The Magic Words by Cheryl B Klein

1024 576 Writer and the Wolf Editorial

I adore reading books about writing and I have several favourites that I always recommend to everybody. When I read them for the first time, I cover the pages in pink highlighter (sorry to the sensitive book preservers amongst you) and write up the best bits in an Evernote notebook so I can search for them later, and I thought I could share some of my favourite highlights with you here. I decided the best way was to give you one excellent tip or quote from each chapter of each craft book, so you can lap up some of these fabulous experts’ advice but also get an idea of what the book is about and whether you should buy it yourself. I hope you find these useful! I’m starting with my number one favourite craft book, The Magic Words by Cheryl B. Klein.


Klein, an editor at Scholastic Inc., lists five essential qualities that bring magic to children’s and YA fiction:

    1. Good prose, particularly a distinctive voice that could only ever belong to one writer or character
    2. Rich characters who change as the book progresses
    3. Strong plot construction that surprises readers at times
    4. Thematic depth so that the story means something or says something about the world
    5. Powerful emotion and writing that evokes deliberate emotions and reactions in readers

Chapter 1: Clarity and Connection

‘More than perhaps any other genre of writing, children’s and YA books are about emotion: recognizing a child’s feelings and affirming them through their documentation within a book, saying, ‘You are seen, your feelings are real and important, you will get through this, and this book can show you one way.”

Chapter 2: Experience and Emotion

‘Perhaps the true distinguishing factor here is intensity: YA often burns white-hot emotionally, dramatically, even linguistically, while middle grade holds itself at more of a comforting simmer.’

This is a quote I think of and pass on to others so often that I should have it printed on a t-shirt. I love it.

Chapter 3: Proficiency and Practice

‘Work with what makes you weird. What are you passionate about? Write a novel about that. What sets you apart from everyone you know? Write a novel about that. What do you see in the world? What do you believe is true? Write a novel about that.’

Chapter 4: Promise and Premise

In one of this chapter’s exercises, Klein recommends identifying three comparison titles for the book you’re writing or about to write. Find stories that match yours in action, promise or spirit, as this will help you describe and position your novel when discussing it with others.

Chapter 5: Effort and Flow

‘Forget the plot and just hang out with your characters for a while. Your protagonist: What is she excited about at the moment? Who’s her best friend? How’s her relationship with her dad? Go for a walk and daydream conversations with her, or what she’d say about what you see around town. The more you know about her, the more possibilities might shake loose for her story.’

SUCH GREAT ADVICE! This is feedback I’ve given to almost every author I’ve ever worked with. You need to know your main character inside out and upside down.

Chapter 6: Intention and Invention

‘When I sit down to evaluate a manuscript I’m editing and figure out how I want to respond to the author, the first thing I do is identify the book’s point. The ‘point’ is my personal term for the idea or experience that the novel has been written to convey. It might be to scare the bejeezus out of your reader, or make him fall on the floor laughing or crying.’

Chapter 7: Identity and Choice

‘As a rule of thumb, I expect to see a protagonist make at least three choices in the book with consequences that affect its central action.’

Chapter 8: Interest and Change

Klein says that, when she edits a book, she looks for at least three of the following techniques to appear within the first two chapters:

    1. An original, interesting voice
    2. Solid reasons for readers to like characters they’re suppose to like
    3. Character emotion and internal conflict that matches the reader’s age
    4. Characters with wildly different external circumstances that the likely reader
    5. Characters with compelling desires
    6. Characters in pain, danger or jeopardy
    7. Characters who DO things, taking action and showing energy
    8. Other people used as a lens on the main character
    9. A main character with secrets or mysteries
    10. A main character with internal tensions or contradictions

Chapter 9: Power and Attention

‘Fiction has the incredible power to put readers into the lives and minds of characters whose backgrounds and natures are nothing like theirs, and create empathy and understanding that readers can take into the real world. But that power also creates a tremendous responsibility for the writers facilitating that connection, as they must recognize the privilege of their roles as facilitators and represent these unfamiliar characters and backgrounds credibly.’

