Category Archives: Writing

Sparking the Imagination with Written Imagery

As a classroom teacher of upper MG readers, I’ve been wondering lately on the constant technological pummeling we get from images—gaming, TV, movies, computers, tablets, phones. Screened devices have a powerful attention-grabbing effect on kids, and with so many stimulating colors, photos, Snapchat animations, and videos to look at, the modern-day imagination is contending with a very different ball of yarn than in decades past. It’s great that we can Google-Machine “Roman Empire ruins” and see hundreds of pictures, and it’s fun to test our eye-hand coordination by slashing air-borne fruit, chopping ropes, or helping a chicken across a road. But for many readers, after all that color and movement and music, the imagination may balk a bit when given black words on a white page.

For that reason, it might be pretty difficult for a middle grade teacher, parent, librarian, or writer to hook readers on books with descriptive passages, figurative language, or a generally more literary bent. But instead of avoiding imagery, it may be more important than ever to give readers an opportunity to envision and imagine through the words on the page. We should strive to provide work-out routines and fitness centers for the imagination in our stories through language and description. Inclusion of imagery in MG stories will complement the reader’s experience and ultimately improve and enhance the reader’s imagination. And imagination is important in any setting, as it drives flexible thinking and creative problem solving.

So, in order to spark readers’ imaginations, how do you recognize good imagery in MG works, and how do you write your own? Here are some qualities typically associated with imagery:

  • Imagery is language that employs a mental use of the five senses.
  • It can use certain figurative language devices like similes and metaphors, personification, and hyperbole, but it can exist without any other lit devices being present, too.
  • Good imagery isn’t fluffy or fancy or filled with words you’d find on the SAT. Sometimes, in fact, incredibly simple syntax and short phrases make up excellent imagery.
  • Imagery lets you see, touch, taste, hear, and smell the surroundings  in the character’s world, and it draws the reader in with those experiences.
  • Most importantly, good imagery leads the imagination off-leash—it guides, but never forces. The imagination has to be allowed to run free, if it’s to grow strong.

Here are some scenes in three works of MG fiction with imagery to consider:

Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. The description of Camazotz is brilliantly creepy in its simplicity. L’Engle’s choice of short, clipped words and phrases reflect the vision concocted in the reader’s imagination of this austere town where anomalies are forbidden:

Below them the town was laid out in harsh angular patterns. The houses in the outskirts were all exactly alike, small square boxes painted gray. Each had a small, rectangular plot of land in front, with a straight line of dull-looking flowers edging the path to the door.

Things get more eerie with the rhythmical description of the kids outside all those houses, girls jumping rope and boys bouncing balls:

Down came the ropes. Down came the balls. Over and over again. Up. Down. All in rhythm. All identical. Like the houses. Like the paths. Like the flowers.

The imagery prompts our imaginations to not only see Camazotz but to hear and feel its driving beat, too.

Sarah Jean Horwitz’s Carmer and Grit, Book One: The Wingsnatchers. Big, immediate conflicts or surprised exclamations from characters can work beautifully as openers in MG fiction and nonfiction. But atmospheric imagery can be used just as masterfully to hook the reader into the story. In this book, the two-and-a-half-page opener has no dialogue and no loud clatter of forces. But the tone of mystery, the discordant sounds, and the symbolic light/darkness imagery all work together to pull the reader in:

At the South Gate, just outside the winding iron bars, the Autocat waits. Its jeweled eyes gleam in the darkness. It watches as each golden lantern on the pathway blinks out, one by one, and it growls–a rough, scraping sound like metal on metal, a sound never heard in the garden before. The creature slinks off into Skemantis’s black night, its mission accomplished.

Karen Hesse’s Letters from Rivka. Good imagery keeps firmly in the voice of the 1st person character, in this case, a young Russian refugee fleeing to America in 1919 and seeing Poland for the first time:

The same crooked cottages, the same patchy roads, the same bony fences leaning in to the dust. Looking out from the train, we see people dressed like us, in browns and blacks; people wrapped in layers of clothes.

Thanks for reading! Please feel free to share thoughts you have on imagery in MG writing, or name some writers you enjoy who do a great job at sparking readers’ imaginations.

