What is Experimental Fiction?

At the 2010 LA SCBWI conference author M.T. Anderson dedicated a breakout session to the topic of experimental fiction and why it is important and relevant to children’s literature. As part of that talk he broke down the common techniques and terms used in experimental fiction, which are as follows:

Experimental Fiction Techniques and Terms:


This is when the elements of the story are about the story. For example the book There is a Monster at the End of This Book. The narrative is about the forward motion of the narrative. Grover tries to get the reader to stop turning the pages of the book, because the title say’s there’s a monster at the end. In this example the narrative refers to the book as an object. This draws the attention to the physical book. The dangerous presence is what draw us forward, and we discover we are moving toward ourselves. Other good examples of meta-fiction include: The Three Pigs, I Am Blue, Breaktime, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Go Go Go Cabot.

Fabulism and Magical Realism

Fabulism and magical realism is the use of myth, fable, and dreams to challenge one’s sense of reality. There is a very fine line between this and fantasy. Examples include: Princess and Goblins, The Old Country, The Ox Boy, The Old Man With Mysterious Wings, and Kelly Link’s Short Stories.

Intrusioning and Typographical Play

The use of typographical play reminds the reader of artifice. This is a type of narrative self-consciousness. You can change type for mood and emotion. Examples are using bold print or large words, etc. This is used a lot in poetry. Good examples include: Lauren Child’s work, John Scieszka’s books, Christopher (?) Raska’s Poke in the Eye.

Formalism: Formalism is linguistic play. Experimentation of sentence structure. All poetry is formalism. It is about rhythm and refrains. A good example includes You Killed Wesley Payne.

Words as Sounds Instead of Meaning: This is the use of nonsense words. It is a Dadaist technique. Examples include: One Fish Two Fish, and Once Dice Twice.

Nonsense and Whimsy: This is the defiance of strict sense. This will teach you to read in a new way, and allows for meaninglessness. Good examples include Gertrude stein’s Middle Grade Novel, and Damien Pinkwater’s Young Adult novel.

Hyper Text: Hyper text is text that doesn’t demand you read it in a particular order. Or a book that provides links or avenues to create order. Any book with foot notes is an example of hypertext.  Choose your own adventure is another example, as well as the Dungeons and Dragon’s books, Pale Fire, and The Mezzanine. The world is presented in a non-linear fashion.

Self Contradiction: I am the Cheese is a great example. It has two plot lines, but they negate one another, they cannot co-exist as stories. (Don’t line up). Self contradiction is the power.

Structures Without Plot: The use of organic non-plot.

M.T. Anderson has written stories for adults, picture books for children, adventure novels for young readers, and several books for older readers (both teens and adults). His satirical book Feed was a finalist for the National Book Award and was the winner of the L.A. Times Book Prize. His first volume of his Octavio Nothing saga won the National Book Award and the Boston Globe/ Horn Book Prize. Both the first and second volumes of the two-part series were Printz Honor Books.

Writing Novels for Today’s Kids

Newberry Honor winning author Gennifer Choldenko spoke at the LA SCBWI 2010 annual conference. The following notes were taken during her keynote speech on how to write novels for today’s kids.

Are Today’s Kids Different Than When We Were Kids?

  • Do kids grow up faster now that when we were kids? True? Each child and age group has a huge range of behaviors.
  • Kids are more outwardly sophisticated today than we were as kids. But on the inside they are the same.
  • It’s hard work growing up.

Why Was A Wrinkle In Time So Successful?

  • Great characters.
  • Original Story.
  • No Fat.
  • It’s not the Newbery that makes the book still resonate with kids today.
  • Another book that still has resonance today is The Little Princess. And it’s over 100 years old!

We Need More Multi-Cultural Authors!

  • Kids need to see voices that reflect their circumstances in life.

How to Get Boy Readers…

  • Ask yourself if you can compete with Xbox. Video games are getting more complex rather than shorter, they also have more action.
  • We need books that reflect the emotional reality of boy’s lives.
  • Kids don’t start reading at age 14. Publishers don’t only want YA. They need readers early so they will grow into YA. Think through what you hear.
  • Human beings need stories!