Chapter 10: Structure and Sensibility

Klein advises that your inciting incident – that big moment that introduces conflict and kick starts the story – should:

    1. Happen in the first two chapters
    2. Be interesting and noteworthy
    3. Be suitable to the nature of your story
    4. Disrupt the status quo
    5. Reveal the protagonist’s character straight away
    6. Set up clear lines of action that will follow from the event

Chapter 11: Obstacles and Negotiation

‘As a rule of thumb, every scene should advance the central plots or a subplot in some way, and contribute to our knowledge of the characters and/or their ultimate emotional challenges or growth.’

Chapter 12: Movement and Momentum

‘As one more very rough, unscientific rule of thumb, I think 80 percent of the action in any middle grade and YA novel should be dramatized. The novel will then consist of a series of dramatic scenes, joined together by narration that covers the time passing between them.’

Chapter 13: Person and Personality

‘In choosing your observations, consider: which of the five physical senses is most important to your protagonist? A musician travelling the same road as Carson [the main character in an extract Klein has discussed] might miss the multiple Arby’s because she’s fussing with the radio, while an aspiring chef might observe them with even more disapproval.’

Chapter 14: Teases and Trust

‘I understand that writers are told over and over again to capture a reader on Page 1; I’ve probably given that advice myself at some point. But as I said in the previous chapter, I believe that the number one thing that hooks readers is authority – a sense that the writer is in complete control of the story and how it’s being told. An author with authority isn’t in a rush to give away the central plotline of the book on the first page, because she knows she has a good plot, and she takes the time to set it up right.’

Chapter 15: Worlds and Wonders

‘If you’re interested in writing a fantasy or science fiction novel, it will usually start with what I call ‘the fantastic fact’: one or more presently nonrealistic elements that so profoundly alter a world and the people who inhabit it that the story becomes speculative fiction.’

Chapter 16: Perspective and Polishing

‘I’m always suspicious of the words ‘feel’ or ‘felt’ in a text, because if a writer has to tell me how his protagonist feels, then that probably means he hasn’t succeeded in anchoring me emotionally in the protagonist and action.’

Chapter 17: Vision and Revision

Klein suggests that authors do the following 20 things after finishing a first draft:

    1. Take time off from the project
    2. Write a letter to a sympathetic friend
    3. State the premise of the story in one sentence
    4. Write the flap copy
    5. Write a synopsis
    6. Make a Pinterest mood board or playlist
    7. Look at your word frequency with a word cloud
    8. Change the font and reread
    9. Take notes on what does and doesn’t work
    10. Bookmap the action of the novel chapter by chapter
    11. Diagram the plot with a:
      1. Character chart
      2. Plot and subplot spreadsheet
      3. Informational spreadsheet
    12. Compile a to-do list for revisions
    13. Work through the revisions one by one
    14. Set a deadline for competing each stage of revision, and rewards for each
    15. Work large to small, from plot down to sentence
    16. Do sentence-level revisions:
      1. Cut redundant adverbs, telling uses of the word ‘felt’, silly dialogue tags
      2. Check the balance among descriptive, immediate and internal narration in dialogue scenes
      3. Highlight each character’s dialogue in a different colour, then read each in turn. Is each voice distinctive? Do they sound too alike?
      4. Look at establishing shots, topic sentences, conclusions and fermatas (last lines of scenes)
    17. Read the book aloud
    18. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good

Chapter 18: Love and/or Money

‘Writer build their platforms through a long-term effort of establishing credibility and building connections with an audience. When you’re still in the writing stage, I’d suggest you concentrate 90 percent of your time on drafting a terrific novel, and the remaining 10 percent on preparing for your novel’s submission: becoming familiar with the market, getting to know the children’s and YA literary communities, and connecting online and in real life with fellow writers and other literary folk.’

The end

What a book, huh? There’s so much gold in this writing guide for authors of children’s and YA fiction that I couldn’t possibly cover all the important bits here, but hopefully I’ve given you a flavour of Klein’s expertise and approach and you’ll add this to your to-read list!

Thanks so much for reading, lovely writer! Want empowering, feel-good writing chat and fairy dust in your inbox? Plus receive a PDF of my recommended writing craft books for children’s and YA writers (including go-to genre guides and Children’s Lit MA reading list) AND £20 Wolf Credit to spend with me! Sign up today!

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes