Book Review: The ABCs of Writing for Children

Review by Betty Winslow

The ABCs of Writing for Children.
Compiled by Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff
Quill Driver Books
November 2002
258 pgs.

The title of this book implies a linear, nuts-and-bolts approach to the subject of writing for children, but in reality it’s almost a stream of consciousness on the subject, collected by Koehler-Pentacoff from the minds of 114 authors and illustrators and loosely arranged into 46 chapters with titles like “First Times,” “What Is the Best Writing Advice You Ever Received?,” “Rejection,” and “Picture Books.” Each chapter is full of highly personal stories, tips, and anecdotes, which are fun to read (although the way some are repeated in several places had a slightly disconcerting “deja vu” effect on me: wait, haven’t I read this already?).

Although I found the book’s arrangement a bit hard to navigate and the introductory italicized titles for each small anecdote seemed to me unnecessary and often confusing, I knew I would enjoy reading what Koehler-Pentacoff had to offer, since I love children’s books and I find the people who write and illustrate them interesting. Reading what Jane Yolen, Doug Cushman, Patricia McKissack, Ruth Heller, David Adler, and R. L. Stine (among others) had to say about writing children’s books, inspiration, rejection, censorship, book signings, and a host of other topics was bound to be good! It was, too, and I also picked up some practical tips on writing, learned more about the stories behind the stories kids love, and discovered a bit about what makes these people tick.

I think that last bit is important. Children’s authors and illustrators may not be movers and shakers in the eyes of the world, but their work affects the children of the world and thus the future of mankind. Therefore, I for one like to keep abreast of what’s going on in children’s literature. And this book tells you some of that.

Unfortunately, I had to get beyond a few more problems to get to the good stuff, including misplaced or missing punctuation and words (and a few extra or misused ones) and a wonky index that led me to the wrong Cushman several times as well as to a few pages that didn’t contain what I thought they were going to.

On the plus side, I also found some helpful back-of-the-book features, including a glossary, a resource list, a writer-related bibliography, and the aforementioned (and somewhat less helpful) index.

All in all, if the world of children’s literature interests you, I think you’ll find the extra effort it takes to get through this book is worthwhile and you’ll come away with a lot to think about. You’re also liable to come away with a list of books you somehow missed along the way and want to read now. Go for it! We may be grown-ups, but no one is too old for well-written and wonderfully illustrated children’s books!

How to Write Your Novel and Still Have Time for Sex

By Rob Loughran

Not time for only sex; but for all those things we are obligated to do on a regular basis: job, family, exercise, finances, changing the catbox. I just used “sex” in the title to get your attention.

The first step in writing your novel is to realize no one but you can write it. A writing teacher friend of mine begins each of her seminars by placing a pencil on 300 sheets of paper and saying, “Novels never write themselves.”

The second step is realizing that a novel isn’t written all at once. Let’s dust off some math skills. Say your book will be 80,000 words. At 250 words per page, that’s 320 pages or a page per day for 10.66 months. Allowing five weeks for research and outlining, writing up some character background, etc., that’s a novel in a year. If you started writing today, one year from today you could be printing out your novel while scouring your market guide for publishers.

That’s simplified, of course: you must rewrite.

But you’ll also have days when you write 500, 750, or 1,000 words. Jack London wrote 40 books by adhering to this simple principle: A daily writing stint of 1,500 words, every day, before breakfast. Ralph McInerny, author of the Father Dowling mystery series, mainstream novels, and books on religion and philosophy recommends getting a give-away-calendar from the auto parts store and hanging it in a prominent place. Then start writing your prescribed-daily-quota (PDQ) and don’t go back to rewrite until your first draft is complete. Every day you reach your quota, you X out that day on the calendar. That Xed out calendar will provide a visual, daily reminder to yourself of your novel’s progress. And a blank week or two will goad you out of procrastination.

Adhere to your daily stint and you’ll have a novel PDQ.

To Outline or Not to Outline?

There’s the story about the backyard inventor who worked for years on this machine that featured electrical and gas engines; wires, screws, bolts, and buckets of every size. One day his neighbor popped his head over the fence and said: “That’s a magnificent creation. What’s it do?”

The inventor smiled and said, “I don’t really know.”

Obviously, this anecdote dictates the need for an outline, but, conversely, Robert Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

Who’s right? Should writers depend on creativity and spontaneity or plan as meticulously as an engineer? The answer (as to most of life’s dilemmas) is somewhere in the middle ground. If not a strict outline you should at least have a plan that includes genre, length, historical era, basic character sketches, and a short plot summary. All of which you can follow strictly or abandon when those all-too-rare moments of inspiration dictate that the story must take this direction.

But again, the most meticulous of outlines or the most profound artistic inspiration are squat if you don’t plop your butt in that chair and write.

How to Plop Your Butt in That Chair and Write

Okay, let’s take out pencils and a piece of paper.

Seriously, this is the hands-on part. I want you to make a list of the activities that you perform on a daily basis. Try to come up with 20 items. Include job, commuting, chores, school, leisure activities, etc.

Now give each activity a 1 if it’s CRUCIAL, a 2 if it’s IMPORTANT, or a 3 if it’s something that can be put on a BACK BURNER. (Example: 1=writing stint, 2=clean office, 3=watch “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Don’t just read this– try it.)

