I’ve put together some suggestions here for help on problems that
all writers come up against and I'll be adding to it from time to time.
HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER
When I was trying to get my first book published, back in the early 1970’s, query letters were unheard of. The way you did it then was to type up your manuscript, send it off to a publisher, and wait. Wait, is the operative word here. Six months, sometimes even longer. Then, more often than not, it would come back coffee-stained and dog-eared. You would retype it and send it out again to the next publisher on your list. Multiple submissions—sending the manuscript to more than one publisher at the same time—were absolutely forbidden. It’s no wonder that it took me six years to get my first novel accepted and another four to place my second. After that, things got easier. Editors knew me and my books began to sell. Because of that, I have never actually written a query letter. I wish I had had the option, though.
Query letters make writers’ lives a lot easier today, and editors’, too. A writer can send out several letters to different publishers, all at once, and then make a decision on where to send his or her manuscript based on the replies. Or lack thereof. An editor can get a good idea of how well a writer can write and how interesting the proposed manuscript might be just from reading such a letter. So it makes sense to put as much effort into your query as you have into your manuscript. If I had to write a query letter today, this is how it would go:
“God wills it!” was the cry of the People’s Crusade, a crusade that, after months of starvation, murder and fighting, ended in disaster on the shores of the Sea of Marmora. In the year 1096 Pope Urban II of the Holy Roman Empire called for a quest to liberate Jerusalem from the Turkish Muslims. The great princes and nobles of Europe began to assemble their armies, but a mad monk from Amiens, named Peter, could not wait. He preached crusade now. “God wills it!” was his battlecry, and 20,000 people responded. Peasants, priests and minor nobles flocked to join him. The Pope had promised pardon for their sins to all who went on crusade, so the prisons of the Empire emptied out and the scum of Europe swelled his ranks. Peter welcomed them all. The People’s Crusade swept across Europe like a horde of ravening wolves. Ursula, an apothecary’s brilliant daughter, is caught up in it. Wrongly accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death by fire, the crusade is her only means of salvation. With her father, a devout pilgrim, and her friend Bruno, a stonemason who dreams of building churches to glorify God, she becomes embroiled in the horror of war.
Historical novels are becoming increasingly popular with young adults. Teachers and librarians seek them out. This novel, THERE WILL BE WOLVES, is the first in a series of four books that I plan to write chronicling the history of the crusades, the holy wars that swept across Europe and the Holy Land in the middle ages. No matter what the time or place, war has a devastating effect on the innocent people who are caught up in it. Even more so on the lives of the young. In this book I show how Ursula’s and Bruno’s lives are changed completely — the inhumanity they must experience, but also the growth of compassion, understanding and love.
I lived for four years in Germany and did much of my research there. That research included travelling the route the crusaders took from Cologne to Istanbul and then on around the Sea of Marmora. In all respects I have tried to make the historical details in the book as accurate as possible.
I would very much like to submit this manuscript for your consideration. I would also like to know if you consider multiple submissions.
When you write a novel you go to considerable pains to “hook” your reader with the very first paragraphs. This applies just as well to your query letter. Make it as interesting as you can and as exciting. Let the editor know who the book is about, when it takes place, what the conflicts are. What the theme is. What you are trying to do or say in the story.
In my query letter there is also a sentence explaining why I think there will be a market for the book: “Historical novels are becoming increasingly popular with young adults. Teachers and librarians seek them out.” As well, I have let the editor know that I plan to write sequels to the book. I would hope that the promise of more to come would be helpful, as editors do love sequels. They sell more books. Important, also, is the brief paragraph giving my credentials for writing about this period in history and an assurance that the historical details are accurate.