What to Do When Your Internal Editor Won’t Shut Up & Let You Write

My internal editor hates me. He won’t let me write a sentence without making me go back and reread it multiple times, weighing each action, word choice, and punctuation mark. (Yes, he just made sure I used the Oxford comma in the previous sentence.)

My Internal Editor of Evil has haunted my subconscious ever since I read Mindy Alyse Weiss’s post about “Fast Drafting.” In her post, Mindy mentioned the problem some writers face when they get bogged down in edit-as-they-go writing. This is me. If fast drafting is like a rushing river of creativity, my highly refined “Sloth Drafting” technique flows like congealed bacon grease thickened with corn starch. My internal editor just won’t shut up. In fact, he’s already made me delete two entire paragraphs of my post just to get to this sentence.

Anyway, my inability to overcome my internal editor made me curious:

How many other writers are Sloth Drafters?

In search of an answer to this question, I conducted groundbreaking research using a highly refined scientific technique—I did a poll on Facebook.

It ends up that about half the folks who contribute to the MUF blog have internal editors like mine. Their writing is a slow process with constant tweaks and revisions along the way. Fast-drafting writers zoom past and stick out their tongues while we Sloth Drafters are busy rearranging adjectives and deleting superfluous uses of the word that.

This brings me to what I want to share today—a writing trick for what to do when your internal editor won’t shut up. Of course, I have to start with a disclaimer: I’ve totally given up on writing fast. That’s why my anti-internal-editor trick intentionally avoids any actual writing. Let me explain.

When I feel my creativity lagging and I need to generate ideas, I know I need to turn off my internal editor. But at the same time, I remain stuck in my Sloth-Drafting rut. In these times, I’ve found myself moving more and more often from text to talk. I don’t write a scene; I speak it.

Sometimes I use the voice recorder on my phone. Other times I pull out a good ol’ cassette recorder. Regardless of the device employed, my goal is the same—to adlib a story or scene or snippet of dialogue in a sort of just-for-me spoken improv. I hit “RECORD” and riff away, seeing where it leads. My recording may only last for a minute or two, but I’ve found the lack of written words allows my ideas and creativity to flow more freely. Then—when my recorded riff is finished—I go back and listen. I write down what I’ve recorded, allowing my internal editor to have his way.

If you have another writing tip or trick for overcoming your internal editor, feel free to share it in the comments below. But even if you don’t have anything to share, if you’re a Sloth Drafter like me, don’t be afraid to embrace it. You’re not alone. Sloth Drafting isn’t evil. Your internal editor is part of who you are as a writer. And if you need to shut him up once in a while? . . . Well, just remember that you can  start talking, so your internal editor can’t.

The Four Secrets Authors Don’t Share

I originally planned to blog about an unusual plotting technique I’ve been tinkering with, but I’m not going to. Right now you’re either relieved to not have to slog through a tech manual of plot, or you still have something to look forward to at a later date.

As I was putting my original post together, and as it was becoming more wonky and arcane, I developed some misgivings. It made me wonder where authors draw the line on what we reveal to our readers, what we choose to keep back, and why.

So I’m writing about that instead.

Trade Secrets

It’s not that I thought a post on plot theory would be too boring. Especially not for a readership focused on books. And it’s not that I’m still too early into the manuscript to talk about it. An introduction and interim report would make an excellent blog post.

Mainly, I’m just being selfish. 

I’ve always shared whatever writing tips and techniques I’ve picked up, but in this book I’ll be venturing into an area I haven’t seen many people go before. If it works well, I want others to have trouble trying to reverse engineer it.

In the world of intellectual property, this is called a trade secret. My first. It may turn out to be a good one, or not, but whatever value it has would go away if it were shared too widely.

Magicians don’t share their best tricks and are celebrated for all that happens up their sleeves or behind the cover of a curtain, so why should authors be expected to so readily reveal our magic?

Easter Eggs

Amie Borst, author of Cinderskella, Little Dead Riding Hood, and Snow Fright, told me:

I leave Easter Eggs in my stories. I can always guess the kids who’ve read my books dozens of times because they find those eggs. There’s one egg I planted in Little Dead Riding Hood that no one has picked up on but I have revealed it during school visits. The look on their faces says it all, “OMG! Of Course! How did I miss something so obvious?”