Okay, you’ve got 20 or so items ranked in value. Go back through your list and circle all the items you awarded a 2. Now, take these items and make them either a 1 (CRUCIAL) or 3 (BACK BURNER.) From my example above, I would take “clean office” and either do it now, or put it off until tomorrow, not on whimsy, but with good reason! If my office were so filthy I couldn’t write or perform another CRUCIAL item (i.e., make the car payment to avoid a late charge) it becomes a 1. If my office were merely in its normal state of dusty disrepair, but I could pound out a writing stint I’d make it a BACK BURNER item and attend my daughter’s soccer game.

Now, here’s the true impact of this exercise: Did you do it? If not, what does it say about your determination to finish that novel? Please go back and do it. And remember, the circumstances of life are constantly changing. Use this tool as often as you need.

Simple timesavers can add to your productivity. Wake up twenty minutes earlier or go to bed twenty minutes later. Twenty minutes! Not even half-an-hour! Use that extra time to write or do chores or bookkeeping which will free up time to write. That translates into more than two hours a week, more than one hundred hours in a year.

The television is a thief. Don’t blow it up; but do turn it off for an evening and see what you accomplish. Try watching just the second half of football and basketball games. Stop watching reruns. They’re reruns.

While commuting, use a tape recorder to plan chapters or polish dialogue. Listen to books on tape to learn from other writers.

Utilize “aggravation time.” Instead of fuming while waiting to pay for groceries, mentally compose a story about the person in front of you with thirteen items in the ten-items-or-less line. What color trailer does she live in? How many cats does she own? Which brand of canned cheese is her favorite?

If you’re blocked or stuck write a letter or a limerick. Just get to writing anything and it’ll get you back on that yellow brick road.

Mum’s the Word

Don’t show anybody your novel until it is finished, rewritten, and polished! The only result of “What do you think of my opening chapter?” will be doubt, second-guessing, and insecurity. Maybe it’s too wordy or sketchy. People will point this out to you. But you would have discovered and fixed that on a subsequent rewrite, right? Or worse, the person you’ve appointed Ebert will say she really liked it; it was nice.

Trust your judgment.

But there is a huge difference in hearing advice from a fellow writer and from Auntie Sarah. If there is someone whose opinion you value and honesty you can count on, then please avail yourself of his or her input. My wife (who is a voracious reader, but breaks into a sweat when writing anything longer than a Christmas card) and I have worked out a system. She sits sipping tea or wine while I read in a flat monotonous voice (you want your words, not your inflection, to have the impact) from my stuff. At any point where I lose her—for whatever reason—she starts snoring and I mark that spot in the manuscript. I trust her and don’t take offense. And she’s usually right.

Okay, she’s always right.

Remember what Gene Perret said, “Nothing is written until it’s rewritten.” Don’t pass an uncooked book around indiscriminately. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Cover of Bill Henderson's Rotten Reviews ReduxOne essential book to keep by your keyboard is Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews & Rejections. Here’s a sampling: an 1844 review of Huckleberry Finn: “A gross trifling with every fine feeling—Mr. Clemens has no reliable sense of propriety.”

An 1814 review of Gulliver’s Travels: “Evidence of a diseased mind and lacerated heart.” From a rejection letter of James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice: “I think it is only a matter of time before you reach out into more substantial efforts that will be capable of making some real money as books.”

There will always be hope for your novel; get it written.

Novelist R.K. Narayan stated, simply: “You become a writer by writing.”

Pep Talk

I hate pep talks.

I was always mystified and confused when coaches demanded 110%, so this isn’t a RAH RAH, YOU CAN DO IT! snappy pep talk.

Just the opposite.

How would you feel, one year from now, if your novel were still a misty someday-dream with not a single word written? Project ahead five years. You still haven’t finished (have you even started?). How does that make you feel?

Ten years?

Now, think how you’ll feel, if when you finish this article, you put a calendar on the wall, and by this time next week see five or six X’s?

Then a month’s worth?

A year’s worth?

Writing instructor Lew Hunter wrote:

We all have talent. How we use it and don’t use it is what the game is all about in writing and in life itself. We must not get beaten down by those who choose to simply take up space on this planet, by those whose lives risk counting for nothing.

Rob Loughran’s mystery novel High Steaks won the 2002 New Mystery Award. He blogs at The Foul Mouthed Bard.

Ten Common Submission Package Errors

By Rudy Shur
Excerpted from the book How To Publish Your Nonfiction Book

Over the years, I’ve seen literally hundreds of submission packages. Some of them inspired me to immediately request more information from the author. In other cases, however, I could not send the package to the kill pile quickly enough. Throughout this chapter, I’ve mentioned several submission package don’ts, but these warnings bear repeating as long as authors keep making the same mistakes. If you avoid the following errors, you will, at the very least, avoid raising a red flag. Here are ten errors that commonly occur in submission packages.