The trick is to get this across as succinctly as possible—no more than one page. An editor receives thousands of query letters, chances are if one runs on to two or three single-spaced pages, he or she will toss it out unread. There just isn’t time. It’s the brief letter with the irresistable opening lines that will get read. I have included a line at the end asking whether this particular publishing house will accept multiple submissions. Luckily for writers nowadays, most do, but some still won’t. It is important for you to know this. If a particular house that you really want to publish with tells you that they don’t accept multiple submissions, but will reply within a reasonable amount of time, (about six to nine weeks), then you may want to submit your manuscript there before sending it off somewhere else. Do not send it anywhere else before you hear back from them, however. It would be more than embarrassing to have them write back to you accepting the manuscript and then have to inform them that it’s already under consideration elsewhere. It would also close that particular door firmly in your face.
Another alternative is for you to set a time limit when you submit your manuscript. For example, you could say that if you have not heard back from them within six weeks you will submit the manuscript elsewhere.
Getting published is never easy, but a good query letter will help smooth the way. Good luck!
© copyright 1998 Karleen Bradford
WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS?
How often have I been asked that question! It seems people think a writer is a person who walks around, or sits around, waiting until an idea strikes. Pow! The idea hits, floods through the brain and out the fingertips onto the computer keys and a story is born. Just like that. Those of you who have struggled to write know better.
I like to think of a writer as a walking sponge. Going through life open to everything that is happening around him or her, aware of everything that is going on. Listening, smelling, tasting, always thinking the writer’s magic words: What if...? That’s how you get ideas.
My first book was easy. I had been writing and publishing short stories for several years and had finally decided to take the plunge and write a novel. What to write about? They say an author’s first book is often autobiographical and that was very much the case with mine. (Although the hero is a 13-yr old boy, and I’ve never been a 13-yr old boy--in this life, anyway) It was about a boy who has to go and live with his grandfather for a year while his parents are away. The boy is an environmentalist/conservationist who thinks that hunters are little better than murderers. The grandfather is a fanatic sportsman who thinks that the boy is a wishy-washy nerd. When I got married I was a big-city girl who didn’t see any reason for shooting birds and animals when you could buy perfectly good steaks and chicken all nicely wrapped in plastic at the supermarket. I then married into the huntingest, fishingest family you could ever imagine. My mother-in-law’s idea of making me welcome was sharing her fishing worms with me. We had a hard time getting to know and understand each other. It turned out to be the perfect idea for my first book. (Wrong Again, Robbie, Scholastic Canada Ltd., 1977, 1983)
A visit to a pioneer village with my kids gave me the idea for the second. Looking around the old buildings I began to think: What if a girl from modern-day Canada came here to visit and suddenly found herself back in time when these buildings were actually being lived in? What if she landed back smack in the middle of the War of 1812? I started researching and a year later my second book was finished. (The Other Elizabeth, Gage Educational Publishing, 1982)
A trip to a school in northern Ontario gave me the idea for another of my books. I was driving along on a hot, late spring day and passed a crumby little service station. It was run-down, with piles of old tires stacked against its walls and was painted in garish orange and white stripes. A sign hanging out front said: Coffee, Snacks, Worms. I laughed, imagining myself walking in, ordering a coffee and a chocolate bar and a nice, big, juicy bowl of worms. Then I drove on and forgot about it. I thought.
At the school I was talking with a group of keen young writers who told me that they had to ride the school bus for over an hour in the morning and again in the afternoon.
“What do you do all that time?” I asked. “Homework?”
Surprisingly, none of them did. One girl said, however, “I plot stories.” In that instant Kate, a girl who lived in a run-down service station on the side of a dusty Ontario highway, was born. She hated her home, hated her life and spent nearly all of her time inside her head, writing stories. (Thirteenth Child, HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 1994)
Living in England, I heard the story of Lady Jane Grey, who was Queen of England for nine days and then had her head chopped off. That was much too good an idea for a story to pass up. (The Nine Days Queen, Scholastic Canada Ltd., 1986) Also, while we lived in England, we went travelling and exploring around the countryside as much as possible. A big, gloomy house on the side of a cliff just cried out for a ghost story to be written about it. (Haunting at Cliff House, Scholastic Canada Ltd., 1985)
In Germany, a few years later, I found out that the first Crusade of all the holy wars that swept across Europe and Asia in the early middle ages had left from a town near where I lived. The research for that book has carried me through it and a second, now I’m writing about the Third Crusade. (There Will be Wolves, HarperCollins Publishers, 1992; Shadows on a Sword, HarperCollins Publishers, 1996)
Things that happen to you, good or bad, can give you ideas for stories. I almost drowned once, rescuing my dog who had fallen through the ice. (One of the stupidest things I’ve ever done in my life) I couldn’t get the experience out of my mind. Night after night, I relived it and had nightmares. Then I wrote a short story about it, (Not Ever Again), and have slept peacefully ever since.
