Authentication Required

Recently I sat in a workshop with a Big Deal writer who happened to also be my teacher. And at some point as he listened to every student read their work, he’d get super excited about one thing: an authenticating detail. There’s an excellent piece by Dave Koch on the subject here, but basically, it’s the one detail that makes the story come alive, that reaches you out and places you inside the world the author has created.

It doesn’t matter which genre you’re working. In a fantasy novel, this detail could be an element of the setting. In realism, it could be a tic you give your character, or a single action they take, or an item they own.

Stories will have more than one authenticating detail, but the key to an authenticating detail is that it be subtle and so organic to the story that it doesn’t jump out at the reader at the very moment it’s sucking them in. Essentially, this is the highest level of showing, not telling. It’s so seamless that it draws no attention to itself even as it evokes an emotional or intellectual response; the words cease to be a story and become an experience in the writer-reader mind meld that marks the best of books.

This all sounds very vague, doesn’t it? Mmm, yes. That’s because this is an elusive thing to do, weaving in the authenticating detail. It’s a reflection of an author’s voice and the specific world of the story, so it’s the kind of thing readers can point out to you as the thing that captured them, but no one can tell you up front how to do.

So, let’s look at an example of an authenticating detail in a character’s thoughts:

“She retreated to her favorite weeping willow to follow Osanne’s next order. It sat closest to the woods, and she slipped into the quiet of its canopy. When she was little, this space had felt more like the log chapel in Destrehan, the one the Capuchin priests had built. She had only been once, and she hadn’t like the old priest who presided over it. He’d dug his fingers into her jaw and they poked like chicken bones as he stared at her eyes and frowned. But she had never forgotten how the little church felt, like thousands of prayers had soaked into its walls.
Sylvie wondered how many of her prayers had soaked into the willow’s roots and branches since she had first learned to pray. It wasn’t the way the priests had taught, but she had learned from Osanne that what the priests taught was a place to start, and then you had to season it like a fricassee to get the full flavor out of it.” 

These two paragraphs are full of sensory details, flashes of memory. And for each reader, the authenticating detail may be different. That means it’s your job as a writer to think of as many as you can so you have the best chance of pulling your reader in WITHOUT bogging your story down in excessive detail. NO PROBLEM, RIGHT?

The reason the highlighted detail authenticates the scene, for me, is that without knowing much about this Sylvie person, this internal thought has revealed some tangible and intangible things at the same time. In the abstract, it reveals that Sylvie isn’t ground in religious orthodoxy—that she has a tendency to think for herself. In the concrete, it reveals a glimpse of her daily life, in this case, what and how she eats.

Here’s another example where the authenticating detail is in the setting:

“Everything is like that. Stores, schools, even churches. Some people do different stuff with their front yards so you can kind of tell places apart, but . . . mostly everything is beige.  The homeowner’s association loves beige, and that’s what they make you paint everything, or they fine you. There’s a lot of names for beige too. My house is painted Grecian Summer, which is a pinkish beige, and Olivia’s is New Sahara. That’s yellowish beige. I can show you Sand Dune, Creamy Mocha, and Dreamscape. (Pro tip: the guy who named that dreamed in beige.) I will give you ten bucks if you can see the difference between any of those.”

This is such an utterly relatable image that it takes you right back to every suburb like this that you’ve ever seen, but it’s developed beyond simply describing the houses and being monochromatic or boring. We get a sense of the narrator’s finely tuned sense of absurdity as she runs down the color names, and that’s the authenticating detail, the names of the beige she notices, not the beige itself. We learn both about the physical appearance of the town she lives in and her relationship to it in this single scene.

It’s tricky business, but watch for it as you read. When you stumble across a character’s internal thought or a detail about the world that really resonates with you, STOP. Pick it apart. Think about why that detail comes to life for you. What is the subtle work that detail is doing at multiple levels that brings a scene or character alive?

Go forth, writers. AUTHENTICATION REQUIRED.
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Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and champion shopper. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and romance novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Melanie is a former English teacher who loves to laugh and make others laugh. In her down time (ha!), she writes romantic comedies for Covenant and maintains her humorous slice-of-life blog. Her sixth novel, Always Will, hits shelves in October. Melanie’s contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin.

Three Dialogue Don’ts

Dialogue isn’t just the words your characters say to each other. Good dialogue works on a number of different levels and accomplishes so much. It can add to the reader’s knowledge of a situation, keep a scene moving forward, reveal something about a character (especially if you use subtext) and tell us about the relationships between characters. I love writing dialogue! But there are a few things dialogue should NOT be used for:

1-Dialogue isn’t good for describing people, places, or objects. 


“When you walked into the room, I couldn’t help but notice the shimmering beads on the neckline of your red gown. It really clashes with the highlights in your auburn pixie-cut hair.”

Awkward.

Instead, drop the description right into the narrative. Alternatively, use it to tell us more about your character, such as:

“Hmm.”
“What?”
“Nothing.”
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
“It’s just that your dress is so…”
“What’s wrong with my dress?”
“I didn’t say anything was wrong with it. Just…never mind.”

2-Dialogue is not an important source of facts.


“If I don’t get to the Hartsfield International Airport in time, I’m going to miss the 9:30am flight to Phoenix. Your father is depending on me to be there for the gala in his honor tonight where everyone from the Dennis and Hart law firm will be attending.”

Nope. Just nope.

Instead, try:

“Where are my keys?”
“You’re going to be late.”
“I won’t be late if I can just find my keys. Get up and help me.”
“I can’t believe you’re going to miss the flight again.”
“I’m not going to miss it. Don’t tell your father about this. Okay?”

3-Dialogue is not for extended ruminating.


“I can’t help wondering, why am I here? I mean, not in a Biblical meaning-of-life kind of way, as in why are we here on earth experiencing this insignificant existence? More of a how did I get to this point in my life where my fate seems to hang on the balance of despair and insanity? I have no joy, no hope in this moment. Nothing to bring me a sense of peace in my pathetic actuality. Just a never-ending stream of questions that don’t make sense anymore.”

Ouch.

Please don’t waste the reader’s time with an empty scene like that. When in doubt, put it in narrative:

Gina went on a rant about life again. Most of us ignored her.

Learning to craft good dialogue is one of the most critical aspects of learning to write good fiction. By using gesture, silence, sensory clues, descriptive settings, unspoken thoughts, an association, or subtext interspersed with the words your characters speak, your dialogue will come alive.

So don’t hesitate to make those characters talk…just use those words wisely!

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Ilima Todd was born and raised on the north shore of Oahu and currently resides in the Rocky Mountains. She never wanted to be a writer even though she loves books and reading. She earned a degree in physics instead. But the characters in her head refused to be ignored, and now she spends her time writing science fiction for teens. Ilima is the author of the REMAKE series (Simon Pulse/Shadow Mountain) and is represented by Katherine Boyle of Veritas Literary. When she is not writing, Ilima loves to spend time with her husband and four children.

5 Ways to Incorporate Details About a Setting

Rosalyn and Charlie had some great advice last week about creating settings and I wanted to build off of their posts and talk about how to include descriptions in your work.

I admit, I’m not the most innately gifted person at including descriptions. In fact, I usually forget them all together in a first draft (but those are supposed to be terrible anyway, right?) and have to add them in at later drafts, layering them and revising them until I feel like they are evoking the mood I want them to do. Because descriptions don’t come naturally to me, I’ve spent some time studying them and trying to figure out how some authors make them work and how to avoid writing description that makes readers skim over paragraphs to get to the good stuff.

So here are 5 things I’ve seen work well:

1. Have a character new to a setting or situation describe it.

This is fairly straight forward, but it does work well when the reader can experience it with the character. I would caution, though, to choose only a few key details instead of giving an exhaustive description of the setting. Most readers don’t have the patience for that and their eyes will start to glaze over if the descriptions go on for too long.

2. Have a character describe things as they are involved in another fairly repetitive or boring task.

I pay a lot more attention to my surroundings when I’m out for a leisurely stroll than I do when I’m trying to bustle the kids off to school. I pay attention to the weather a lot more when I’m out weeding than I do when I’m running errands. I pay a lot more attention to the people around me when I’m stuck in a boring lecture. Those are all times when I’m not caught up in the hurry-hurry-hurry rush of daily life and I slow down and pay attention to the world around me. Those slower (and sometimes boring!) moments are a great time to add a couple lines of description. (This also can help to show the passing of time.)

On the flip sides, tense scenes—especially where the character is in physical danger—are not the best places to insert description unless it directly impacts the outcome. Most of the time, description in those kinds of situations actually slows down the action. So just be aware of that.

I have seen description added, and used well, in emotionally tense scenes when the reader knew that the situation was tense, but the narrator did not. The key was having the narrator unaware of the situation and then the description also served to increase the tension instead of slowing it down.

3. Give a brief description of each character when they show up for the first time.

I know, I know, we shouldn’t judge people by what they wear. But if it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, either it’s a duck or it really wants to be one… So what do your characters’ appearances say about them? Even better, what does the POV character say and think about what the other characters are wearing? What does that say about the POV character?

But now you’re asking: what does characterization have to do with setting? Well, if I said to you, “I saw a woman wearing heels,” you would probably shrug and reply, “So what?”

If I say instead, “I saw a woman wearing heels at the top of Mt. Sinai,” (which is a true story), your reaction would probably be very different.

Someone wearing shorts in Arizona in January probably wouldn’t get a second glance. But someone wearing shorts in Winnipeg in January is a different story and tells us something about the character as they interact with their setting. This interaction between characters and setting is
 one reason why, as Rosalyn said, “The setting for the novel should be so much a part of them that the story could not have taken place in any other setting.”

4. Reveal tidbits about the setting throughout the scene.

Readers don’t need to know everything about a setting at the very beginning. Reveal a little bit here and there throughout the scene as it becomes important. If they sit on a couch to watch TV together, it might not be so important what kind of couch it is. But if she sits in the armchair because he’s on the love seat, then it becomes much more significant.

5. Revealing information through dialogue.

I am not talking about the maid/butler dialogue where, at the beginning of a play, the maid and butler would come out and in a “conversation,” explain everything that was going on with the Master and his family. This kind of conversation should be avoided. In fact, Robert McKee said in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, “Never force words into a character’s mouth to tell the audience about world, history, or person.”

I’ve seen dialogue to introduce details about the setting work when the author uses it to move the story forward. A discussion of native flowers in the area can work if it is bringing the love interests closer together. A discussion of the weather can work to show someone trying to befriend their boss. It all comes down to using that dialogue about the setting for some other purpose besides telling the reader about the setting.

What about you? What are some ways you’ve seen description incorporated well into a novel? What suggestions do you have for things to avoid?
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Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.

Adding Historical Texture to Setting

I’m fascinated by the idea of place–how environments shape us in different and unique ways. (I may have written a dissertation on rhetorics of space). I grew up along the rockies: the mountains of Montana and the red rock of Utah are part of who I am. This is equally true of our fictional characters–the setting for the novel should be so much a part of them that the story could not have taken place in any other setting. Katherine Patterson wrote once that she was stumped writing Jacob Have I Loved–until she realized she needed to set it along the Chesapeake Bay.

Recently on this blog, Charlie offered some great tips on making your setting stand out. I’ve got one more critical dimension I want to offer to setting: its history.

As some of you may know, I’m deep in revisions in book two for a historical fantasy trilogy. The second book is a proverbial beast, and I’m still wrestling the story into shape. My story is set in 1848 Vienna, and while I’ve done some research on the city and environs (even spent a few days there last spring), it still seemed flat in my writing.

A writer friend suggested I check out a history book about the 1814 Congress in Vienna, which convened to decide how to restore Europe immediately after Napoleon’s defeat. On the surface, this might not have much to do with  my story–but as I read this particular book, ideas started sparking.

I’d forgotten a key aspect of my setting: the rich history of the city, the tangled political currents that would still be working some thirty years later. As I replotted the story with a better sense of this history, I was able to deepen the plot, flesh out character motivations, and generally (I hope!) create a better story.

The history of a place matters in its present moment. I recently read an advance copy of Adriana Mather’s HOW TO HANG A WITCH, the story of a young woman, a direct descendant of Cotton Mather (just like the author), who moves to Salem, MA, and triggers a series of dark events connected with that long-ago history of Salem. Her story would not have worked in any other setting–and the success of her story depends on readers’ understanding of the original witch trials as well as the psychological damage still present in those whose families were affected by the violence.

History matters to fantasy worlds as well: one of the things that made Naomi Novik’s UPROOTED so powerful was the long, complicated history between the main character’s village and The Wood–the evil presence that lurked in the nearby forest. Without knowing that history, readers would not understand what was at stake when the local sorcerer appeared, as he does ever sixteen or so years, to choose one of the village girls to “assist” him in keeping the wood in check.

Some questions you might ask about a place:

1. What happened in this place ten, fifty, one hundred years ago?

2. How do those historical events manifest in the present of the story? For Salem, MA, which still has a thriving tourist trade based on the witch hunts, the answer is pretty obvious. For other settings, this might be more subtle.

3. What is your main character’s personal experience of the setting? Do they love it, hate it, why? What about their past experience influenced this opinion? For instance, my family loves Capitol Reef, one of the lesser known national parks in Utah. But my love of that place is shaped by some very personal experiences of that place that are unique to me.

4. Is there any “hidden history” of the place? For instance, an event that was dark enough or tragic enough that local historians and civic figures have worked to actively suppress? (Scholars who look at public memory have pointed out that forgetting sometimes takes as much work as memorializing).

Some of these answers may never appear in your story–but the depth that they give your understanding of your world will influence the resulting story and give it added resonance.

Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, THE BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is forthcoming Spring 2017 from Knopf. She’s represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary.

 

5 Simple Ways to Craft Compelling Settings

I’ve been told that my settings are better than average by more than one person. They may have used nicer words than that, but as we writers tend to suffer from imposter syndrome I’m not going to praise myself too much. Instead I’ll share a snippet from my first book, The Crystal Bridge, and let you decide if I’m an expert or not.

Kaden reached out with his mind and willed one of the circular images to slide along the shell until it hovered before his face. He took in this image, a dark blue sky filled with red nebulae that spun over darkened forests as the silver leaves hissed with their own breath.
He waved it away and pulled another image forward. Mountains of broken crystal shimmered beneath three suns as giant insects tunneled through the shards like some insane ant farm. Kaden pulled another image around and saw fire rain down from a blood red sky as wispy shadows sped over the blackened ground, eating ash.
Languages and sounds filtered through with the images. The wet clicking of mandibles, songs of alien birds that trilled and hummed unlike any earthly counterpart, the hollow screams of shadows without mouths.
Sometimes he could even taste and smell bits and pieces. Salt, bitter ash, fresh mountain air, ozone. He felt each image as though they were old memories of places he’d once been.
Kaden pulled up an image of rust orange mountains edged by a sea the color of green radiator coolant, shimmering in oily waves under the bright white sun. The chemical sea fumes stung his still closed eyes. He wiped the tears away as he selected another image.

1. Daydream 

A large part of my writing isn’t writing at all. I will spend hours laying on a couch, on my bed, or leaning back in a comfy chair imagining my worlds. I fly over fields. I walk through towns. I run my hands along the railings of old bridges. I breathe deeply over a new character. I taste the unique culinary delicacies.