Some authors pepper their works with in-jokes and references that only a handful of people on the planet are able to see. But Easter Eggs are intended by an author to be findable by any reader attentive enough to notice a detail and clever enough to make a connection.

As a warning, a reader may stumble over quite a few egg-shaped “fan theory” rocks before finding a genuine author-planted Easter Egg, but the hunt is what counts and it would be spoiled by an author who gives out detailed maps, confirms too quickly when an Easter Egg has been found, or installs too many big neon signs pointing out the eggs.

If you’re interested in an egg-hunt in my work, I’ll sprinkle a few breadcrumbs for you. There is a transgender character in The Challengers and The Amorphous Assassin, the first two books of my Galaxy Games series. Finding this Easter Egg requires reading both books closely. The answer will be confirmed in the upcoming third book, The Mad Messenger.

Backstory

Rosanne Parry, author of  Written in Stone, Second Fiddle, Written in Stone, and The Turn of the Tide told me:

Often there is a darker element to the history of my works of historical fiction than I present to my readers. I need the historical context to inform my writing but I’d rather my readers discover the more violent parts of world history when they are older than 9 or 10.

For example, in my book Second Fiddle, I know that the Soviet Army treated soldiers from the Soviet republics, like my character Arvo, with particular brutality. Soldiers from the republics were separated from their countrymen while in the army and often gang raped by Russian Soviets and then threatened with the exposure of their homosexuality-a serious and sometimes capital crime in the Soviet Union.

My readers don’t need to know that piece of Russian history yet but it really helped me understand the depth of my character Arvo’s fears when he and the girls are being followed by the KGB.

As authors, we need more detailed knowledge of our characters then will ever make it into a book, and more detailed knowledge of the setting, whether we invent a fantasy world or uncover historical research like Rosanne has.

Rosanne’s example would be inappropriate to include explicitly in her book and for her readers. Her solution is to allow these disturbing details to affect the tone of her book and the reactions of her characters. The hidden details aren’t ever visible to the reader, but Rosanne keeps them close enough to the surface to make them real.

SPOILERS!

Author Laurie J. Edwards told me:

On Facebook, my author pages, and my blog (Rachel J. Good & Laurie J. Edwards), I often post pictures and share my research for forthcoming books, but several times I’ve discovered really unusual facts or a fascinating group or location. I decided not to post about those. Instead, I want my readers to enjoy those as surprises when they read the books.

What I’m calling spoilers come in two categories. First are the little surprises, like Laurie describes. In my experience, many of these start as surprises for the authors as well.

In the outline of my current work-in-progress, the main character was supposed to go to the marketplace for a spool of thread and come away with a goat. That scene, as I’m actually writing it in another window, is different than I could have imagined. Meant as a simple mercantile transaction to drive the plot forward, it has plumbed the depths of character and revealed important truths about how the story universe works. And I haven’t even gotten to the goat yet!

In researching this same scene, I came across a reference in Greek mythology to the Bee Maidens of Mount Parnassos. There were three of them, half-human and half-bee in appearance, and it was said that they could predict the future when they were sufficiently full of honey and in a good enough mood.  If these characters ever pop up in my book, I’ll be as surprised as anyone, and I’ll want the reader to experience the same level of surprise.

And by telling you about the Bee Maidens just now, I’ve just spoiled the surprise. Oops!

The more commonly referenced kind of spoiler is a more intense subset, where the spoiler contains information that changes the reader’s perspective on what has come before. Revealing the spoiler prematurely doesn’t just dampen the effect of the spoiler itself, but lessens the experience of the entire work.

This is why spoiler warnings are so important.

Four Secrets Recap

So I’ve counted four things that many of your favorite authors might be keeping from you, usually for good reason:

  1. Trade Secrets – Personal and private techniques and strategies that authors use to make their works unique, distinctive, and special.
  2. Easter Eggs – Details planted by the author as a reward to be uncovered by only the most attentive readers.
  3. Backstory – Details that may never be seen but can still affect the tone of a story, add depth to the characters, and make the story world feel more complex and realistic.
  4. Spoilers – Details intended to be secret until a big reveal that is designed to be an integral part of the story experience.

Do you have good examples  of these secrets that you’d like to share?

Are there more secrets that you think I’ve missed?

Leave comments for further discussion, and let me know if you want me to blog about any of them in more detail in a future post!