Your own particular interests can be a goldmine for ideas. My daughter desperately wanted to be a ballet dancer when she was growing up. She ran into all kinds of problems and I got all kinds of ideas for a book about a young girl who wants to go to the National School of Dance, but is taken away by her mother to live in a small town. (I Wish There Were Unicorns, Gage Educational Publishers, 1983)
Do you love sports? What would happen if you had a chance to make the Olympic team and then suffered an accident? Do you like animals? I met a woman once who had a three-legged dog. At just that time I had bought a Golden Retriever. As I watched the woman’s dog and my own bounding around together, the three-legged one just as agile and happy as my own, I began to think: What if a boy bought a pedigreed dog and wanted it to become a Champion and what if it lost a leg...? That’s been published with Scholastic Canada as A Different Kind of Champion.
Personal problems getting you down? Disguise the characters, disguise the problem as much as you can, then write a story about it. Chances are when your main character works his or her way out of the problem, you might have some very good ideas about how to solve your own as well.
Ideas are all around. All it takes is for you to make the effort to find them. Don’t wait for that bolt of lightning to strike. Get out in the world and make like a sponge!
© copyright 1998 Karleen Bradford
HOW TO OVERCOME WRITERS’ BLOCK
You’re off to a great start, everything is going along fine, but suddenly the words stop coming. You know where you want to go—but how are you going to get there? What do you write next? You’ve ground to a halt. You’re out of ideas. You’re stuck!
There’s a name for this. It’s called “writers’ block” and it hits all of us sooner or later. I know, because I’ve wrestled with it many times. I sit down at the computer and just cannot think of what I want to say next.
There are lots of ways to deal with this, however, so don’t despair. Just consider yourself in the company of most of the writers in the world and learn a few tips from them.
The first thing to do is to sit down at that desk! If you walk around saying, “Oh, I just don’t feel like writing today. I’ll wait until I can think of something,” that will be the end of your story. I’ve read dozens of articles by well-known and even very famous writers who say that the hardest part of writing is actually sitting down and getting to it. It’s even harder when you know you’re stuck.
I’ve been known to wash the kitchen floor in order to avoid my computer on some occasions, and if you were a member of my family you’d know how much I hate that particular chore. In fact, my son came home from school once, walked into the kitchen, and said, “Uh-oh, Mom must be stuck with her writing again. The kitchen floor’s clean!”
Sitting down at that desk when it’s the last thing in the world you want to do--when you’re afraid to sit down at it--is called discipline. That’s a word that’s far more important to writers than the word “talent.” You can be the most talented writer in the world, but without discipline you’ll never get anything finished.
Once you’re sitting at that desk, what do you do? You could start brainstorming again. What if this happened...? What if that happened...? Start scribbling down any idea that comes into your mind that might solve the problem. Just the act of writing will generate more ideas. And if it doesn’t work, it’s not written in stone. You can toss it out (or press that handy delete key) and try again.
Another trick is to start moving your character around. Make him or her do something, even if you don’t think it has anything to do with your story. I got stuck quite early on in my book about Lady Jane Grey. (The Nine Days Queen, Scholastic Canada Ltd.) I’d written the first chapter, got Jane and her family to London, and was all set to write about the young King Edward’s coronation. Then I stalled.