How Publishing and Media is Evolving…

  • The delivery systems (for books) are expanding!
  • The industry is not getting easier to break into, but there are now more doors/ways for books to be published.

On Writing For Kids…

  • “Write up for kids, not down.” – E.B. White
  • Childhood is a lot harder than it looks. Dig deep.

Craft and The Writing Process…

  • What you experience while you are writing is what we (the reader) will experience when reading.
  • Don’t trick-out your protagonist and no one else. Be sure everyone is three-dimensional.
  • Pay attention to how people walk, talk, etc. Be a notorious eves dropper.
  • Every detail must work within the context of the world you have created.
  • If you’re not totally engaged in your work, then something is wrong.
  • No set-up scenes! Each scene must be gratifying within itself.
  • If every risk you take pans out, then you may not really be risking much.
  • Push your protagonist. Readers like to see a protagonist do something they (the reader) would never do.
  • Put your characters in the lion’s cage and see who they really are.
  • Skill matters! Varying levels of practice is more important than talent. It’s about the time!

Clever Quotes and Anecdotes…

  • “Once you have your first draft, re-read to see what you have been avoiding.” – Her editor
  • “The idea for my next novel is contained in the scribble my subconscious hands me.” – Choldenko
  • “Next time fail better.” -?
  • “You need to feel your way through a novel, not think your way.” – Mailer (?)
  • “Throw your heart over, and follow.”  -?

Take Care of Your Writer Self…

  • Keep the caffeine flowing (or not.)
  • Stay away from toxic people (who want to tear you down).
  • Make yourself the time to read and write!

Set Small Goals…

  • BIC = Butt in Chair
  • Try to make a page count or word count for the day!
  • Beware of quantity over quality.

And a Few Other Words of Wisdom…

  • Critique groups are not for everyone.
  • Don’t let promotion overshadow your work.
  • Make sure you have a book worth marketing.
  • Know when to hold on and when to let go. Follow your guy. It’s a visceral decision.
  • Rejection happens. Get used to it.
  • No one can teach you to write. You have to teach yourself. It’s done through writing!

Gennifer Choldenko’s novel Al Capone Does My Shirts was a Newbery Honor Book and a a School Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year. Other books by Choldenko include: Notes from a Liar and Her Dog, If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period, and No Passengers Beyond this Point.

Surviving the Novel

Author Paul Fleishman spoke at the 2010 LA SCBWI conference about the daunting task of writing a novel. He advises that the best thing to do is to stay organized! The following notes are his tips on how to keep the task in check.

Long Form Writing…The Novel!

  • If you’ve only been writing short form then the novel can be daunting. It may look like the Himalayas off in the distance. Insurmountable.
  • Make sure a longer book is what you are looking at before you begin. A novel will be multi-characters, complications, strong tone.
  • The span (time covered in the book) is not important. It is the level of detail that will denote length.
  • Longer form = longer hours.
  • Long doesn’t mean you waste time in the book. Every word and scene must count.
  • The years pile up.
  • The novel writer is part of a community that stretches past the globe and time.

Organization and Keeping from Feeling Overwhelmed:

  • Be sure to have separate documents for your drafts and story development elements.
  • Devon-Think is a great program to help you keep organized.
  • I like to separate my documents into the following categories:

a)      Manuscript

b)      Working out (For experimentation or figuring out decisions in story/plot) This is thinking on the page.

c)       Outline (An outline is a great wall that will hold back the barbarians of chaos! An outline is where you mentally walk through your book and ask the big question. This will help you from hitting the wall.)

d)      Improvise (Ride the wave, though having a surf board is nice too).

e)      Research

f)       Unused Lines

g)      Back Matter (Lists of names, reminders, acknowledgements, possible scenes, character forms, titles, etc.)

  • Keep bookmarks (online and in books). They will be handy later.
  • Save your different versions of your book. Email them to yourself so you have a back up.

Things to Keep in Check as You Go Along…

  • Look for continuity in your book. Is your character still wearing the same red dress many days later?
  • Watch out for repetitive words. You don’t want verbal ticks.

When You Revise…

  • When revising make notes on what you did so you can find those sections in previous drafts.
  • Do a read-through without fixing things. Highlight as you go.
  • Do open heart surgery on your book. It happens. There’s no way around it but through.

When Researching…

  • If using the internet, copy and paste the text into a word file and change everything to the same font. It will be easier on the eyes.  
  • The highlighting button is great when doing research. It makes things easy to find.  
  • Listen to Pod Casts and take notes.
  • “Research should be like a slip. It should be there but never show.” – Sonja Something

Quotes and Anecdotes:

  • “Every book I write teaches me how to write IT. But not the next one.” – Fleishman
  • To me, a vacation is whether or not I have a book project. It’s a mental vacation. The book stays with you no matter where you go. It’s in your head.
  • There’s a great article about writer’s block in the October 2nd 2000 issue of the New Yorker called “The Novel and the Nun.”
  • Check out Anne Lammot’s book on writing Bird by Bird. Particularly the chapter KFKD.

Paul Fleishman won the Newbery Metal for Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices. Other books include: Seek, Whirligig, Zap, Minds Eye, Breakout, and The Boring Room.

A Recipe for Writing the Breakout Novel

What is a breakout novel?

Read on as Agent Sarah Davies (of Greenhouse Literary) shares her opinion of what makes a breakout novel and the five secret ingredients that will make your novel a success. She shared the following information at the 2009 SCBWI LA Conference. So if you want to be the next “it-author” take a cue or two from Ms. Davies.

The breakout novel is the novel that will change a writer’s career. It is the novel that everyone is talking about. It has buzz. Publishers make 90% of their revenue from the breakout novels which represent only 10% of the books they publish. The breakout novel makes the money and makes the space for other novels to survive and flourish.


1) Your Work Must Be Unique!

  • Your work must have an inspired concept. Know your market, and then forget it – write from inside you.  “If there is a story you want to read that doesn’t exist, then you must write it.” – Toni Morrison
  • 80% of the submissions Davis receives are what she calls “common stories.” These are stories about the paranormal, school bullies, outcast girls, soft coming of age stories, domestic stories. You need to stand out! A quality concept is very important to Davies.
  • What is your USP – Unique Selling Point? Don’t start to write until you have an astoundingly clear and clever idea. A couple of sentences is all an agent or editor or sales rep has to sell a book. Know your USP. Examples of some good attention-getting USP’s are: “A boy tries to rescue an elephant in Africa.” Or the book Princess for Hire – the title says it all. Think big! Be prepared to research! Think past your small world.
  • Concept is not enough. You must have the writing to back up your concept. Devil’s Kiss by Sarwat Chadda is a good example of a marketable idea that also has the ability to show off the author’s dark writing. 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher is another example where the story of a girl’s suicide is transformed into a thriller, and has the writing to back it up.

2) You Must Have Larger Than Life Characters!

  • Create vivid, true, leap-off-the-page-and-into-our-hearts-and-minds characters! You need to know your characters so well that you aren’t explaining them as you go along. Show not tell! Beware of the information dump.
  • “What I like in a good author is not what he/she says, but what he/she whispers.” (unknown source). Don’t explain everything. Whisper. Check out the book The Other Side of Blue by Valerie Patterson, as this is a good example of this point.
  • Description’s sole purpose is to reveal character.
  • Character is revealed by conflict and dilemma. All of these things will move us toward the revelation at the end of the book.
  • Listen to real conversations. You will realize that 90% of conversation is completely self-interested. The external conversation in your story must reflect the internal life of your character.

3) Your Story Must Have High Stakes!

  • You must always build and build and build tension in your story. Build to your story climax. Davies suggests outlining so that you know where you are going and then you can figure out how to build to the climax.
  • What are the stakes of your story? In Devil’s Kiss the stakes are love vs. the world, as the character discovers the person she loves is also the person she must destroy.  The Other Side of Blue is an inward story with the stakes of “internal death” emotionally. One of the most extraordinary books Davies has read lately is Tender Morsels which contemplates the effects of a world without evil, and what are the true consequences of such a world.
  • Always know what your characters stand to win or lose.

