Monday, January 15, 2024

conflict in stories, conflict in picture books, tension, drama
                                                                                                                                                   Photo: Obie Fernandez


As mentioned in the October 2022 blog, you can write the most beautiful story in the world, but if it hasn't any conflict, the story will feel flat, the audience may be bored, and agents could be unimpressed. But one blog post isn't enough to get the point across.  We have lots more to discuss about conflict.  

I work with writers who want to create picture books and submit them for publication.  Though they've developed an interesting protagonist, often their characters don't face a problem or the character has a problem that's too easily solved.  These writers need to consider spicing up their stories with conflict.  

Conflict is a struggle that provides drama and angst.  Conflict gets readers to care for the protagonist and gets them to turn the page.  

Instructor J.T. Bushnell, instructor at Oregon State University says, "More precisely, conflict means thwarted, endangered, or opposing desire.  It’s basically when a character wants something but something else gets in the way.  Maybe the character wants a thing but can’t get it. Maybe the character has something but is in danger of losing it. Maybe the character wants two things that are incompatible. Whatever its form, though, it gets our attention."

Conflicts in fiction can be broken into seven categories.  Here's the list with examples:  

  • Man vs. man (The Wizard of Oz, The Hunger Games)
  • Person vs. nature (The Life of Pi, The Old Man and the Sea)
  • Person vs. society (To Kill a Mockingbird)
  • Person vs. technology (Frankenstein) 
  • Person vs. supernatural (almost any work by Edgar Allen Poe)
  • Person vs. person (a work about a person struggling with moral or inner dilemmas; Hamlet)
  • Person vs. destiny (The Odyssey)

This diagram of Freytag's pyramid shows where to place conflict in a story.  

Here's how you can use Freytag's pyramid* as a guide.  

  • Start with the exposition: introduce your main character along with the goals that character wants to achieve and why the MC wants to reach that goal.  
  • Create the inciting incident, the uh-oh moment and BOOM!  You've added conflict.  
  • In the rising action, throw obstacles and complications in the MC's way.  At the climax of the story, the worse has happened and the goal seems unattainable.  
  • In the falling action when all seems lost, the character figures out how to solve the problem.  
  • Lastly, in the denouement, the final outcome of the complication is revealed.

So, analyze that beautiful story you've written.  Does it have conflict?  Does it have a protagonist who wants something intensely, but encounters a significant obstacle?  If not, figure out a way to create tension.  If you're stuck, let your mind wander and write whatever pops into your head to create difficulties for your MC.  Don't edit.  Put all your ideas down.  One of these ideas may work or at least point you in the direction to increase the conflict.  

Readers want to root for the main character or see a complication resolved.  They will be more likely to keep reading when there's some drama.  When there is conflict, you'll have a compelling story.  A complete story.  You will have a story that will grab an audience and quite possibly, the attention of a literary agent, too.   

✌ and 

More on conflict:

* Kitty Turner states on "Gustav Freytag was a hugely popular German author and playwright active from 1840 to 1870. Freytag’s Pyramid is a framework used to analyze and outline the dramatic structure of stories from beginning to end. Although the pyramid is not a one-size-fits-all solution for narrative fiction, a story missing one or more of the elements in Freytag’s pyramid can feel incomplete, or can fail to engage."

Friday, December 15, 2023

Jane Yolen, writing, writing for kids, SCBWI


A few weeks ago, I received an email from SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) announcing an interview with Jane Yolen, author-extraordinaire.   

In a word, Jane was inspiring.  As I listened to the interview, I discovered she is down to earth, prolific, and gifted.  At the age of eighty-four she's still writing, submitting, and publishing.  She works on an assortment of projects—a short novel, a musical, a possible TV series, and some songs for folk and rock groups.  She revises old picture manuscripts until they are salable. 

I'd like to share Jane's thoughts and philosophy about writing with you.

When asked about the requirements of a picture book, Jane replied there has to be an arc and the story has to touch the heart of a child.  She also reminds writers to think visually about the illustrations and page breaks as they compose their stories.  Jane says page turns can be an uncompleted sentence that gives young ones moments of suspense that build up into a large moment. 

Jane tells us a picture book may take 20 minutes or 20 years to write.  More, Jane revealed that some editors turned down her manuscripts, whereas others picked them up and they became successful children's books—that gives us hope, doesn't it?   

Jane has advice on writer's block:  There's no such thing as long as you work on multiple projects.  

She comments on writing in general and tells us:  Don't be afraid of ideas—if you work at it, you will have many, many ideas for stories.  Don't be afraid of hard work.  Don't forget the writing part is only the beginning—you have to think of the business end: who's looking for what, what are the current themes, is this a story you can legitimately write, is this a story that has been told too many times before, is this is a story that's new and nobody has told it and if not, why not. 

She asks us to remember:  It all starts with WHAT IF? have to show up and have the guts to write the book.  Janes says, "And the time? Well no little time fairy is going to drop a package of it on you.  You have to take time.  Steal it by the bucketload from the rest of your life.  Be selfish.  Ignore lunching with friends until the work gets done.  Just write the damn book." 

The process of writing still feels magical for Jane.  Every time.  Isn't that how we writers should feel?

I invite you to learn more about Jane:  I hope she'll inspire you, too!

✌ and 


Tuesday, November 14, 2023

feeling discouraged about writing, submitting to agents, querying
                                                                                                                                         Photo courtesy Shutterfly   


The other day, I spent most of the morning filling out a Query Manager form.  In less than 24 hours after submitting it, an agent rejected my manuscript.  That really stung and once again, I felt discouraged about my writing.

I had double-checked and triple-checked the form (Had I spelled the agent's name correctly?  Was the pitch enticing?  Did my bio show I was an accomplished and dedicated writer?)  and said a prayer before sending it (Don't we all?)  This time, this time I had hoped an agent would like my work since it was based on her wish list needs.    

But interpreting what an agent wants can be tricky.  In most cases, an agent's manuscript wish list is general.  It may not reveal her specific wishes—which can be difficult to express.  She may even like something that's not on her list!  But the one true thing is the piece has to touch her heart, and she has to be able to sell it.

That said, the best I can do is write a killer query and send a story targeting her needs.  Still, there's no guarantee that strategy will work.  The piece may get turned down for some unknown reason.  

When my work is not accepted, I could stop writing and protect myself from rejection.  But writing brings me joy so, I want to keep creating stories that I'm passionate about.   

Before querying again, I sat back and reflected.  How could I make my query more intriguing?  How could I revise the story to bring out more emotion?  Where could I search (in addition to the Official Manuscript Wish List) to find an agent who will be a better match for my work?   

The biggest question is could I handle more rejection?  It is always an unwelcome possibility.

All I know is to be positive and to have faith, to surround myself with people who believe in me, and to not be discouraged for too long.  There will be opportunities and there's always hope.  Margarita Montimore's manuscript (Oona Out of Order) was fished out of the slush pile, so one never knows.  

I reached out to my mentor for some encouragement.  He told me (as he would tell any writer), "Your voice deserves to be heard. Keep knocking. Doors only open to those who knock." 

His words inspired me.  A few days later, I selected one of my favorite manuscripts, a strong piece my critique partners liked.  I filled out the query form.  I said a prayer.  This time, this time...this one may be the one.

✌ and 

November Writers Digest article:  "10 Dos and Don'ts of Being Rejected"

Sunday, October 15, 2023

                                                                                                                                                         Photo Lulia Mihailov


Do your stories have takeaway?  Should they have takeaway?  What is takeaway anyhow?  

Story takeaway can be defined as a main point or key message to be learned or understood. 

So, how important is takeaway in children's literature and how does one create takeaway in a story for children?  

Editorial expert Mary Kole says, "Picture books, more than any other category of kidlit, are about character change, a moral, or a lesson.  A strong takeaway is expected because we want our young readers to be eating a little bit of medicine (the moral) with their syrup (the story).  Like those cookbooks for moms who want to sneak veggies into brownies.  But how do we do this effectively, without turning readers (and agents and publishers) off with too much lecturing?  It’s all about character!"

