted more like an interview than simply writing a profile. Consider it a “getting to know you” interview. You can talk aloud with your character (yes, many writers do this), or you can write the questions and then answer them as your character rather than yourself.

Write from the Character’s Point of View Get into “character mode” and have your character write about him or her. Invite the character to include as many details as possible. Include the types of information that are listed in the profile or conducted in a “getting to know you” interview. What your character writes may surprise you!

Talk to Your Characters

Many writers do this. Yes, it means talking aloud, first as yourself, and then as your character. Allow yourself to “channel” the character so that his or her voice can come through as authentically as possible. If this process inhibits you, consider talking to your characters in places such as your car when you’re driving alone, or turn up some music in your room and hold a quiet conversation. The process can be surprisingly fun, and you may be pleasantly surprised at what you learn.


A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban – A Book Review by Donna McDine

April 2, 2014 by  
Filed under Writing for Children

A Crooked Kind of PerfectTitle: A Crooked Kind of Perfect
Written by: Linda Urban
Hardback: 211 pages
Ages: 8 to 12
Publisher: Harcourt, Inc.
ISBN: 978-0-15-206007-7

Zoe Elias aspires to be a prodigy piano player and holds onto her dreams of Carnegie Hall. She believes that if she can only get a baby grand piano her wishes will come true. She is dismayed that her father buys a Perfectone D-60 electric organ instead of a beautiful piano. Not only does Zoe have to deal with her disappointment, but she is dumped by her best friend Emma. Before she knows it, Zoe accepts an invitation to play in the Perform-O-Rama organ contest. Determined to do well in the contest, Zoe practices after school every day.

Zoe’s family consists of herself, her mom, and her dad. Mom is always at work and Dad is a recluse. His favorite pastime is taking mail diploma courses from Living Room University. The times he does venture out result in chaos. He always gets lost and has to call Eastside Wreck and Tow for directions every time. What’s a girl to do?

Friendship is found in the most unexpected person, Wheeler Diggs. Wheeler is from school and his family life is not exactly what you would call “perfect” either and he develops an endearing friendship with Zoe and her father.

Linda Urban creatively brings Zoe and company alive through their quirks and responsiveness to their circumstances. You will be intrigued from the first words to keep reading this fine novel about perception of families and how everything is not what it seems.

gse_multipart16490.jpgReviewed by Donna McDine, Middle Grade Book Reviewer for the National Writing for Children Center

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