4) Your Story Must Have a Deeply Felt Theme.

  • What is the unique moral or spiritual element of your story? This is not a moral at the end of the story. Don’t moralize or force a story to say what you want it to. What is the humanity that this story reveals? You need something that will be deeply felt. What does your story teach us about what it means to be human? What are we left with after the book is finished?
  • Examples of deeply felt themes: 13 Reasons Why shows us that a multitude of small things can deeply affect other people. Even the smallest thing can be gigantic. It also tells us that sometimes there is nothing we can do to save somebody. In Devil’s Kiss we take away the knowledge that one must do what is right even at our own peril or risk, because if we did not do it we would not be able to live with ourselves. The Others Side of Blue is a story about hope.
  • “The best books teach us more about ourselves than about our characters.” (unknown source).

5) Your Story Must Have a Vivid Setting.

  • Create a setting that is imbued with emotion. Create a setting that becomes a character in and of itself. In Pullman’s The Golden Compass this is Oxford. In The Devil’s Kiss this is London.

6) Additional Sixth Secret – Voice!

  • Be a musician with your voice! Be aware of language. Develop an ear for language and find the music that is under it. Find the cadence.

  • Voice should be silvery and luminous.

Additional Comments by Sarah Davies:

  • The movie Slumdog Millionaire is a good example of all of the above points put into a movie. Watch it.
  • “Story is created by the revelation of the internal and the external.” (unknown source).
  • “There is more reward in fighting through the pain of revision than giving up and starting something new.” – Sarah Davies (Her writers put in months and sometimes years into revisions).

A Bit About Sarah Davis and Her Agency:

  • Sarah Davies (pronounced Davis) is the owner of Greenhouse Literary Agency.
  • Originally from England she moved to Washington DC to get married, and to start her agency.
  • She wishes to make her stamp on the industry with Greenhouse.
  • She represents Middle Grade through YA Writers. However, if you decide to diversify later in your career she will still represent you.
  • She receives about 150 queries per week. She is looking for the gold nugget that will shine through the slush.
  • She is passionate about changing lives and making writers dreams come true.
  • Sarah Davies is looking for a spark – something that makes her sit up in her chair. It needs to have a clear voice, and a descent plot. She will help you with the plot, but you must know the voice.
  • Davies is a lover of language. Language are her jewels.
  • To submit check out her website, as well as read her blog (there is a specific blog entry about submission). Don’t trust hard copy printed information – always check online.

Sarah Davies is an agent at Greenhouse Literary, who represents and manages the careers of authors writing fiction for children, from young chapter-book series through middle grade novels to sophisticated teen fiction. Her clients include: Sarwat Chadda, Jon Mayhew, Harriet Goodwin,Valerie Patterson, among others.

Opening Lines

Was that an earthquake or did you just rock my world?

Okay, we may not be trying to pick-up girls, but we are trying to pick-up readers. First lines and first impressions are important! And it’s amazing how much a first line can tell you about a book; including tone, character, and intrigue.

What does a reader look for in a first line? I decided to find out first hand. For a fun Friday night, I headed to my local book bar (store) to put the YA book-bachelors to the test. I would randomly pick fifty books, read one line only, and let the most interesting and compelling line (in my opinion) pick me up. Or more accurately I would pick it up, and take it back to my place for a little cozy one-on-one time. And after one saucy night of literary bedazzlement, the following openers rose to the top of the stack:

“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.” – M.T. Anderson’s Feed

“The best way to avoid being picked on by high school bullies is to kill someone.” – M. Sindy Felin’s Touching Snow

“Finn has been flung on his face and chained to the stone slabs of the transitway.” – Catherine Fisher’s Incarceron

“I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.” – Maggie Strefrater’s Shiver

“Everyone’s seen my mother naked.” – Elizabeth Scott’s Something, Maybe

“Paradise sucked until I found the suicide note.” – Caroly Macker’s Tangled

“Holly will always be immune from the damage that infects me so easily.” – Ibi Kaslik’s Skinny

But who got to snuggle up with me on my sofa? That would be…

“Everyone thinks it was because of the snow, and in a way, I suppose that’s true.” – Gayle Forman’s If I Stay

If I Stay caught my attention because there is something intriguing and poetic about the first line, mysterious and sad. But what you would pick is probably different. Just like dating, there’s a different book (and first line) for everyone. I suggest you go out and try this exercise for yourself. Who will make you swoon?

