Saturday, February 25, 2017


Secondary characters are not merely sidekicks. Nor should they be yes-men to protagonists. They don’t get the same page time as your main characters, but they should feel like fully rounded fleshed-out people in their own right. When handled correctly, your secondary characters can actually help drive your novel—can be part of the catalyst for change for your main character.

A few things to think about as you round out your secondary character:

1.       Ask yourself how they’re different than your main character. In juvenile fiction, your secondary character’s probably going to be a best friend—so there are going to be large areas of overlap. Your MC and a close secondary character will be like-minded and in the same place in their lives (the second grade, the same baseball team, etc.) But: How are they dissimilar? How will those differences allow the secondary character to challenge the main character—either push them farther from their goal or allow them to get closer to succeeding?

2.       What personal trial does your secondary character face off the page? If your secondary character is a fully-rounded person, they obviously have their own challenges that have nothing to do with the protagonist. Ask yourself: if this character were starring in their own novel, what might it be about? Probably the most obvious example in my own work of giving a secondary character a problem away from a novel’s protagonist occurs in my YA A BLUE SO DARK. My secondary character (the protag’s best friend) is a teen mother.

3.       How does the relationship between the protagonist and secondary character change throughout the book? Secondary characters may not be with your protagonist at the end of the book. Their friendship may be tested to the point that it breaks. How does this impact your own main character’s journey? Does your secondary character essentially start out being an ally then become an antagonist? Does the opposite happen?

Secondary characters are far more than just sounding boards or cheerleaders for your main character. By fleshing them out, they can also provide opportunities for unexpected plot twists as well as plenty of opportunities for your main character to grow.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Eleanor Estes' THE HUNDRED DRESSES Should be Smack Dab in the Middle of Every Classroom --by Dia Calhoun

The classic children's book, The Hundred Dresses (1944, Harcourt Brace) by Eleanor Estes, was my favorite book in the third grade. I loved it then because of the surprising end reveal of the astounding creative ability of Wanda Petronski, a Polish immigrant.

Wanda is bullied by her classmates for being different, especially by Peggy and sometimes by Maddie. But Maddie, who narrates much of the story, feels uncomfortable about Peggy's bullying. Bu like so many of us Maddie is afraid to speak up.

The book's beautiful ending grips the imagination. But it's realistic, too. Even as a child I resonated to Maddie's resolution at the end:

"She was never going to stand by and say nothing again. If she ever heard anybody picking on someone because they were funny looking or had strange names, she'd speak up. Even if it meant losing Peggy's friendship. She had no way of making things right with Wanda, but from now on she would never make anyone else so unhappy again."

Estes had the art, sensitivity, and skill to make the young reader feel the impact of prejudice and bullying. The Hundred Dresses should be "smack dab in the middle" of every classroom today.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Resolutions: Month Two by Claudia Mills

A comic meme circulates at the start of every January: the announcement of a new gym called "Resolutions," which offers exercise equipment for the first two weeks of the year and then turns into a bar for the next eleven-and-a-half months.

I can relate.

In January, all things seem possible: this year my life really will be different in all kinds of wonderful ways! By February, the ardor for self-transformation has considerably cooled. Oh, well, I think. Maybe next January I'll launch into dazzling self-improvement schemes with better results.

This year, however, I've made a resolution I may really have a chance of keeping all year through, because it focuses not on the year as a unit, but the month: a much less daunting stretch of time. The resolution is this: to submit a different project somewhere every single month.

That's it. The project can be anything: children's book proposal, completed children's book manuscript, scholarly children's literature article for an academic journal, short article for the SCBWI bulletin (free membership plus $50!), a personal essay, a poem. I didn't specify exactly what counts as a submission: does it count if it's to my writing group, or does it have to be to agent or editor? If pressed, I would say that the submission has to give me that tingly feeling of anticipation, the sense that something nice could happen to me at any moment, just an email away.

The resolution also conspicuously avoids any mention of having a submission actually get accepted. I can't control what the world does. I can control only what I do.

So far, in January I spent most of the month fiendishly revising a manuscript I abandoned several years ago, a time travel middle-grade featuring an enchanted cookie jar. That wasn't ready for submitting anywhere by January 31, so my official submission was a short grant proposal to the Kerlan Collection of children's literature at the University of Minnesota to do archival work on the manuscripts of Eleanor Estes and Maud Hart Lovelace, my two favorite children's authors.

