As writers, we hear all the time that you absolutely have to develop your characters’ backstories. We can spend a lot of time laboring over our characters’ pasts–creating, inventing, discovering–only to have someone read a draft and tell us: “Take out all the backstory!” Too much backstory can drag the pace of a story. Too little, and characters seem unmoored and unmotivated. So what to do?
“I understand more clearly that an outline need not be a construct that dominates my writing, a rigid form that must be adhered to, but it can be a tool to help manage what I write, to help me not get distracted or sidetracked, and instead work toward my goal–even if that goal isn’t completely clear to me as I shuffle, twist, and rearrange things on the page, the way I am prone to do.”
As writers, we can look to our settings to provide a wealth of tools to not only add depth to the story but to underline the experiences of the characters, their feelings, their motivations, their desires.
“I love that when I have a question, I can reach out and pick the brilliant brains of other talented kidlit writers. I’m always amazed at how quickly plot or character problems can be solved when you get out of your own head. I also love how willing people are to share great examples of kidlit to use as mentor texts.”
To find good mentor text for “tension till the bitter end,” I went directly to one of my most beloved authors—Agatha Christie. Yes, I know. She’s not a middle grade author. However, when I was in my middle grade years, I devoured her books. Surely, that counts. Plus, for a mentor text, why not go straight to the Queen of Mystery?
Emma Kress’s debut YA novel, Dangerous Play, has plenty of action and a lot of games. It’s a book about a girls’ field hockey team who uses parkour to supplement their summer training, and puts those skills to use as vigilantes against perpetrators of sexual assault. It takes place over an entire hockey season, and Kress makes smart choices about how to condense the many field hockey games so that each one serves the story, especially by manipulating pacing and creating tension.
I first heard Emma read from a chapter-book-in-progress, and her voice blew me away. Emma’s writing as such attention to detail, such personality, such emotional resonance. She can write funny and serious–sometimes in the same sentence. Emma’s debut YA novel, DANGEROUS PLAY comes out August 3, and I’m so glad we get a peek into Emma’s brain and writing process. I highly recommend both DANGEROUS PLAY and Emma herself.
The moose is meaningful to both Dad and Katie, and the movie creates additional layers of meaning through the old movies (flashbacks) and the way the moose moves from person to person. We know what the moose means, so we can imagine what the characters are feeling, and ultimately, we feel it too.
Many kids that experience mental illnesses start developing symptoms as young teens–just when they’re at the age to encounter Young Adult literature. Through YA novels, writers can reach readers at this critical time. Young adult books can be a balm to teens struggling with mental health, offering disability representation, much-needed hope, and comfort in knowing that they’ll come through their darkest days… if we follow a few key guidelines. These six pointers are indispensable in creating an empathetic, accurate, and hopeful book with mental health themes.
The authors and contributors we interviewed had so many wonderful sidewriting challenges, we thought we’d put them all in one place. Each exercise will have a link back to the original post so you can learn more about the author and how sidewriting works for them. Enjoy!