Also, (if you want more opinions) you can check out the American Book Review’s: 100 Best First Lines of Novels

What about you? Who’s first lines made you turn a page or two? Please leave a comment and share!

The Ugly Truth About Beginnings

Perhaps we should start at the beginning…

As this is my first “notes’ post, I thought it only appropriate to begin with beginnings.  What will grab a reader/editor/agent and make them crave more? The following notes are author Maralys Willis’ thoughts on the subject.

The Ugly Truth About Beginnings

Caution! Your beginning may become an ending! According to Willis, editors and agents will only read the first page or two of your manuscript. Unless you grab your reader on the first line, hold him on the second line, and fascinate him on the third line, those few words may be all he’ll ever read. A slow paced beginning, doesn’t honor well for the rest of the book. Beginnings are the hardest, the most crucial part of writing anything – book, story, or article. Most of us – even accomplished writers – re-work our beginnings over and over, anywhere from five to ten times.

Due to the invention of the photocopier, we are now in the days of multiple-submissions. Editors (literally) find themselves with rooms brimming with towers of manuscripts. They only have time for a page or two before something else demands their attention. In order to get an agent/editor’s attention (and keep it) you need to raise story questions within the first few paragraphs. This can be done through attitude,  an opinion, or emotional bias; surprise your reader, or hint at tragedy. Theses techniques will keep the reader engaged. For Example:

Attitude: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap.

Hint of Tragedy: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6th, 1973.

Surprise: Unknown Romance Novel

From the waist down he looked promising.

Willis also suggests starting the book with a moment of high drama, or a moment of great change – one that will change a character’s life. Hook your audience! The audience doesn’t need to know a character’s back story, all they need are the facts relevant to the scene they are in. Back story can be sprinkled in later. Create a moment of drama that forces the reader to ask: “How did the character get here?” Or “What lead to this?”

But, why put a character in peril if we don’t know them yet? Can the audience really connect with them? To this argument, Willis asks if you look at accidents on the side of the road. Are we not immediately interested, even though we don’t know the people in the accident? We naturally want to know if our fellow human-being is okay. We want to know what happened. That same intrigue can be used in the opening of a book.

You must also orient the reader. Somewhere in the first few paragraphs, the reader must learn the five W’s: Who, What, Where, When, and Why. The inclusion of the five W’s will anchor the reader. It will allow him/her to become part of the scene, to feel as if he/she is actually “living” it. Of course, the five W’s should not be laid out one after the other, but incorporated subtly into the story.

To Sum Up – Seven Things New Writers Seldom Realize about Beginnings:

1) Your book can’t afford to “warm up” – with description, dull sentences, or back story. It must start with a Hook.

2) You can’t wait for chapter three “when the story gets good!” If the story get’s good in chapter three, make it chapter one.

3) Good beginnings always include a problem – or conflict.

4) The problem in the beginning means the character’s lives are about to change – radically.

5) Most editors and agents read only the first page of a submission. If it’s not compelling on the first page, they imagine the rest won’t be worth reading.

6) Half the readers never read a prologue. So why include one?

7) No amount of work is too much to create a great first page.

Maralys Willis is the author of twelve books and memoirs including Higher Than Eagles, a  poignant memoir about her son’s tragic hang gliding accident. She is also a college-level teacher of creative writing and novel writing, and her most recent book is the acclaimed “How To” book on writing novels entitled: Damn the Rejections, Full Speed Ahead!

This seminar was presented on March 20th, 2010 by the Independent Writers of Southern California (IWOSC). Learn more about IWOSC events and membership at: www.iwosc.org