I agree with Mary that takeaway comes with character and how that character changes.  I would add takeaway leans on a story's theme and conflict.

For instance, let's say you have a story about a child who catches a king spreading a lie.  The conflict is: how can (or should) a child confront the deceitful king?  The theme of the story centers on bravery and the takeaway highlights the importance of being truthful.     

And as simple as that may seem to get this point across, a writer has to delicately handle the moral takeaway.  The lesson cannot be didactic.  In fact, Mary cites moralizing as one of the main reasons agents pass on a picture book project.  "One of the biggest challenges I encounter in my editorial practice is picture books that show character change in a clumsy or overbearing way."  

So how do we write picture books that show character change without explicitly stating the lesson?  Mary says, "It’s a rather simple answer:  let the character have some realizations and then act upon them.  At the same time, do not explain what the character is learning."  

In other words, writers must allow a character to discover something special about himself (or herself/themselves) so the dilemma can be solved in a personal way. 

Going back to the story of the boy and the king, though the child wrestles with a powerful authoritative figure, he eventually realizes that just because he's young doesn't mean he can't speak out and be heard.  Once the young boy understands this, he changes.  He discovers a way to speak the truth.  

"Transformation happens with little choices and in small steps, as that honors the real life process of behavioral change," says Mary.  "Your character CAN learn something in your story, but the best picture books that show character change are subtle and character-driven, instead of moralizing."

If a writer carefully crafts takeaway, children will subtly absorb the lesson.  Through stories, they may soak up how to believe in themselves, how to be adventurous, how to be a good friend, or how to be generous and kind and brave.  When you express the morale gently, children will learn a valuable lesson that never feels like a lesson at all.  

 ✌ and 

Friday, September 15, 2023

writing for kids, rhyming, meter, tension


My client Patty thinks writing a rhyming picture book is a piece of cake.  She's not alone—many people feel the same way.  But it's much harder than it looks.  The rhymes and meter should flow like a gentle river.  On top of that, a rhyming book, like all children's books should have some tension and a steady pace so the story moves along effortlessly.  

Patty had composed 30 couplets to tell the story.  When I read her work, I found a few places where the story dragged.  Some stanzas needed to be removed to improve the pace or flow of the story.  It was important to cut unnecessary lines that didn't advance the plot.  

Next, I began to concentrate on the meter (or beats).  Throughout the piece the meter was uneven.  This is kind of like clapping out of time to a song.   

For example, one line may have had ten beats (or stressed syllables) and the following line may have had eight.  That's a problem.  The rhythm was off.  The couplets needed to have the same number of syllables or the story would not sound smooth when read out loud.  

Once the meter was adjusted, I focused on the rhyme at the end of each couplet.  Rhyme has to be spot on, no cheating.  For instance, day and stage is not a true rhyme, but day and say would work.  Using a website like Rhymezone can help writers find better rhyming choices.

Then after improving the meter and the rhyming, I read the piece again to see if there was enough tension.  In Patty's story, the main character had a problem, but she solved the problem too easily.  Patty needed to make it more difficult for the character to reach her goal.  So, with this story a stanza or two had to be created to bring about more tension.   

As you can see with this example, meter, rhyme, tension, and flow are important factors to consider when writing a rhyming picture book.  

If you are interested in writing a rhyming story, here are some more things to keep in mind: 

  • Know that when you query a rhyming picture books, agents may be less likely to accept it.  Agents are leery of rhyming books and they are on the lookout for forced rhyme that does not advance the plot.   
  • Read other rhyming picture books to see how to achieve perfect rhyme.  Learn from other writers how they managed to pull off rhyme.
  • Find another trusted to person to read your work.  Get their thoughts and revise accordingly.
  • Read your work aloud.  If you find places where you stumble on a word or the rhythm is choppy, it's time to rethink those phrases.  When you read the story out loud, it should flow effortlessly, as smoothly as a gentle river.

A lot of people think it's easy to get a picture book published.  But the truth is, writing for kids is tough.  Writing a rhyming picture book is even tougher.  But if you can perfect the meter and rhyme and create enough tension and flow, you will have the essentials for writing a rhyming children's book. 