In essence, I explore. This tip isn’t exclusive to setting. I daydream my way through scenes to develop plot and make my dialogue stronger. Daydreaming is a good way to tap into your subconscious and let it play with all the aspects of writing, but it really does a number on my settings, especially if I allow myself to sink into that point on the edge of sleep when your subconscious is most active. Take a day to move in and out of naps, daydreaming in between. I wrote that bit above after sitting inside Kaden’s golden Egg and experiencing those images for myself. Your manuscript will thank you.

2. Fall into Your Characters

Your setting is an extension of your characters in many ways. We experience the worlds through them and their perspectives. Their personality, moods, history, training, and focus will color everything you write, but especially your setting. Let this happen.

Sink into your characters. Allow the world to emerge through them and their experiences. Think how each one would interact with that world. Where would one look where another would not? What would one character focus on as important that another would gloss over? Your characters are unique individuals. Let them expose the setting to your reader. Kaden just lost his mother. You can see how his focus alternates between life and death in my snippet.

3. Use ALL the Senses 

We, as humans, rely on sight more than any other sense, but our minds are carefully creating maps of our world using our other senses too. It’s what lets us navigate our homes with the lights out. I often close my eyes while I walk through my house, while I brush my teeth, while I shower, or while I find the lock on my door and turn the key. It further develops my maps of my world that are built on texture, smell, sound, and even taste to some degree.

Despite leaning mainly on sight, your readers have those maps in their heads too, even if they don’t go running through them as often as I do. If you want to immerse your readers, you should touch on the other senses. Use the same trick I use to explore reality to explore your imaginary worlds. Close your eyes and walk through a scene as you character with his or her eyes closed. What do they smell? Taste? Feel under their fingertips or underfoot? Hear?

Emotion is another type of sense in some ways too. What does your character feel inside as they walk through this scene? Do the smells trigger memories and emotional responses? Can a touch evoke fear or relief? Kaden’s tears above are blamed on the chemical fumes, but could there be more to them?

There are other variations of senses too. Hunger, thirst, pressure, tension, balance, pheromones, body awareness, and time perception. There are animals that sense magnetic waves.

4. Choose Your Words with Care 

The words you use will do much to create your setting. There’s a big difference in the scene that plays out in a reader’s head when you say “the light bulb dimmed as a brownout rolled through the bunker” versus “the lone bulb flickered, and the shadows leaned in on us where we huddled in the center of the bunker, as though darkness were a fist squeezing the life out of all things light”. The choice of words paint a different picture and expose more about the character. Both ideas could be used in a book. One is not better than the other, but they each have a place in a completely different character and setting than the other. You must decide what words best paint the picture you want your readers to see.

5. Keep it Moving 

I have read many a book that encourages me to skim through page after page of thick description that has nothing to do with the plot, the characters, or really even much of the setting. Don’t lose the tree your readers need to see while showing them the entire forest. Descriptions often work best when they pull double or triple duty. I mean by this that they do more than one thing. A good description can be showing the fascinating world you’ve created, move the plot forward, and expose the personality of your character all at once.

Not every sentence needs to be a flowery description of your world. Showing rather than telling is a helpful guideline, but showing can often be as simple as saying, “Tyler leapt from the tower after Peter.” Sometimes you don’t need to describe the whistling air or the crunch of stone as his foot left the tower behind. Your best descriptions will be bright spots in your manuscript that punch a hole into another world and let your reader swim through to forget reality behind them. You do not want your readers to drown or become desensitized to the magic of that moment. Give them these special experiences bit by bit.

There are a million things I could say about setting, but I think these five are a good place to start. Enjoy your worlds. I look forward to seeing what you can create. Go and make amazing worlds!

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Charlie Pulsipher is a were-hamster and lemur enthusiast who lives in Saint George, Utah with his lovely wife and neurotic dog. He writes sci-fi and fantasy or some mix of the two. He plans on surviving the inevitable zombie-pocalypse that will surely start when dust bunnies rise up against their vacuum cleaner masters. He spends his time away from the keyboard hiking and camping in stunning Southern Utah. Don’t be fooled by his shy, humble exterior.