How was I going to get them to the coronation? What should they do next? I sat and stared at the blank piece of paper with “CHAPTER 2” written on it and bit my fingernails. That wasn’t very productive and it certainly wasn’t good for my fingernails.
So I bustled Jane’s nurse into the room without the slightest idea of what she was going to do—and suddenly I thought of clothes. Of course! Jane and her sister Katherine would have to have something to wear to the coronation.
The nurse immediately whisked over to a trunk, opened it, and took out Jane’s and Katherine’s best dresses, which they hadn’t worn for a year. Then, of course, Jane’s dress would be too small for her, so that would create a problem. Then, of course, Jane would be dejected because her younger sister was so much prettier than she was and looked as if she would be so much more at home at court than Jane would be...and so on and so on. I ended up changing and shortening what I wrote—a lot of it just blathered on—but the exercise got the creative juices flowing and I was writing again.
Something else that works: if I’m well and truly stuck, I’ll take what I’ve already written and rewrite it. It’s going to be rewritten anyway, so it’s not time wasted.
Again, just the act of writing and getting your mind involved with your story will likely carry you past the dead spot. I often find that by the time I arrive at the point where I’d stopped writing before, I’m ready to sail right on.
In short—hang in there! The story that never gets finished will certainly never get published.
(Taken from Chapter 8 of my book, WRITE NOW! How to turn your ideas into great stories, Scholastic Canada Ltd., 1996)
© copyright 1998 Karleen Bradford
CHARACTERIZATION - WHO’S WHO IN THIS STORY?
When I finish a book and send it off to the publisher I feel a tremendous sense of loss. It’s as if I were sending my kids off to boarding school! That’s because the characters in that book have become as real to me as my own children. And the characters in your story have to be as real to you as your own kids, too. Whether you have any or not. They have to be so important that your reader really cares what’s going to happen to them. This means doing a lot of thinking and work on them before you start to write.
Often the idea for a story will begin with the idea for a character. You see someone on the street, or you read about someone, and your imagination takes off. You start wondering about them, creating stories around them. I’m often asked if I use “real” people in my stories and of course I do. But not in their entirety and not the way they really are. I take bits and pieces of people and embroider on them. Or I take characteristics from one and give them to another to create a totally new person, but one whose origins have come from people I know. Sometimes I think I am creating an original character and I realize that there are a lot of my own characteristics and beliefs creeping in there.
This is not to say that you won’t sometimes create characters that are “new”, but you are the sum of your memories and your characters are the sum of your memories, too. With perhaps some wishful thinking added in.
No matter where they come from, though, you have to get to know these people as well as you know your own kids, friends or relatives. Better. You’ll know things about them that your best friend would never tell you. And you might not tell your readers everything about your characters either, but--you’ll know it. The best way to do this is to draw up character sketches for every one of your characters before you begin writing. As you plan or do research for the book, add details to each person’s character sketch. Start with physical descriptions, then go on to emotional characteristics. What do they like to eat for breakfast? What do they hate? What are they allergic to? What’s their favourite color? Do they hate cats? Why? You’ll go into far more detail for your main character/s, of course, but don’t neglect the secondary ones, even the least important. If anyone deserves to be in your story, they deserve to be as real and well-rounded as you can make them.
It doesn’t matter if you end up using only some of this information in your story. The important thing is for you to know how your hero or heroine will feel about the problems you’ve created. If you’ve made them real enough, maybe they will even solve those problems on their own and surprise you.
Sometimes the name comes first, sometimes you have to write the whole character sketch and go through one name after another until you find just the right one. In a work for young children, especially if it’s a short story, it’s better not to have two main characters with similar sounding names, Joe and Jim, for example. Kids will tend to get them mixed up. Make them definitely different, say, Joe and Pete, or David and Jim.