  1. The author claims that his book is unique . This statement is the kiss of death, because editors don’t want a unique book. They want a book that fits into an existing category and meets the needs of an existing audience. At the very best, this statement implies that the author doesn’t understand the market for his book. At the very worst, it indicates that the book is, indeed, unique– and therefore either has no audience, or has an audience that is difficult to reach.
  2. The author claims that his book is for everyone — professionals, teachers, students, and general readers. Again, book should be written with a specific audience in mind, be it a trade (general) audience, an educational audience, a professional audience, or a scholarly audience. This is true for a number of reasons. First, educational, professional, and scholarly books all have certain characteristics that are off-putting to the general reader. Professional books, for instance, are written in the jargon of the appropriate profession—a jargon that is unfamiliar to the general reader. Educational books may include review questions and other features that are not usually included in trade books. And scholarly books are often heavily footnoted and referenced. Second, as you learned in chapter 2, different types of books are marketed in different ways, and are placed in different areas of bookstores. That’s why publishing companies demand that every book be designed to suit the needs of a specific audience.
  3. The author states that the book has already been finished. Few editors want to help an author rework an existing book so that it fits the needs of their particular publishing house. They want to begin guiding the author’s work at an early stage, and set it on the right course. Therefore, even if your book is complete right down to the index, tell the editor that you are in the process of writing a book.
  4. The author fails to include his address and phone number. Believe it or not, this silly mistake is made all the time. If the editor doesn’t know how to reach you, you can’t expect a timely response—or, for that matter, any response at all!
  5. The submission package is sent to the wrong type of publishing house. Authors have been known to submit their novels to houses that publish only nonfiction; to send their poetry to houses that publish only cookbooks; to send their cookbooks to houses that specialize in romance novels; to send their ideas for coffee-table art books to houses that print mass-market paperbacks. To avoid wasting your time and theirs, do your homework, and send your submission package to the appropriate editor at the appropriate publishing house.
  6. The submission package is the size of War and Peace. This returns me to one of my original points: Editors are busy. They simply don’t have time to wade through a stack of paper, no matter how riveting the material may be. By submitting a package that provides the desired information in a concise manner, you will optimize the chance that your package will, at the very least, be read.
  7. The submission package is triple-wrapped and sealed with packing tape. As my opening vignette showed, editors usually don’t keep power tools in their offices. Unless you are dropping your package out of a helicopter, place it in an easy-to-open envelope.
  8. Out of fear that the editor will steal the author’s idea, the author only hints at the contents of the book. This may sound incredible, but it does happen. Authors have told me that they have found the cure for a terrible disease, that they have found a foolproof weight loss technique, and that they have discovered an amazing secret about the Kennedys– but that they cannot tell me what it is unless I agree to publish their book. I think you can guess what my response was.
  9. The author wrongly implies that he has spoken to the editor, and that the editor asked for a copy of his manuscript proposal. Over the years, I have received countless cover letters that began, “Thank you so much for your interest in my project,” or, “Per your request, I am enclosing a manuscript proposal . . .” These opening lines would be perfectly appropriate—if I had ever spoken to the author and actually requested the material. Some authors feel that because editors are so busy, they can be tricked into thinking that they asked for the submission. Don’t fool yourself. We’re busy but we’re not that busy, and, in the absence of any prior contact, an opening statement like this is almost guaranteed to put a negative spin on your proposal.
  10. The manuscript is filled with spelling errors, grammatical errors, and awkward sentences.Happens all the time. Keep in mind that, in addition to selling your expertise in a particular field, you are selling yourself as a writer. Therefore, it pays to read over your submission several times, to use the spell-check feature of your computer, and to have others read the material over carefully, looking for problems. The material you are about to send is relatively short, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to polish it up. The time you take to make this package the best it can be will definitely pay off.


Rudy Shur is the publisher of Square One Publishers, and the author of the book How To Publish Your Nonfiction Book, part of the “Square One Writers Guide” series. Rudy Shur began his work in publishing as a field representative for Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company and William C. Brown Publishing Company. He later founded Avery Publishing Group, where he was responsible for the acquisition of over 1,000 titles, many of which became bestsellers. Currently, Mr. Shur is the publisher at Square One in Garden City Park, New York. He was interviewed by Absolute Write.

10 Steps to Being Published

By Joyce Lavene

1. Read what you want to write.

I can’t stress this enough. If you don’t know what the market is doing, you can’t expect to get published. Have a feeling for what you’re doing, write from the heart, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you love your baby, everyone else will. Get an idea of what’s going on before you start sending your work out. It will save you time, money and heartache.

2. Revise your work at least three times.

Once is not enough in this case. It would be even better if you have someone you can depend on to be honest who could look it over for you. If not, learn to be objective. Put it aside for a few days then take it out again. Slash extra words that repeat. Don’t be so in love with an idea that you can’t chop it out even if it ruins the rest of the story and you have to rewrite. If it doesn’t work, you won’t be the only one to see it.

3. Make sure you know the editor’s name and how to spell it.

There’s nothing that will get your work shuffled from one envelope to the next like not knowing the editor’s name or sending something “Dear Editor.” If your work is important to you, act like it. Know who you’re sending it to. And know how to spell his or her name. Not doing so is a frequent way to get rejected. It may not be fair but editors are only human.

4. Be sure that what you’re sending is right for the publisher.

Know your market intimately. Don’t send genre fiction to a nonfiction publisher, then be surprised because they send it back. If you write fiction, be sure you know the different genres and sub-genres. Check out the publisher beforehand and make sure they publish what you’re sending to them. If they ask for 300 words, don’t think you can send 500. The rules are there for a reason. That’s what the publisher wants to see. Don’t think your work is so good they won’t be able to resist.

5. Don’t compare your work to others.

This can be difficult because you want to have some idea of how you’re doing. But there are no two writers just alike. Have some confidence in your work. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn new things or you have to be resistant to change. Join a critique group only if you’re comfortable with the people who will be reading your work. Don’t change everything or put your work aside because one reader says he or she doesn’t like what you’re doing. Remember that you’re developing your voice.

6. Be willing to edit.

I’m making a subtle distinction here between editing and revision. I’m classifying editing as what an editor wants you to change in your work. Out of all the books I’ve had accepted for publication, only a handful haven’t had edits. Sometimes big and sometimes small.

Bear in mind that when editors contact you about changes, even without a contract, they’re trying to find out if they can work with you. Show them that they can by being professional. Always listen to their suggestions carefully, write them down and think about them before you say you will or won’t do them. Be ready to have good explanations for why you don’t think their ideas make the story better. Editors want to feel they have a hand in the books they work on. Smile if they ask you to make some changes and sign the contract.

7. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes or get rejected.

Fear of rejection or of looking silly stops more manuscripts from being published than bad writing. You’re going to make mistakes and get your work rejected. It’s the only way to get where you want to be. Plan for it. Know what you’re going to do with your rejections. Then move on. If you do make a mistake, get over it. No one knows everything. Try not to make it again. Keep sending your work out.

8. Use a font and print size that can be easily read.

Every editor I’ve met has complained about getting too many manuscripts that are in tiny or strange fonts. Find out what the standard is and use it. Don’t think you can impress someone because you know what Gothic font 5 is. They don’t care. They just want to save their eyesight.

9. Always send a cover letter.

A cover letter is important because it says who you are. It says if you’re impatient or easy to get along with. It says that you think of an editor as a person and not just a name in a book. Your writing should be excellent and speak for itself. But your cover letter is your only intimate point of contact with a stranger who you’d like to publish your work. Act like you’re trying to begin a relationship, in a professional manner.

10. Have fun.

If you’re not having fun, find something else to do. This business is hard and competitive. If you don’t have chills when you finish a manuscript and cry with your characters, there’s something out there that’s easier and less stressful.

Joyce Lavene and her husband and writing partner Jim have written and sold more than forty romance and mystery novels together since 1999 (including the award winning Sharyn Howard mystery series). They also write non-fiction articles and short stories. They are active in local and national writer’s groups and live in North Carolina with their family. They welcome readers to their websites at and

Book Review: The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction by Michael Seidman

Book review by Alex Shapiro

The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction

By Michael Seidman

Writer’s Digest Books


264 pages

In this easy-to-follow book, experienced editor and writer Michael Seidman explains how to approach fiction editing, using his own short story as example.

The author compares the writer’s job with that of a sculptor—both start with a block of words (or stone). They both chip and cut into the shapeless form until they getto the finished work.

The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction takes writers through the tedious process of chipping and editing the first draft until it becomes a final manuscript ready for submission.

The book is a must-have. It is, especially for the beginner writer, a trip into the world of fiction editing. Using examples from his own work, Michael Seidman describes the elements of a story, explains what makes a good, realistic character and talks about the stuff good scenes are made of.

The author gives his own tips on writing a realistic dialogue, one that is part of the story and pushes the plot forward. He also discusses the point-of-view, a topic that can get pretty confusing, even for more advanced writers.

What is a story without a plot? There are always changes to the plot, to “what’s happening in the story.” And the reader has the privilege of seeing the author in action, molding and remodeling his own plot, deleting and adding, shaping it into the final form.

Cover of Michael Seidman's Complete Guide to Editing FictionSomewhere into the fiction-editing trip, Michael Seidman stops to emphasize the importance of the story opening and to give examples of good (and not-so-good) openings. Revision after revision, the readers see the story transforming, taking shape, in front of their eyes. They become part of the process and learn to apply the lessons learned to their own work.

Once finding the shape of the story, does it mean it’s indeed the final shape? The author teaches the tips and tricks of fine-tune editing—such as pace, genre, choice of words and language, imagery and style, spelling and grammar.

The most important part of the book may just be the checklist; several pages offering a full, easy-to-use review of the dos and don’ts of fiction editing.

The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction teaches as much as it entertains. Readers have not only the opportunity to learn the insights of editing from a professional, but they also have the chance to enjoy a good story and be part of its shaping, from the beginning to the end.

This is a book to hold on to for when you are ready for revising and editing your writing.

Alex Shapiro is a freelance writer and photographer with works published online and in print. She lives in New Jersey.

Copyright 2003 Alex Shapiro.

20 Ways to Keep Your Writing Inspiration and Creativity High

By Catherine Franz

When we are stressed or blocked, it is wise to make a change so that we don’t stay in that place. Yet many times we forget some of the simple things that we can do for ourselves, quickly and easily, to bring our inspiration back and increase our creativity.