Find him online at www.charliepulsipher.com or his neglected twitter account @charliepulse.

He does bite and his velociraptor impression is quite scary. It’s probably the coolest thing about him.

7 Things Comedy Improv Taught Me About Writing Better Scenes

A few months ago, I tried something new. Something I’d been wanting to take a crack at. By the title of this post, you can probably guess what it was.
That’s right.
I rode a donkey.
Alright. Alright. I tried comedy improv.
Randomly, I saw a Facebook page advertising a comedy improv workshop put on by Off the Cuff, a group of super cool and super funny people who do amazing improv shows. Seriously, these guys are the best. 
I saw the page a few days before the workshop and…
I decided to do it.
Well, actually, at first I thought it would be fun to try and I kinda wished I was the kind of person that would do something like that. I hemmed and I hawed. And I talked myself out of it. 
I didn’t really have time. It would probably be intimidating. I’d make a fool of myself! It wasn’t something I needed to do. There were probably toilets I should clean (you’d think that would’ve talked me into it right there).
Then my friend, Mercedes, posted on Facebook about how she’d always wanted to do something, something new and different and scary.
And she finally did it. She shaved her head.
I was totally impressed.
And just like that, I decided to show up to the workshop Saturday morning.

This was me right before I went in to the workshop.
I was all cool and calm and collected.
Sure.
That’s it. 

I’m so glad I did! All the players were incredibly warm, welcoming, and encouraging. Joey Shope and Josh W. Nicols from Spectacles Improv Engine out of Fullerton, California were there leading the workshop. They taught us fun games. They gave me loads of tips on how to improve (I reeeeally needed those tips). And they were all super patient with my mistakes and extra beginner attempts.

It was fantastic.

Oh, you know, just me and my new best friends hanging out.
No big deal. (Ack! That was so much fun! When can I do it AGAIN??)

I’d hoped to learn more about being funny since, well, yeah…I’m kinda down with the humor thing. But I also learned seven ways to improve the scenes in my writing from the workshop.

1Give the character an emotion and a want that stays the same throughout the scene.
I have a tendency to make a character really angry. And then in the next paragraph make his eyes twinkle. Or he’s suddenly laughing. Or maybe decides to start skipping. Probably as he searches for a donkey. 
Make sure your readers know how the character feels and what they want and be consistent. 
2. Amp up the emotion as the scene progresses. If they start out angry then make them angrier and angrier.
I loved this idea that whatever emotion the character is feeling at the beginning of the scene, increase it. If they start out worried. Make them grow more and more worried until they’re completely paranoid! If they start out sad. Make them more and more upset until they’re miserable. 
3. Make your character fresh and unique.
This is something we hear time and time again as writers. We need to create new and interesting characters! But it was interesting to see this put to work in a different form of storytelling. 
The audience doesn’t want to watch the same old characters, the mad, gruff principal or the tired mother or the crime-fighting police officer. No, give them a principal who’s trying to become a magician on the side, making teachers disappear accidentally or a mom who’s tired because she wasn’t up late with her baby, but was stitching together her own Frankenstein in the basement or a police officer who’s secretly Donkey Man, fighting crime with bray-very (okay, yeah, that was pretty bad). 
4. Once the audience knows what the character wants, they care.
It sounds so simple! But how many times do you critique pages or read your own work and realize you have no idea what the main character or any of the characters actually wants?
Give them something to care about, something to want, and make sure your readers know what it is. 
5. Get out of Thinktown!
Okay, I spend way too much time in Thinktown, that wretched place where you think too hard about what you’re about to say and/or write. But get out of your head! Stop letting your inner editor shoot down your best ideas! 
Sometimes my favorite lines are created at night after that infernal inner editor of mine has finally gone to bed. I write crazy things. Some get erased the next morning. Some don’t make any sense (anyone else sleep type?). But some are interesting metaphors and descriptions! That’s because I wasn’t so quick to criticize myself and I went ahead and wrote the crazy thing that popped into my head. 
BUT it’s also important to know that sometimes you won’t write a great line or scene. Sometimes you’ll try something and it won’t work. That’s okay! The important thing is to try.