✌ and 

Here is an excellent article on writing rhyming books for kids:

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

writer's doubt
                                                                                                                                                                  Photo: Md Mahdi


The title of this blog is personal.  Though I've been published in national magazines, won literary awards, and had a picture book published, I still question my talent.  Crazy, huh? 

Receiving rejections gives me doubts.

Failing to place in a writing contest gives me doubts. 

Reading about writers signing agents on Twitter give me doubts.

These doubts add up and take a toll on me.  Doubts kill my confidence in finding an agent.  

I'm smart enough to realize being negative will get me nowhere.  I have to move on and look at the positive aspects of writing.  

My critique partner (a published writer) tells me she loves and believes in my manuscripts. 

An agent sent me a lengthy email gushing about my strength as a writer.   

Another agent ask to see more of my manuscripts.   

Surely, all of these positive things are signs that I'm on the right path to finding an agent who'll believe in my work.  The hardest thing for me is to believe.  There are several things that help:

I give it my all every day.

I stay true to my voice while keeping my young audience in mind.  

I seek critiques and then revise.

I do my homework to submit to agents who would be open to my style.  

I surround myself with encouraging people and writers.

While my husband Jim and I were taking a walk, we talked my frustrations and all of the obstacles that make finding representation difficult.  Agents close their submission windows frequently or they want author/illustrators or they only want referrals.  And these days, chances of getting an agent are greater for LGBTQ+ authors and writers of color.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not jealous.  Their voices need to be heard.  

Jim encourages me to have fun writing new pieces and enjoy the journey.  I try to keep that in mind, but deep down inside I have a burning desire to be represented by an agent.  

The road to publication will always have challenges.  There will be highs and lows.  The trick is to not dwell too long on the lows, but to celebrate the highs.  To cherish them.  To savor them.  When I think of my achievements and how much I've grown as a writer, my confidence grows.  If I can focus on accomplishments and stay steady on my path, I will be able to leave the doubts behind.  

✌ and 

Saturday, July 15, 2023

writing from the heart, publishable manuscripts, the uncertainty of publishing, crystal balls


How do we write a book from our hearts and make it marketable?  That's the millionaire dollar question.  

We writers usually write about things that move us and we want to share those feelings with others.  We don't know if our work can be sold.  Not even some well-published authors have figured it out.  At times, they are rejected, too.  

So, how can we write what we love and sell it?  Here are three ways that can help: 

  • Join a critique group 
  • Hire an editorial consultant
  • Work with a published writer who offers critique services 

I've done all three options.  I regularly receive creative and constructive criticism from my critique partners, who show me ways to improve my manuscripts.  And in 2016, I worked with editorial consultant Mary Kole, who helped me tweak a story that landed an agent.   

Recently, I had the opportunity to have a critique/Zoom session with Brian Gehrlein, an amazingly talented author.  He pointed out how to rev up the tension, how to develop the character arc, and how to improve formatting.  In addition, he showed me ways to beef up my query letter.  Overall, he helped me take my manuscript to the next level so it could be submitted to agents. 

Even still, doubt crept in.  

After Brian's critique, after suggestions from my critique partners, and after the revision of my manuscript, I wondered if an agent would like it.  Would my polished, well-crafted story resonate with her?  And, could she sell it to a publishing house?  It will take querying to find out.  

Brian tells me to showcase my voice and style, to experiment, to trust my gut, to be different, and to make the writing fun and authentic.  His optimism and advise gives me the courage and confidence to continue despite the doubts. 

He affirms what I feel:  write the stories that come from my heart.  To create a unique story, only a story that I can tell.  To get feedback.  To revise my manuscripts.  But the rub is, no one knows if the time or money I've spent will pay off.    

As you probably know, there are never any guarantees our work will be published.  We don't have a crystal ball to tell us yes, this is THE manuscript that will turn into a book.  Writers endure the pain of rejection while we hold on to the hope of success.  We keep going because writers must be patient and persevere.  Despite the uncertainties we must strive to write what we love and have faith that one day, an agent will love it, too.      

✌ and