Quite often you’ll find that while you’re writing the story, somebody you didn’t think was going to be important will gradually become more and more so. This has happened in more than one of my books. InThere Will be Wolves, (HarperCollins Canada Ltd.) Ursula was supposed to be the secondary character. Bruno was the hero. By the end of the third chapter, however, Ursula had taken over. I had to go back and rewrite from the beginning and give the book to her. This almost happened with Emma in the sequel,Shadows on a Sword, (HarperCollins Canada Ltd.),but I managed to keep her firmly in her place. Not an easy job. In my latest novel, Dragonfire, (HarperCollins Canada Ltd.), Catryn became stronger and stronger. I didn’t let her take over that book but I am going to write a sequel and let her have her way in it.
If you get to know your characters as well as you possibly can, you’ll find that they’ll sometimes do their own talking. All you’ll have to do is write the words down.
Describing your characters: This can be tricky and this is where you want to bring in the old rule, “Show don’t tell.” Don’t tell us that Diana has long curly black hair and that Jim has startling blue eyes, show us. For example:
Diana tossed black curls out of her eyes with impatience. She desperately wanted to cut that hair but her mother wouldn’t hear of it.
Diana was startled again by how brilliant a blue Jim’s eyes were. She hadn’t thought a person’s eyes could be that dazzling.
Don’t tell us that Peter is tall, have him hunch over as he enters a room with a low doorway, or sit uncomfortably on a low chair, his knees somewhere up around his chin.
Don’t tell us Alice is mad, have her burst into the room and slam her books down on her desk.
Don’t tell us Kim is sad, show us.
It’s lost, she thought. Lost forever. She didn’t even hear her mother come into the room. She wouldn’t have cared if she had. It was too late...
One thing to avoid at all costs: do not have your character look at himself or herself in the mirror and tell us what he or she sees. That’s been done and overdone to death. It’s too easy and it’s boring. Writing is all about creativity and you can be more creative than that.
© copyright 1999 Karleen Bradford
Make your dialogue sound normal. Please notice I did not say make your dialogue normal. If you take the time to listen to any conversation going on around you, you will quickly notice that it’s a terrible mishmash of incomplete sentences, ums and ahs, repetitions and stuff that just doesn’t make sense. What you have to do is write dialogue that sounds as if people are talking normally, but that flows easily and fluently. That’s difficult and takes practice. You can have people interrupting each other, or lost in thought and have their sentences trailing off...But you have to be in control and do this consciously.
“You never listen to a word I —” Michelle began.
“Of course I do,” Jim interrupted.
“I wonder if I could find out what’s really going on...” Mary’s voice trailed away.
A lot of writers are afraid of the simple word “said”. They will go to extremes to avoid it. There are lots of ways to do that, of course:
“I — I don’t believe that,” Jane stuttered.
“I can’t believe that!” Susan exclaimed.
“No, I won’t,” Ted answered.
“Okay,” Joe replied.
“No!” Mary screamed.
“Get out!” Chris shouted.
“I’m afraid,” Barbara whispered.
But be careful about going too far with this. A lot of the time “said” is the easiest and quickest word to use and, chances are if the action is zipping along your reader will not even notice it.
Avoid using verbs that are impossible, such as:
“I hope not,” Mary sighed.
“That’s ridiculous,” Tim laughed.
Just try sighing a sentence, or laughing a sentence. It can’t be done. Instead, you could put it this way:
“I hope not.” Mary sighed.
“That’s ridiculous.” Tim let out a bellow of laughter.
Watch out for adverbs, too. I was at a workshop once where Ursula Le Guin, the well-known author of many young adult and adult science fiction and fantasy books, claimed that in her whole Wizard of Earthsea series she only used four adverbs. I went home and reread them, and she was right! Adverbs make for weak writing. Avoid phrases such as “laughed happily” or “sobbed sadly”. You can be fairly certain that if someone’s laughing it’s happily, or if sobbing, it’s sadly. Good strong verbs move the action along much better. How about “she burbled” instead. Or, “His voice broke.”
It’s not always necessary to use a dialogue tag such as “said” or “shouted” at all. You can let the charater’s actions tell the reader who is speaking.
“I hate this school and everybody in it!” Beth slammed her books down on her desk so hard a couple of them bounced off and landed on the floor.