If you’re always hanging around Thinktown, sitting on the corner of I Bet This Will be Lame Lane and What’s the Point of Trying Street then you’ll never ever arrive at the Hey! I Wrote Something Awesome Avenue.

6. How people sit, stand, how far apart they are in the scene says something about their relationship.
This seems so obvious, but it wasn’t something I’d thought about before. If you start out your scene with two characters sitting next to each other having a conversation versus standing on either sides of a room talking to each other, this says something about them and what’s going on between them. Use this!
7. Make the setting interesting.
This is also something we hear a fair amount. The setting can be another character. Make it different! Really think about the best place to put your characters in a scene. Don’t settle for the first idea that comes along. Maybe there’s some place new and different you can put them. Or some place that furthers your theme or amplifies the emotions of the scene.
Would you rather see a donkey wrangler doing his trying-to-catch a donkey thing in a dusty corral or say, in a creepy wax museum? See? Setting is important! 
If you ever get a chance to try comedy improv, or do something else you’ve always longed to try, jump at it! Who knows what you’ll learn!
Have you ever tried something new and gained writing insights from it? 

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Erin Shakespear writes middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. With six kids, her days are also full of quirky creatures, magic, strange adventures, and…loads of diapers. She also likes to dabble at photography, sewing, and pretending she’s a grand artist. 

               

Writers Are Readers: Best Lessons from Middle Grade Books

I strongly believe that writers must be voracious readers. Read widely, read critically, read for fun, and definitely read as many books as possible in the genre you’re writing. It’s definitely helpful to read new releases to get a sense of what’s selling (or what was selling a year or two ago), read classics to get a sense of what lasts, and read as a way to connect with your author peers.

Some of the best writing lessons can also come from thoughtfully and analytically reading the very best books in your genre or age group. If you look at the books that have had the greatest impact on you, stop and ask yourself what it was specifically about that book that was done so masterfully.

The best books do many things well, but I find I can often pinpoint one characteristic of favorite books that made each truly memorable and exceptional. Here are the titles I turn to when I want a book to show (rather then tell) me how to get it right.

For a lesson in voice: Ida B by Katherine Hannigan, Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt
For a lesson in dialogue: Twerp by Mark Goldblatt (and its sequel, Finding the Worm)
For a lesson in making the reader fall in love with a character, even when they’re making terrible choices: Joey Pigza Loses Control by Jack Gantos; Clementine by Sara Pennypacker
For a lesson in humor: The Tapper Twins Go to War (with Each Other) by Geoff Rodkey; The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger
For a lesson in mystery and suspense: The Greenglass House by Kate Milford; Nooks and Crannies by Jessica Lawson
For a lesson in just the right amount of scary: Mothman’s Curse by Christine Hayes; The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle by Janet Fox
For a lesson in weaving together multiple threads: Holes by Louis Sachar
For a lesson in just beautiful writing: Another Kind of Hurricane by Tamara Ellis Smith; Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale
For a lesson in writing authentic and caring parents: Loser by Jerry Spinelli; Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce
For a lesson in writing unforgettable siblings: The Penderwicks by Jeannie Birdsall; Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
For a lesson in establishing a sense of place: The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook by Joanne Rocklin; Moon over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
For a lesson in how to really write a novel in verse: House Arrest by K.A. Holt; The Crossover by Kwame Alexander; Love That Dog by Sharon Creech
For a lesson in packing an emotional punch: One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Everything is Fine by Ann Dee Ellis

What about you? What novels have given you your best lessons on writing?

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Elaine Vickers is the author of LIKE MAGIC (HarperCollins, 2016) and loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. She’s a member of SCBWI and represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on TwitterInstagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption. 🙂