Tag Archives: writing

The Best Writing Advice I’ve Ever Gotten

Writing is hard. Fortunately, lots of people have done it before me, and many of them have given advice on how to do it. I keep a list of favorite quotes on writing, on perseverance, and on doubt. The following are the ones I have found the most helpful. The best writing advice I’ve ever gotten, if you will. In the comments, I would love to hear yours.


Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader. Not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.
-E.L. Doctorow

This quote gave me such an epiphany. My goal isn’t merely to explain to the reader what the character is doing, but to bring out in the reader sympathy for what the character is experiencing. Ah ha! I find this so much more helpful than the axiom, “Show, don’t tell.”


Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very;” otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
-C.S. Lewis

I love the beauty and humility of Lewis’s writing, and this quote is so emblematic of that to me. I hear it in the back of my mind as I cut away easy hyperbole and lazy adjectives. Keep your language simple and clear, so that you can reach for the soaring language when you really need it.


I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows.
–Ernest Hemingway

This one helps me remember that not everything has to be on the page. The backstory for your characters is important, but you don’t have to tell it to the reader. It’s enough for you to know it, and the reader will intuit it because it informs the choices you make for the character.

dancing girl

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that makes us more alive than the others.
-Martha Graham

This isn’t actually writing advice; Martha Graham was a dancer. It helps me so much with my writing, though. I turn to it again and again when the doubt creeps in. I love that Graham says we don’t have to decide if what we produce is good, and in fact we will never believe that our work is good. That isn’t our concern. Our concern is to be true to the voice inside us, because if we don’t, that voice will be lost forever.

Those are my favorites. What are yours?

Katharine Manning is a middle grade writer, looking for inspiration wherever she can get it. She reviews books at Kid Book List, and tweets @SuperKate. 




Books with Biracial Characters


images-3In the US census between 2000 and 2010 people identifying as more than one race increased by 32%. It is, by most methods of calculation, the fastest growing racial group in the county and one that also needs representation in children’s books.

I didn’t set out to write a book about a biracial child, but I grew up in a neighborhood that seemed outwardly monocultural. As I got to know my classmates and their families over time, I learned that my neighborhood was far more diverse than it appeared. Several friends spent part of  the year living in the Middle East. I regularly babysat for a family with white and Native Alaskan parents.  One of my childhood friends spent every summer in Japan with his grandparents. He was fluent in Japanese and English, passionate about martial arts, and sometimes misunderstood by classmates who found his pride in his grandparent’s culture silly. He bore a strong resemblance to his American father and I remember watching him, and other biracial classmates, navigate the balance between body language, speech patterns and cultural convictions that set them apart and the convenience of looking white enough to blend in.

In writing a story with a biracial character  and thinking through my childhood experiences with an adult’s perspective I’ve found that biracial characters are magnets for conflict in ways that make them useful for story-making though not easy in the actually living of the biracial experience. Here are some avenues of conflict you might explore if you are considering writing biracial or bicultural characters.

1. “But you don’t look Indian!” I actually heard someone say this to an accomplished Native American author recently and she responded with what I felt was the perfect balance of firm resolve and compassion. It’s a terrible thing to say to someone–essentially, “you are not who you are.” That comment, and a dozen equally offensive variations, confront biracial people regularly. The relentless explaining of your identity is soul-wearying and makes a great plot point because even the most confident and well-nurtured biracial person can develop doubts of ever find a place where they belong.

images-22. “Shouldn’t you be more_____?” Is another phrase a biracial person frequently hears. Many minorities feel a pressure to behave in the expected mold of their culture, the intellectual Jew or the violin playing Korean child or the athletic black teenager, for example. imagesIt is hard enough to live up to the imagined-by-outsiders standard of one community, let alone trying to meet the expectations of two or even several. images-1The burden of living up to an impossible standard makes for great internal conflict in a story.