  1. If you usually type your first drafts, hand write them. Nothing compares to the feeling of the ink melting into the paper and the surge of that creative flow.
  2. If you spend too much time at the computer, take a break every hour. Go for a walk or just sit outside in the sun. Even five minutes in a winter sun does wonders for a mood and creativity.
  3. Flip through magazines or books. Their colors and ideas will give you sparks and switch your attitude. Blue and green can reduce your stress levels by 30% or more.
  4. Add strong smells to the room. Light scented candles around you, visit the fruit aisle at the grocery store, or go to a store that is heavily scented. Find an orange or strawberries and smell it. Both will change a mood or create inspiration. Smells awaken your creativity. Smells trigger memories and are a great method to rekindle stories from the past.
  5. Go see or rent an inspirational movie. Relaxation time is important. You can even take your notebook and record inspirational phases. Afterwards, free write what those phrases bring up from your subconscious.
  6. Read a book that stirs you or sparks your creativity. If you prefer, read poetry.
  7. Look at bold and bright colors for a few minutes. These change your mood.
  8. Talk with a friend about your topic to flesh out ideas and creativity. Record the conversation, with his or her permission of course, and play it back to hear the little nuances that you might have missed.
  9. Write an e-mail to a friend to tell him or her what you want to accomplish. If you are stuck, say so and ask for help.
  10. Check in with your vibrational energy and do something to switch it into high gear. Take a shower. Go for a walk. Turn on some music and dance naked for a few minutes.
  11. Hire a virtual assistant to do some typing so that you can stay focused on writing. You can fax your writing or dictate it into the computer and send her a voice file for transcription.
  12. Go to church for the noon service or whisper a prayer or two. This reconnects your energy with the universe and replenishes what might be missing.
  13. Complete an appreciation exercise. Pick something around you, like the telephone, lamp, or pen. Talk to it and tell it how much you appreciate having the electricity to turn it on, the opportunity to write with a tool that has the ink inside (not like a quill), or the softness of the paper you write on. Be grateful for that you have and not what you are missing. Or make a list of “count your blessing” items.
  14. Write a personal note to friends or family and tell them how much you love them, appreciate their thoughtfulness, or kindness.
  15. Authentic, flat-out, raw laughter frees the psyche and opens the creativity process.
  16. Find a setting with lots of trees and flowers and feel nature. If the weather permits, take off your shoes and socks and feel the grass between your toes. Nature has a way of freeing our spirit and renewing our soul.
  17. If guilt or a past incident has captured your mind, write a “Dear Me” letter and ask yourself for forgiveness to to loosen its grip and expand your freedom.
  18. Are you used to writing in a quiet place? Find a noisy place to write, like McDonald’s or the mall. When your space is noisy, you will have to focus harder in order to write with clarity.
  19. Go for a quiet leisurely drive, listen to a favorite CD. You can sing out of tune and no one will notice (laughter allowed).
  20. Do something nice for someone else that you wouldn’t normally do and be a gracious receiver of a hug.

That was exciting, wasn’t it? Post this list in a conspicuous place so that it is readily available when you need it. Do one or two of these daily and keep on writing. Your readers are waiting to read your words.

Catherine Franz is a marketing industry veteran, a Certified Business Coach, Certified Teleclass Leader and Trainer, speaker, author, and Master Attraction Practitioner. Business clients include professional firms, restaurants, retail stores, coaches, writers, the marketing challenged, and independent professionals across the globe from Japan to New Zealand.

My Father’s Models

By James D. Macdonald

My father, W. Douglas Macdonald, was a chemical engineer and an electrical engineer. Most of his life he worked for building materials companies, including Glidden Paint, US Plywood, and Eucatex. He died entirely too young—at 72, of congestive heart failure secondary to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; that is to say, smoking killed him. (Note to everyone: If you smoke, quit right now.) I miss him very much.

That was his professional life. His hobby was model making, specifically ships and model railroads. He won contests in the 1920s for his model railroad cars. Back when I was young, he let me help him with his model making (talk about your fatherly love: the help of six-year-olds can be a challenge). That was where I learned model work, which I still enjoy.

All the arts are related, model work and novel-writing not excepted. Both of them center on making a world in miniature, a false seeming that convinces the viewer/reader of its reality.

Herewith are some lessons I took away from my father’s model making, and use in my own works:

  • No matter how good your model is, it won’t be perfect. No matter how much praise you get, no matter what awards you win, you’ll never be able to look at that model and see anything but its imperfections.
  • No one counts the rivets on a moving car.
  • If you suggest detail, the viewer will add his own details.
  • Painted plastic, painted wood, and painted metal all look the same.
  • A frame makes the model seem more real than it otherwise would appear.
  • Don’t put things square on bases; use diagonal lines. They suggest motion.
  • Let the paint dry before you touch it.
  • Sometimes the best model for a thing is the thing itself: Nothing looks so more like a load of coal in a hopper car than crushed coal in a hopper car.
  • It isn’t a model until you add people. Before that, it’s a clever machine, perhaps, or a toy. Characters bring their own reality with them, and pull the person looking at the model into the story. Your models tell stories; if you have a car that’s got mud on it, or rust, or scrapes and dents, it has a history. The viewer won’t know what the dent came from, but he’ll know that the car has been places and done things, and subconsciously won’t think of it as just an object from a model maker’s workbench.
  • If you can’t see the world you can’t model it.

*  *  * 

I haven’t built model railroads, though I love doing model ships and model houses. 

Herewith are some exercises for all of you; they’re not too expensive, and again (I promise!) they will help you with your novel writing. (Or, anyway, they’ve helped mine.) 

First off, get yourself a nice HO scale paper model house. Two I’ve done are Cut and Assemble Victorian Cottage and Cut and Assemble Victorian Shingle-Style House, both by Edmund V. Gillon, Jr., both published by Dover. Of the two, the latter has the greater story possibilities. 

Build one of the houses. In the building of it, add one interior room. (If you want, you can open doors and windows with your X-acto knife to give other people a chance to see it, or not.) Note: While the instructions don’t say to do so, paint the insides of the chimneys black! If you leave them white, the illusion is broken. If you blacken them, the illusion is strengthened. Remember: Anything that doesn’t add to the illusion, detracts from it.

Now place the model on a base. Landscape it. (Landscaping can cover a multitude of sins.) Spring, summer, autumn, winter scenes all have different feels.

Add people. These tell your story. If you put in a group of folks having a garden party, the model tells a different story than the model that has a police car and an ambulance pulled up out front of the house, with detectives, dogs, uniformed police, and a stretcher with a sheeted form being wheeled out through the front door.

Don’t skimp on the people. In my model of the shingle-sided house, one figure (of several) cost more than the rest of the materials combined. I found it in a hobby shop, and knew that this was the figure I needed. The more realistic the little plastic people, the more real the entire model will appear.

Another thing: In my father’s models there were always hidden details, stuff that only the model maker knew about. These things made the model real to him, and if it was real to him, it would be real to the viewers. For example, once we made a model of the submarine USS George Washington. This was a plastic model with a hinged side that could be opened to show the interior. One of the interior spaces had a door that led to the food storage reefer. My dad built and painted scale model hams, hung them in the walk-in refrigerator area, then continued with the model, sealing that area off where it would never be seen.

Also: Even if a viewer can only see three sides of the model house, he will assume—because he knows what houses generally look like, and because you made the angles correctly—that there is a fourth side. This may not be true—you may not have a fourth side on that model house, but the viewer will supply it.

The viewer will also supply an interior to that house, even though the interior may quite literally not exist . . . that’s why I suggest that you build at least one interior room in your model house. You will know that it’s there, and your knowledge will be transmitted to the people who see your model, through your increased confidence.

Similarly, if you know who your heroine’s best friend was in fifth grade, and where she went on vacation in the summer between fifth and sixth grade—even if you never show these things to your readers—your character will be consistent in her later actions in the story that you’re telling.

That’s it. Learn to see the world. Discover that tree trunks aren’t brown; they’re grey. See how the same basic, off the rack things, when arranged in various ways, with you choosing the arrangement, make different, unique, artistic stories. Discover that when you mix paint for your Pullman cars using paint chips taken from real Pullman cars, that they look too dark—you have to lighten the paint to make it look right. Looking right is more important than being right.

The models don’t look like much until you have them all put together, landscaped, populated, and framed. Then . . . they’re magic.

James D. Macdonald and his frequent collaborator Dr. Debra Doyle have written many books together. Their books include the Mageworlds series (Tor) and the Circle of Magic series (Troll Books), as well as Lincoln’s Sword, Mist and Snow and The Apocalypse Door. Macdonald has been known to cross out dictionary definitions and write in his own, and he displays a mutant talent of making opinions sound like facts. He teaches at the Viable Paradise Writers’ Workshop for sci-fi and fantasy writers. You can find James D. Macdonald and Debra Doyle’s Website here.


The Commercial Novelist

By James D. Macdonald

Hello. My name is Jim Macdonald, and I write books. Fantasy, science fiction, horror, technothriller, and non-fiction, mostly. Upwards of thirty, total, over the last fifteen years.

Jenna asked me to write a column on “Writing the Commercial Novel,” so that’s what I’ll be doing. I can’t guarantee that what I say here will work for you; all I can say is that it works for me. As Kipling put it, “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays/ And every single one of them is right!”

First, let’s talk about why you want to be a novelist. Just as every way of telling a story (per Kipling) is right, every reason for wanting to do it is right. Commercial publication isn’t a requirement. You put words on paper? You’re a writer. Your reasons are your own.

Let me say, though, that if the reason you want to write is to send a message, there are better ways. If you’re interested in impressing other people, there are better ways. If you’re interested in making pots of money, there are better, easier, faster ways.

On the other hand, if the reason you’re a writer is because writing is what you’ve always dreamed of doing, because you’re the sort of person to whom words come trippingly, and because the idea of not-writing fills you with dread, perhaps you’re in the right place. If you want to share your writing with others, and you want to have a few laughs and make a few bucks along the way, so much the better.

All writers love their books. (I’m big on making flat universal statements.) Sure, you can find one or two miserable exceptions, writers who hate their books. Pretty much every writer goes through a stage or two of hating his or her particular book. If it doesn’t happen during the interminable mid-book slog (when you’ll hear writers calling their Work In Progress the “Gosh-Darn Farking Book from Heck” or something similar), then it comes right after finishing it, when the same book which had been so bright-shiny-new, original, and delightful in concept suddenly seems to be the biggest pile of cow-poop ever assembled, and the thought of reading it One More Time fills the writer with a desire to clean the toilets instead.

Still, writers love their books. The difference between a writer and a commercial writer is that the commercial writer has convinced someone else to love his or her book. Someone other than Mom. Someone called an “acquiring editor.”

Here’s where Art and Commerce meet. And here’s the hill that lots of would-be commercial writers never crest. You’re asking total strangers to bet tens of thousands of dollars of their boss’s money that other total strangers will want to read your book so much that they’ll plunk down money on the counter in bookstores where the bookstore owner has never heard of you either.

