Category Archives: Writing Tips

How do you edit your children’s novels?

Longhorns and Outlaws, a story about the wild, wild Canadian West, by Linda Aksomitis.
Longhorns and Outlaws, a story about the wild, wild Canadian West, by Linda Aksomitis.

There are many different strategies authors use when they edit a novel. I have a similar approach with all of my editing work, but how much editing really depends on how strong my initial plan and outline were for the novel, along with what kinds of things my editors would like to see added.

Currently, I’m working on my next historical fiction novel for young readers, due out in the fall of 2008 from Coteau Books. Its working title is Longhorns and Outlaws,.

The interesting thing about editing this book is that the time between my last draft and starting back into editing was over a year. In that time I wrote two other novels and two nonfiction books, so my writing skills had grown–I find each book and editor teach me something new about craft. Also, I’d had a variety of reviews on my first historical novel, Adeline’s Dream, which made me look for specific things in this novel.

My process can be outlined in very specific points:

  • Check that the plot is strong enough to pull readers through from beginning to end, with enough exciting scenes to keep them wondering what will happen.
  • Check that the character grows and changes through the story, and that this actually occurs through the plot events, so that readers see the consequences of actions and decisions we make.
  • Check that there is a strong climax to the story and that it is located at a good point. The ending shouldn’t be 3-4 chapters after the climax, or the story gets boring, but there should also be enough space for some excitement after the climax, or again, the story gets boring.
  • Check that the end of the story is satisfying, even if it leaves readers wondering what may come next.
  • Check that the chapter endings are exciting and make it hard for the reader to put down the book. Chapter ends that tie up scenes, so the reader moves on to the next chapter with a new scene/activity can end up with an episodic feel to the story, whereas time moving forward in the middle of a novel doesn’t seem so slow to the reader.
  • Check that all of the characters are three-dimensional, with supporting characters showing some change through the events of the story as well as the main character.
  • Check that the voice of the narrator has a distinctive style that is consistent throughout the novel.
  • Check that the language shows instead of tells, particularly in the most exciting scenes.
  • Check that the setting is vivid and well developed, so the reader can get a sense of where the story happens, even if it could happen anywhere in the world–even the main character’s room or school is sufficient to create “place” and put the reader in the main character’s world.
  • Check for the use of a literary writing style that works with the narrator’s voice and style.
  • Recheck any historical details that may pop up as additional depth is added to the story. Language must also be checked for historical usage. This is a great link that lets writers determine what sayings/phrases were used in what periods:

Of course it’s hard to keep track of all of these things at one time! So, I often go through the novel multiple times checking and editing for specific things. When I decide to make changes to some aspect of plot or character, I’m also careful to re-examine the other elements to see what impact they’ll have in various areas.

The final edit is, of course, a line edit to make sure grammar and punctuation is all done correctly. The line edit is also the last time to make sure everything is consistent: his mother’s eyes are blue in both places they’re mentioned; the horses names are consistent throughout; etc.

Editing is the most important part of writing, so I always allow ample time to ensure I’ve done my story characters and the historical period justice.

Linda Aksomitis,
Author of the children’s historical novels: Adeline’s Dream, Run, and the 2008 title, Longhorns & Outlaws (working title) from Coteau Books.

How long does it take to write a book?

Snowmobile Challenge
Snowmobile Challenge, a novel by Linda Aksomitis.

When I do author visits, students always ask me how long it takes to write a book. I don’t have an easy answer, either.

The actual physical act of sitting down at the computer (I never write longhand) and typing the story goes very quickly, as I normally write 4000 to 5000 words in a day. However, this activity is rather like sitting down to Sunday dinner, which may take just fifteen minutes or half an hour to eat, while the cook may have spent five or ten times that amount of time preparing everything.

Before I can write, the story has to live in my head and build, one theme and scene at a time, until it’s all in place. This has taken me anywhere from six months to ten years, depending on the project. I know I’m ready to start writing the book when I can do a full outline with all of the plots/subplots, character development, motifs, symbollism, and other story elements that I deem important for the project. If I can’t put it all on paper that way, it’s not ready to be written.

Then, of course, there’s the research that goes into a story, which I do as I’m thinking about the idea. For example, in my new novel, Longhorns & Outlaws (working title), I knew that the main character was an orphan, but until I did extensive historical research I didn’t know that his family had died in the worst hurricane in the history of the United States in 1900 in Galveston, Texas (more people died in that one than died in Katrina).

Many of my writing friends tell me they write to discover what is happening in the story, whereas I write to get to know the characters. While I’ve already “met” the characters before I begin writing, as I write they tell me about themselves, where they’ve been and what they’ve done, plus share their hopes and dreams.

I am what I would call a setting or plot driven author, since my initial idea always begins with a place and a thing/happening. From there, I think about who the characters are in this place and how these events are going to change them. This approach to writing seems to work well with historical fiction, as history provides me with so many interesting events to choose from that I’ll never be able to write them all.