“I’m sorry, I can’t tell you that.” Jim turned his back on Ted and walked away.
Make dialogue work for the story. Use it to further the action and tell your readers something more about the person who is speaking, or what is going on.
The dialogue above lets us know exactly how Beth is feeling, without the need for the author to tell the reader that Beth is angry. We also get to know that Jim has a secret he can’t share with Ted. But we haven’t told the reader that information, we’ve shown it.
Sometimes, if there are only two people talking and you want the action to move quickly, you don’t need to identify who is speaking after every sentence, just once in a while to keep the reader on track.
“I didn’t steal it!” Don’s face was flushed with anger.
“Yeah, right. Then how come it’s in your locker?” Dave shot back. He looked just as mad.
“I don’t know. I don’t know how it got there.” Don was almost shouting now.
“You expect me to believe that?”
“Yes. It’s the truth!”
“Well, I don’t believe you. Sorry.”
“You have to!” To his horror, Don realized there were tears in his eyes.
You set up the rhythm of who is speaking when, in the first few sentences. You set up the way in which each person is speaking, and the substance of what they are saying, and then you let the dialogue take it from there and your reader will have no trouble keeping the two characters straight. Don’t let it go on too long, however, or they’ll get lost.
And whatever you do, don’t forget the basic rule that when a new person speaks, you start a new paragraph. I know, of course you know that. Just reminding you.
© copyright 1999 Karleen Bradford
OUTLINES: THINK OF A SKELETON, NOT A CAGE
Outlines: do you really need them? Very rarely will an idea for a story come to you so complete and finished that all you have to do is sit there and try to write fast enough to keep up with it. That has happened to me, but only about three times in over thirty years of writing. Usually, especially when I’m writing historical fiction, I have to organize my story before I start writing it. That’s when I need to make an outline. Besides, just the act of making an outline will often stimulate your imagination enough to make you think of even more good ideas.
Start by jotting down the original idea that you’ve settled on, the problem that you’ve invented and the complications you’ve already dreamed up. Then write down what you think will happen and how it will end (if you know). Now expand on it as much as possible. How do the characters in your story feel about what’s happening? Put that down. What happens in the end (if you know by now)? Get it all down.
As an example, let’s use an outline I made for a three - legged dog story and see how that developed. (This was originally a short story, by the way, but has now been expanded into a middle grade novel and has been published by Scholastic Canada Ltd. as A Different Kind of Champion.)
First I started with just the bare details:
- Boy owns a valuable pedigreed golden retriever. (Original idea)
- Dog loses leg. (Problem)
- Boy wanted dog to be a show dog. (Complication?)
- Ending ????????????
Next I expanded on that in a second outline.
- Boy owns a valuable pedigreed golden retriever.
- Dog loses leg. (How? Possibly caught in a trap in the woods. Boy doesn’t find dog for days. How many days? Find out from vet how long a dog must be in a trap to lose its leg but still be able to live.)
- Dog lives. Boy still loves dog, but is terribly disappointed that it will never be a champion now.
- Dog learns to get along on three legs better than most dogs could on five. Loves obedience training and is extremely good at it.
- Boy decides to enter dog in obedience trials and make it a champion that way.
Here I ran into a problem. Talking to the trainer at my own dog’s obedience school, I found out that you couldn’t enter a dog even in obedience trials unless it is “sound of limb.” (These rules have since been changed.) At that point my story seemed to have come to a dead end.
Then the trainer told me there were informal club obedience trials, the only difference being that the dog wouldn’t become a recognized champion if he won them. My immediate response was, “Oh, this boy wouldn’t want that for his dog. He wants the ‘real thing’.” Then my mind started working again, and here’s how the outline went:
- Boy finds out dog can’t enter regular obedience trials.
- Trainer suggests boy enter dog in club trials because the dog is so well trained and loves the work so much.
- Boy rejects this angrily. That’s not good enough for his dog.