Egos of steel, that’s us. We believe that we lie so entertainingly that other people will pay money to hear us lie. All writers think that their books are that entertaining. Most writers are wrong. Sad but true: Most of the books in the slush heap (I’ve seen slush heaps; I’ve read slush) aren’t bad books. They just aren’t very good. They’re dull, they’re formless, they never get going or they lose traction half-way through, they don’t so much end as stop.

I’m going to talk about ways to lift your book out of that gray morass of nice-enough but not good-enough books. I’ll also make you a couple of promises.

First, if you write a page a day (that’s 250 words), at the end of a year you’ll have a book-length manuscript. A writer writes. If you’re a writer, you write.

Second, if you have a compelling story compellingly told, in workmanlike prose with standard spelling, presented in standard manuscript format, it will sell. Perhaps not to the first place you submit it, nor to the second, but it will sell.

Figuring out what is a compelling story is the next part, of which more anon. For right now, start writing.

James D. Macdonald and his frequent collaborator have written many books together. Their books include the Mageworlds series (Tor) and the Circle of Magic series (Troll Books), as well as Mist and Snow and The Apocalypse Door. Macdonald has been known to cross out dictionary definitions and write in his own, and he displays a mutant talent of making opinions sound like facts. He teaches at the Viable Paradise Writers’ Workshop for sci-fi and fantasy writers. You can find James D. Macdonald and Debra Doyle’s Website here.


Anticipation and Dread

By Kate Gerard 

Most readers will forgive other inadequacies if a story hooks them with suspense. How many times have you completely ignored mundane details when perched on the edge of your seat? If you’re like me, you’ll find surprises when you re-read a favorite suspenseful scene—details you were too busy or too involved to notice the first time around. This is the effect of suspense. It’s like a hectic carnival ride. Good suspense snatches the reader and propels her forward, faster and faster—details blur and her heart races—she’s so eager to see how the conflict resolves, she can’t read fast enough.

Unfortunately, new writers often fail to build suspense. Worse, they fail to resolve suspense in a climatic manner. The reader is teased by a potentially dangerous or emotion-laden situation, only to be disappointed when the conflict sputters—the characters either resolve the issue without escalating the tension, the tension escalates too quickly, or someone/something interferes too soon. Instead of perching on the edge of her seat, the poor reader slumps down in her cushion, disappointed and unsatisfied.

But suspense is not so difficult when we apply two simple principles: anticipation and dread.

Anticipation is a simple concept. In fiction, the secret to anticipation is letting the reader know something bad could happen. We create anticipation by introducing a situation that’s fraught with the possibility of danger or risk. Say your protagonist, a Department of Defense employee, is driving down the road, distracted about the documents he’s taken home from the office. Behind at work and with a report due tomorrow, he’s taken home top-secret papers, and he’s terrified of being caught. He misses a stop sign. Another driver leans on the horn, cursing, and your protagonist tells himself to pay closer attention. But a paragraph later, he’s back to worrying about those purloined papers. This is anticipation. The reader knows something bad is going to happen, and she’ll be glued to the page waiting for it.

Let’s take another situation. Say your protagonist, an assistant bank manager, is sitting at her desk when two strange men in dark suits approach. She rises to greet them, but instead of acknowledging her greeting, they walk past her and into her boss’s office. She hears the door lock behind them. Sometime later, she’s with a customer when she sees them leave, but her boss’s door is still closed and she shrugs it off. Any reader with a modicum of curiosity is going to wonder what’s up. That’s anticipation.

Or say your single father protagonist is chopping carrots and cuts his finger. It’s just a little nick, no big deal. He holds the cut under running water, and while blood is running down the sink, he has a sudden chill. He feels unaccountably light-headed and nauseated, but blows it off and goes on to prepare dinner for his children. The reader, being smarter by far than the protagonist, is immediately alerted to possible disaster. That’s anticipation.

In each of these situations, the reader knows something bad is going to happen. She may guess, she may speculate, she may nod knowingly; but she’ll have to read on to find out what the bad thing is going to be. You, the brilliant writer, have created anticipation.

The important thing to remember about anticipation is not to resolve it too quickly. Let the reader wonder what’s going on. Let the tension build. Sometimes anticipation will last for pages, sometimes chapters.

On the other hand, neither should you string out anticipation too long. Readers love being teased with anticipation, but they don’t like being manipulated. The reader will get annoyed if you don’t show her what’s happening in a reasonable amount of time. While allowing anticipation to simmer, make sure the intervening narrative is important, interesting and compelling. The reader will not forgive you if you leave her hanging with mundane, unimportant, or boring events.

The second principle of suspense is dread. Dread is the natural offspring of anticipation. Dread occurs after the bad thing has happened, but the outcome hasn’t been resolved. Let’s take the three earlier examples and see how dread works.

Absent-minded, your worried defense employee doesn’t notice the car in front of him has stopped for a red light, and he rear-ends the stopped car. He raises his head from the steering wheel, wipes the blood off his forehead, and gets out to check on the other driver. He approaches the car and finds an elderly driver slumped over the steering wheel. This is where dread is born. The worst has happened; now what will your defense employee do? Will he run for it, or stay to make sure the other driver is taken care of? What will happen to him? A good writer will play this moment for all it’s worth.