Linda Aksomitis, author of “Adeline’s Dream,” “Run,” and a new historical fiction from Coteau Books in 2008 with the working title, “Longhorns & Outlaws.”

How do you decide what historical events to use in the plot of a novel?

Adeline's Dream, a 1910 prairie immigration story, by Linda Aksomitis.
Adeline’s Dream, a 1910 prairie immigration story, by Linda Aksomitis.

History provides an exciting backdrop for a novel. There is built-in excitement, tension, high points and low points. So, the trick to deciding what to include in a novel means looking at the shape of a book and considering how history can propel the story’s plot, rather than just trying to include all the historical events that actually happened.

In Adeline’s Dream I had a whole summer of community activities to choose from, plus the fall school and harvest events. I wanted to make sure the conflict in the book–that wondering what will happen–was strong right from the beginning, so I focused on events that would build conflict when examining the history book for the real events of 1910. I had several key conflicts to develop in the novel, with the main one also showing us one of Adeline’s character flaws. She’s stubborn, in fact she’s so stubborn that she just can’t forgive her father for embroidering the truth about the home they were coming to in Canada.

Another key conflict is between Adeline and the story’s antagonist, Sarah. Sarah’s an antagonist because it seems that if she would just be nice to Adeline and accept her, that all of Adeline’s problems would be over. Sarah also represents the town kids, who aren’t terribly accepting of the German kids from the soddy community called Germantown. In order to introduce this early, Sarah appears in the very first chapter of the book, snubbing Adeline when she arrives in Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan at the train station and calling her a “squatter.”

So, my challenge was to look at the community events and decide what historical events could set the reader firmly in 1910, plus build tension in the conflicts. First, I choose the 1/2 day holiday for Dominion Day, and the horse race. While a lot of the day is fun for Adeline and a good introduction to the town (also important since immigration is one of the main subject areas the story deals with), a confrontation with Sarah certainly dampens her spirits. During the day Adeline’s thoughts wander, and we learn quite a bit about Germany and the long-distance relationship she’s had with her father in the four years that he’s been in Canada, getting things ready to send for them. In fact the reader hopes Adeline is ready to forgive her father.

Tension going up and down through the plot events is what pulls the reader through the story, so every time it goes up as it does when we think Adeline may forgive her father, it must also come down a little further ahead. Some readers have asked me why Adeline doesn’t just forgive him, and there are two reasons for that: the first is that the story needs tension (once the problem is solved the excitement is over), and the second is that her inability to just say “I’m sorry Papa, I’m so glad to see you,” shows the reader that she’s stubborn. Since at this point in the story we think she just might do that, the next historical event I include has to put Adeline on the outs again with her father.

For that event I chose Sunday after church, going to the slide show with the piano music. This particular event tied many of the threads of the plot together, so it was an important scene. First of all, Adeline’s dream to become an opera singer is shown in both her singing in church and her longing to stand and sing Ruth’s story from the bible at the show. Second, Adeline has a run-in with Sarah as they’re leaving the event, so it develops that conflict. The scene also shows us, quite subtly, how Sarah’s mother is a perfectionist, so we get a peek into what it’s like to actually be Sarah. Finally, when Papa talks and laughs with Sarah’s mother, and doesn’t even introduce his family to the well-to-do lady from town, Sarah feels that while Papa might belong in the community, none of the rest of his family do, and their relationship is strained once again.

So, the historical events I chose to include must always develop conflict and character in the fictional world, showing us the realities of the character’s lives and why they respond to life the way they do.

How close do you keep fiction to real history?

Adeline's Dream, a 1910 prairie immigration story, by Linda Aksomitis.
Adeline’s Dream, a 1910 prairie immigration story, by Linda Aksomitis.

Good historical fiction requires that the author is 100% true to the time period in terms of accuracy in historical fact. Books that take their inspiration from history, but weave in details that they invent are often in the fantasy genre, like medieval fantasies. My favorite book in that genre is Guy Gavriel Kay’s novel, The Lions of Al-Rassan.

When I wrote Adeline’s Dream I based it completely on actual events that happened in the town of Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan in 1910. Continue reading How close do you keep fiction to real history?

Have you seen a horse race like the one in Adeline’s Dream?

Adeline's Dream, a 1910 prairie immigration story, by Linda Aksomitis.
Adeline’s Dream, a 1910 prairie immigration story, by Linda Aksomitis.

In chapter 2 of my novel, Adeline’s Dream, Adeline and her new friend, Kat, go to the horse race in Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, on the July 1st half-day Dominion Day holiday. It is Canada’s 43rd birthday.

In terms of the question young readers have asked, have I been to a horse race like this one, the answer is yes, although not in Qu’Appelle. Continue reading Have you seen a horse race like the one in Adeline’s Dream?