- Trainer keeps insisting and finally, seeing how much fun the dog has doing obedience work, boy gives in and enters dog in club trials.
- Dog wins. (Is that it? Seems blah. Needs something more. Maybe it’ll come to me as I write.)
Outlines help you get going with your story and also show you where you might have to do some research before you actually start writing, as you can see from this example. If, later on, your story suddenly takes off and things start happening that you didn’t know were going to happen—if the characters take over and start doing what they want to do instead of what you intended them to do—great! That means your story is coming alive—and that is just what you want it to do.
In that case, change your outline or expand it. It’s not engraved in stone. An outline is meant to help you, not make things harder. Think of it as a skeleton that you can build on, not as a cage that hems you in and keeps you trapped.
When I got the boy to the club trials, which he still viewed with contempt, I was as surprised as he to find out that he was, in fact, as nervous as if the trials were “all for real.” The dog then took over my writing and just romped through those trials, having such a wonderful time that it won the whole thing. At the end, the judge announced that he had never awarded so many points to any other dog in any other show, formal or informal, before.
Then—I could see it as clearly as could be--the dog sat there in the winners’ circle, balanced precariously on three legs, tongue lolling out of the widest laughing mouth possible on any breed of dog, and all the people around stood up and cheered.
You don’t have to know how your story is going to end when you draft your outline. Nor do you have to know everything that’s going to happen. You might want to pencil in several possible scenes for one chapter or several possible endings. Use your outline as a tool to help you in your writing of the story. It will keep you on track if you get too far off your original idea and give you a framework to hang on to. If you end up changing it as you go along to fit new ideas and possibilities that occur to you, that’s just fine.
Taken from Chapter 3 of my book, Write Now!, How to turn your ideas into great stories, by Karleen Bradford. (Scholastic Canada, 1988, Revised 1996)
© copyright 1999 Karleen Bradford
PLOTTING THE STORY
The best definition of plot, or what makes a story a story and not an essay, was given to me by a five-year old boy. Through a mix-up that I still haven’t quite figured out, I found myself one morning facing an audience of one hundred kindergarteners sitting on a gym floor. As I was supposed to be doing a writing workshop, I was stymied. How do you do a writing workshop with a bunch of kids who don’t know how to write yet? Years of camp counsellor jobs came to my aid, however, and I warmed them up with songs and jokes. Then I decided to see what I could teach them about writing stories.
I told them the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears--two ways. In the first version I took out all the drama. Goldilocks just went up to the house, knocked, and the bears invited her to come in and have breakfast with them. When they finished they all lay down for a nap, and then she thanked them politely and went home. I hammed up the second version--the one we are all familiar with—and made it as dramatic and scary as possible.
When I finished, I asked the group, “Which of those two versions was a story? The first one?” No hands went up. “The second one?” All the hands shot up.
“Why was the second one a story and the first one wasn’t?” I asked. A very disgusted young man in the front row crossed his arms over his chest, stared up at me as if I was the stupidest adult he had ever seen, and said, “Because something happened, of course.”
Best definition of a story I’ve ever heard. A story is when something happens.
That’s it in a nutshell.
Your main character, or characters, must be faced with some kind of problem. It can be a physical danger or a moral dilemma. The story of your story will be how they recognize and face this problem and, ultimately, how they solve it. Be sure to make your main character solve his or her own problem, especially in a children’s story. Don’t let an adult do it for them. You want your character to face their own problems, resolve them, and grow through the experience. At the end of the story he or she is a different person than they were at the beginning. They have changed, and learned something. This is especially important in children’s literature because this is where your young reader is at in his or her own life. They want and need heroes and heroines who are facing challenges, just as they are, and who are meeting them and solving them, themselves. And please, please, please, Lewis Carroll notwithstanding, don’t make it all just have been a dream. That’s a cop-out and almost certain to make your young reader feel cheated. Old reader, too, actually.