In the next example, for the rest of the day, secretaries and tellers go in and out of your bank manager’s boss’s office, many carrying boxes of files. No one looks her in the eye and when she asks, no one will tell her what’s going on. At the end of the day, her boss calls her in and accuses her of embezzling. Dread is born. Your protagonist is no embezzler, but who will believe her? Her boss is waving the proof in front of her nose. He picks up the phone to call the FBI. What will she do? What will become of her?

In the case of the carrot chopper, weeks pass and his symptoms progress. One morning he finds blood in his urine. Days later the worst is confirmed. He has cancer. Dread is born. What will this single father do? Who will take care of his children? What will happen to his family?

Dread should increase as the story progresses. Your protagonist will begin with many options. But, one by one, those options will prove untenable, and with each failure, the dread should grow. Present your reader with all the worst possible what-ifs, and don’t let her lose sight of those horrible possibilities. Remind her what’s at stake again and again. However, don’t ever clobber the reader with melodrama. Nursing drama takes a subtle touch.

Anticipation and dread can be used to propel the primary theme of any story, but a good writer uses these tools throughout the narrative. On a smaller scale, anticipation and dread can be woven into even minor conflicts. Don’t be afraid to douse your stories with suspense—readers will thank you and so will your publishers.

Kate lives in Kansas City, Missouri and is the moderator of the online critique group, WriteCraft.

12 Ways to Keep Your Nonfiction Book in the News

By Sandra Beckwith
Publishers are willing to publicize nonfiction books when they’re released, but they rarely do much after the launch to keep books in the news, even though most deserve ongoing media exposure. Here are some easy things you can do to generate continuing publicity for your title. Use a mix of these ideas to develop a 12-month publicity plan that will provide the support your book needs.

Turn the advice in your chapters into a series of monthly tip sheets. A tip sheet is a press release that offers tips or advice in a bulleted or numbered format. Start your tip sheet with an introductory paragraph that explains why the tips you’re offering are important, list your bulleted advice, then tie it all together at the end with a concluding paragraph. Send it to appropriate media outlets; the distribution list will depend on your topic.

Contact the press immediately when your topic is making headlines to offer your expert perspective. This is a sure thing with most local media outlets when it’s a national news story because you’re giving them a local angle. Fax or e-mail (no attachments) your bio and a cover letter explaining your position on the breaking news to the appropriate media contact. If you’ve done enough interviews to prepare for the big time, pitch the national news outlets, too.

Add the media to your newsletter distribution list. The same useful advice or information you offer subscribers in your print or electronic newsletter could be of interest to reporters covering that topic, too. I got a book contract several years ago from the publicity that resulted from adding the media to the distribution list of a newsletter I publish.

Repackage your book content into bylined trade magazine articles. Depending on the terms of your publishing contract, you might need to do some rewriting so it’s “new” material. Make sure the author credit at the end of the article includes your book title.

Capitalize on holidays and special months, weeks, and days by distributing a press release with useful, newsworthy information related to the topic, or by contacting the press to offer yourself as an expert information source. For example, many daily newspapers run articles in December about how the holidays are especially difficult for people who are grieving the recent loss of a loved one or facing the anniversary of a loss. This presents many coast-to-coast interview opportunities fosr the author of a book on grief and loss— but only if the author reaches out to the press. And November 15 is “National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day”—surely there’s an ASJA (American Society of Journalists and Authors) member who can capitalize on that occasion!

Contact the public relations department of your industry’s trade association to offer yourself for media interviews. Association public relations people are often contacted by writers like us looking for members with a particular expertise to interview. Make sure your association knows about your qualifications and the topics you can comment on, and you’ll get referral calls.

Conduct a newsworthy and relevant survey on your topic and announce the interesting results in a press release. The author of a cookbook designed to make cooking simple and easy can survey people about why they don’t cook more, and release the findings in a press release sent to newspaper food editors and cooking magazines. The release should include information about your book’s connection to the survey topic.

Sponsor an attention-getting contest and announce the results in a press release. To promote my humor book about men, I conducted a “Worst Gift from a Man Contest.” The resulting press release led to nationwide media attention, including a holiday appearance on a national cable TV talk show.

Push your publisher’s publicist to monitor ProfNet for reporter queries related to your topic all year. Alternatively, subscribe to ProfNet via its PR Leads reseller and respond to appropriate queries. A $99 per month subscription via is more affordable than a ProfNet subscription.

Monitor ASJA forums for source requests . ASJA members frequently post requests on the magazines and newspapers forum for interview sources.

Tell the media when you’re visiting their market. Reporters love to interview experts who aren’t local, so if you’re in another city for any reason, contact the appropriate media people two weeks before your trip to offer ideas for articles they can write based on an in-person interview with you. If you’re in town to speak, send an announcement press release several weeks in advance and offer to do a pre-event telephone interview.

Repurpose your best tips into a free booklet. Write and distribute a press release that describes the booklet and how people can get a free copy; make sure both the booklet and the release include information about your book, too.

Generating ongoing publicity is work, but it’s not rocket science. Invest the time so you boost sales while contributing to your author platform. You’ll see the rewards at the end of the year.

Sandra Beckwith, the author of Streetwise Complete Publicity Plans: How to Create Publicity That Will Spark Media Exposure and Excitement, teaches the online “Book Buzz” class for Freelance Success. Learn more at