In February, my task is to revise a scholarly manuscript (also abandoned several years ago) for submission to a journal. (See how this resolution is causing me to revisit and complete old work as well as producing new.) If I can't make that deadline, I'll scramble to produce a possible SCBWI article, as I have my heart (and wallet) set on free dues this year.

In March, I may have the cookie jar book revised enough to submit to my agent. If not, I'll work on producing some poems.

And who knows what I'll do in April!

I love this plan, with its flexibility and narrower focus on the month rather than the year. Admittedly it's only the 18th of February, but it's still making me happy every day.

I may not need to turn that gym into a bar this year, after all.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Number Two in a Series

by Naomi Kinsman

A series sounds like an excellent idea while you're writing book one. Then, along comes page one of book two.


I thought I was the only one who struggled over book two. Then, I finally 'fessed up to friends who also write series, and was shocked to learn my pain was nearly universal.

So, why is a second book harder than the first?

I have a few theories.

1. Book two should be like book one, but not an exact copy.

Creating something that is both like and unlike something else is harder than it might first appear. As you make decisions about what will carry over from book one (characters, plot structure, settings), you create a recipe that you can later follow in books three and beyond. You ask yourself: How much will I change? How much will I keep the same? Rather than diving straight into imaginative creation, you have a seemingly endless list of decisions to make. The trouble is that critical, decision-style thinking isn't great for drafting. Instead of diving in and gaining momentum, you're stuck, stuck, stuck at the beginning.

2. Book two needs a compelling arc that compliments the arc in book one.

If your character has grown through the first book (and we hope that she has!) it can be difficult to move forward. Say your character's internal conflict was a need for more confidence, which was gained in book one. Then, in book two, you may not want to take her through another growth sequence focused on confidence, as it may feel too repetitive. Plus, if she needs an entire new adventure to gain the confidence she needs, that reality can make the first book's arc feel less significant.

3. Handling basic exposition without boring your reader can be challenging.

Nearly all of your readers will have read book one, but you can't assume they ALL have. In book two, you need to give your reader the key information he needs. Still, you don't want to spend pages repeating everything you already wrote in book one. So, you have another set of questions to answer. How will I provide important information? What's important? How can I tell the reader about important information in a different way than I told them in book one?

If writing a sequel is that challenging, why do so many writers do it? 

I think we fall in love with the world of our stories. Writers fall in love, and so do readers. We don't want the story to be over when book one is through. Finding ways to create new adventures in familiar worlds with familiar characters is a worthwhile challenge.

The most important thing is to know that if you're struggling with book two, you're not alone! Find ways to split up your process so you have space to think and make decisions, and also have space to simply dive in and draft. Be patient with yourself. Try to gain perspective. Think about the series books that you have enjoyed. Would you have wanted the author to stop after book one? No way!

So, take heart, and keep writing. Enjoy the process. In my experience, book two often ends up being even stronger than book one.

I'm curious. Have you ever struggled with a second book in a series? Do you have any additional theories about why book two is often more difficult than book one to draft? Share them below! I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Shake Off the February Blahs by Darlene Beck Jacobson

Last month I visited the Art Museum on the Princeton University campus. It was great for three reasons. First of all, it’s free. There aren’t many places of culture and enlightenment nowadays that can boast that. And, the collection has something for everyone.  There are sculptures and pottery over 4,000 years old, paintings done by ANDY WARHOL, and everything in between.

The third reason it was a great visit is because where else but an art museum provides peace, quiet, and contemplation along with some magnificent objects of beauty? Being in such an environment frees the mind and allows all sorts of creative energy to enter. Writers who are struggling with writer’s block might find inspiration looking at any painting or sculpture, and stories begin to spring into mind. WHY did the artist choose such a subject? WHAT IF the subject were alive today? WHAT would she/he have to say?  The possibilities for story are endless.

So, if you feel as if you’re in a rut and need some CHANGE to jump start the muse, visit the Princeton University Art Museum – or ANY art museum and let your imagination run wild. Take notes, snap photos and just doodle in a notebook. You never know, it may be the start of something wonderful.

Didn't someone say "a picture is worth a thousand words?"

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Unexpected Lesson from a 2nd Grade Memory

From Jody Feldman

 For about 20 hours, I’ve been struggling with which of two names I should choose for my title character. She’s been going by one name for months, but now that I’m almost ready to launch into some serious writing, I’m not sure that’s the right name.