3. For many biracial people the aspect of their racial and cultural identity that comes to the fore varies with circumstance. So a family might choose to emphasize the heritage that blends most readily with the community at hand. Or the most advantageous one. For example, if the local schools are substandard, and a Jewish day school with better resources is available, then a family might choose to identify more strongly as Jewish and become more observant than they might have otherwise.  For the biracial child this can feel like  playing favorites with one parent over another or one set of grandparents over another. The tension between wanting the advantage the easy racial identity provides and wanting to see justice done for the disadvantaged racial identity is great food for complex story telling

4. I had a fascinating conversation with Pico Iyer a few summers ago about raising biracial and bicultural children. He’s found that both his own kids and those he knows from his many travels are masters of observation and highly attuned to cultural nuance. Not that the insights they have are unavailable to others who take the time to be attentive and make connections, but that the connections others overlook are blindingly obvious to a biracial or bicultural child. A keenly observant child always makes for a more interesting viewpoint character and the kind of observations readily available to the child who straddles a number of cultural groups is particularly valuable.

5. And here’s the tough part (at least from my perspective as a bicultural but not Unknownbiracial person). Often what white people do to acknowledge and respect cultures other than their own is so awkwardly done that it makes matters worse rather then better. The dressing up as pilgrims and indians in one glaring example. Here’s another. I recently heard hip-hop poet Merlyn Hepworth perform a poem about his 8 year old self and the school fiesta. He is Mexican-American and grew up in Idaho, a state well known for active white supremacist groups. Nonetheless, his 2nd grade teacher wanted to  broaden her students’ world view, so they had a class fiesta. Young Merlyn, all excited, asked his abuela to make tortillas, his favorite food. So she did and on fiesta day he brought them all fresh and warm, with the delicious little scorch marks that hand-made tortillas have. He set this treasure on the table alongside an array of Ortega products, Fritos, salsa in a jar, and chips with melted cheddar cheese. His whole class and teacher and school principal came to the table to eat and not one person would touch his grandmother’s tortillas. And for the first time in his young life Merlyn was ashamed to eat them himself. And so the whole event had the opposite effect from the one the teacher intended. She had wanted to celebrate Merlyn’s culture and ended up making him feel ashamed in a way he  hadn’t before and might not have ever been if he hadn’t brought real Mexican food to a pretend fiesta.

Here are just a few stories with biracial characters you might enjoy.

Misad51C5YsK3BLL._SX338_BO1,204,203,200_ventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Levy9780688173975

Rain is not my Indian Name
by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones

Operation Redwood 9780385755528by S. Terrell FrenchUnknown

Shadows of Sherwood by Kekla Magoon51Q-2FElUvL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

I’d love to hear about books that you felt did a good job of representing the biracial experience.  Let me know what books I should be highlighting and I’ll add them to this post and ask the buyer to get them for my bookstore.

When Writers Talk: Podcasts with Middle Grade Authors


Like many of you, I am an overscheduled person. As a way to fit in some work on the craft of writing for children, I’ve recently started listening to podcasts with my favorite authors. It’s been inspiring and thought-provoking, plus it’s really fun. I love getting to hang out with Kate Messner as I’m doing the dishes, Laurel Snyder as I’m driving, or Adam Rex as I’m running. Here are the ones I’ve enjoyed so far. All of these are available through the websites linked below or through iTunes.

This Creative Life by Sara Zarr

This was the first writing podcast I found. Zarr is a Young Adult author, but she interviews a number of middle grade authors, as well, including Varian Johnson and Gene Leun Yang. I love that she asks all of the authors about their writing process and the bumps they’ve encountered along the way. It’s somehow comforting to know that even bestselling authors have their moments of self-doubt and procrastination.

Let’s Get Busy Podcast by Matthew Winner

Winner is an elementary school librarian, and his podcasts are a celebration of books and how they’re made. He interviews picture book authors and illustrators as well as middle grade authors, and uncovers fascinating stories about their research and inspiration. Winner also has a tendency, when excited, to say “oh my word!,” which is incredibly charming.

Brain Burps by Katie Davis

I recently discovered these chatty podcasts with children’s book luminaries. They often have a business bent, on topics like marketing or the effective use of social media.

TED Talks

These aren’t focused on middle grade, of course, but I couldn’t leave this topic without pointing out a few great talks for writers. Mac Barnett has a fantastic talk on wonder and writing for children. Andrew Stanton, the filmmaker who did Wall-E and Toy Story, gives excellent tips on storytelling. Finally, Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk on creativity is a classic.

I’d love to hear in the comments about any other writing podcasts you’ve enjoyed. Happy listening!

Katharine Manning writes middle grade novels and has three kids under ten. She reviews middle grade books at Kid Book List. You can find her on Twitter @SuperKate and online at www.katharinemanning.com.