This is not to say that your story will necessarily have a happy ending. Life doesn’t always provide us with happy endings. Things don’t always work out the way we want them to. The resolution that your main character comes to may not be the in removal of the problem, but in the learning of how to cope with it. One of the first books in Canadian literature for young adults that dared to present such a realistic ending was Hunter in the Dark, (Clark, Irwin & Company, 1982), by Monica Hughes. At the beginning of the book, Mike is seriously ill. At the end, his illness has not been cured, but he has learned how to come to terms with it.
In general, a novel or a short story will follow this kind of structure:
- Beginning, where the problem is presented.
- Middle, where the problem escalates. In a longer piece of work more problems may present themselves.
- Quick and satisfying wrap-up.
Remember, you don’t necessarily have to know how it’s all going to turn out when you start writing. Half the fun of writing a book is finding out yourself how it all turns out. Sometimes you create those problems so realistically that you’ll think you’ve written yourself into a corner with no exits, that you’ve set yourself a totally impossible task. That’s when you have to work yourself nearly to death to come up with a solution.
But then there are the other times. The times when you’ll get up from your desk after some hours’ work with this great, excited feeling: “Wow! I didn’t know that was going to happen!”
© copyright 1999 Karleen Bradford
It used to be that books or stories for children were written solely for the purpose of teaching moral lessons, or warning the innocent little souls of the pitfalls awaiting them if they did not lead goodly lives. A Token for Children: Being An Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives, and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children, written in 1672 by James Janeway, was a good example of the genre. It wasn’t until The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes was published by John Newbery in hisInstruction with Delight, 1765, that any idea of enjoyment was associated with reading for children. The notion still lingers on and many writers for young people feel they must include some kind of moral in the stories they write. Unfortunately, young people have noses like rat terriers for this sort of thing and they will root it out without fail, and toss the book out as well.
This is not to say that what you write will not reflect your values or your beliefs. In spite of yourself, these will come through. Often you will have something you very much want to say—and should say. It’s how you say it that counts, and that will be the theme of your story.
Often your theme will sneak up on you and take you unawares. You may start out by simply intending to write a good story and while you are writing it find out that you do, indeed, have something more complex to say. I started to write the first of my crusades books, There Will be Wolves, (HarperCollins Canada Ltd., Lodestar Books, USA) because I thought it would have been an exciting adventure for a young person to go on. As I delved deeper and deeper into the research for it, I became horrified at the violence and greed of most of the so-called noble leaders of those holy wars. Gradually I came to realize that what I was writing about was the effect that war has on the ordinary people who are caught up in it, especially young people with little experience of life, and that this is an effect that is just as crushing today as it was nine hundred years ago.
Themes can change. I started to write Windward Island, (Kids Can Press, Canada) the story of a lighthouse keeper’s son who must leave his island to go to school on the mainland and adamantly refuses to do so, with one theme in mind. Basically it was: stick to your guns. Be true to yourself. The book didn’t work. No matter how many times I rewrote it, the book wasn’t true to itself. I had to grit my teeth and rewrite it with the ending I didn’t want. When I did so, it all fell into place. Then I found out that the theme had changed. Instead of a stubborn refusal to face reality, the theme had become: learn to accept the inevitable and deal with it, even if it causes sorrow. It’s part of growing up.
“Why would a thirteen or fourteen year old who can read at an adult level want to read a kid’s book”? Another question I was once asked. My answer to that was quick and easy.
“Because thirteen or fourteen year olds don’t always want to read about adults and adult problems.”
You are not going to be teaching kids what is right, what is wrong, with your writing, but you will be showing them. By what happens to your main characters, by how they face their problems and overcome them, you will be showing kids that these things can be solved. They’re not the only ones who have troubles, who occasionally lie or cheat or do stuff they’re ashamed of, or who have bad things happen to them. It’s part of the experience of all young people, part of growing up and learning to get on in the world. Those are the themes that will emerge as you write, if you write honestly. And you must write honestly for children.
I cannot emphasize that too much. You cannot patronize them, you cannot write down to them. Write honestly out of your own feelings and beliefs and they will respond.