Part of the reason? Two days ago, another name came out. The new one, I realized, is actually her given name, but when she was born 11 3/4 years ago, her older brother morphed it into a word available to his 2-year-old vocabulary. And it stuck. Cute, right? It does often happen. But which of the two should be her name in the title? Should I drop the cute one? Or have her family call her by the cute name and have everyone else use her given name?

A person can obsess for only so long before it becomes annoying. Fifteen minutes ago, I became annoying. I needed to shift gears and write this blog post. The monthly theme: 2.  Which 2 should I write about?

Two names. No. Stop it!

What else is two? Conjoined cinnamon rolls? Two peas in a pod? 2 YY U R; 2 YY U B; I C U R 2 YY 4 me? Someone signed that in my 6th grade yearbook, and if it were June, I could write about 6th grade. But it’s February, and sticking to theme, I’d need to write about 2nd. But who remembers 2nd grade?

Not Miss Brooks/Mrs. Kurz, not exactly.
 What did I remember from 2nd grade? Only one thing. Our teacher, the very disciplinary Miss Brooks. Even with her harsh tone of voice, I didn’t want her to leave us to get married and go on her honeymoon. How terrifying! Even worse, hurtling toward me like a big black hole of nothingness? My first substitute teacher! For a full week! If I survived that, there’d be another scary change; our teacher would have a new name, Mrs. Kurz. That was not the same gentle sound as Miss Brooks. Would she get meaner? Yell more?

As I relived the memory, I had to laugh. Who knew that scary week in 2nd grade would inform my work? When Miss Brooks/Mrs. Kurz returned, she was just the same. Her name didn’t define her. Similarly, my title character’s name won’t define her.

Both of her names are odd, but as readers—as people actually—we accept whatever name our new friends go by. And if my character accepts her name as part of her, we, as readers, will feel just the same.

(But I might still obsess until I decide.)

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Character Development: Balancing the Good with the Bad

By Marcia Thornton Jones

I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ a lot lately--but don't worry, I'll stick to talking about story characters in this post!

In fiction, I think the best stories are those in which tension is developed between a protagonist and an equally matched antagonist. After all, if the antagonist is too weak, there will be no suspense about whether or not the protagonist will achieve his/her goal. On the other hand, if the antagonist is too strong, then it might not be believable when the protagonist thwarts the antagonist in the climactic scene. Adding to that, if the protagonist is all good, you run the risk of him/her coming across as a goody-two-shoes, and if the antagonist is all bad s/he comes across as a flat character. Developing rounded characters that create plot tension is all about finding a believable balance. I found that the following journaling exercises are not only fun, but they’re also helpful for creating that important balance between the good and the bad.

Character Development: Balancing the Good with the Bad

  1. List 5 negative qualities of the antagonist. Then list 5 positive qualities. Do the same for the protagonist. Write a brief scene in which the antagonist demonstrates a positive quality and the protagonist demonstrates a negative characteristic.
  2. What does the protagonist absolutely detest about the antagonist? Write a brief scene in which the protagonist exhibits that very quality and suddenly recognizes it in him/herself.
  3. What does the protagonist envy about the antagonist? Write a brief scene in which the protagonist wishes s/he could be like the antagonist in that way.
  4. Write a scene showing the protagonist being heartless. In the same scene, or in another scene, show the antagonist being compassionate.
  5. Write a scene in which the antagonist makes a convincing case for why s/he is actually right…and the protagonist experiences self-doubt (or write a scene in which an ally of the protagonist points out why the antagonist isn’t entirely wrong).

February is a good month for finding balance. Maybe these journaling prompts can help you balance the good and the bad when developing well-rounded story characters that create tension by being equally matched!

(Hmmm. I wonder what would happen if I applied these to real-life people and situations?)

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

IT TAKES TWO by Jane Kelley

Writer and reader. 

Neither one exists without the other.

The tree that falls in the forest does not make a sound unless someone is there to hear it.  

But the relationship between writer and reader is more than light bouncing off the marks on a page and reaching the optic nerve. 

My writing improves when I consider what impact my words have upon the reader. What ideas am I trying to communicate? What emotions am I hoping to inspire? 

My reading deepens when I am aware of what the writer intended. What's the context? What's the background? What's the rest of the conversation?

Yes there are many stories that need to be told and many tales we want to hear. But in the end, there is only one thing that matters -- that we connect.