When writers of children’s books have a specific story in mind, it’s often their own. Yet the opening chapter of Writing Irresistible KIDLIT by author and literary agent Mary Kole immediately informs us, “As you strive to publish, you’re no longer the solitary scribe shut up in some attic; you are part of a vibrant and rapidly changing industry.”
Yes! So you can see right away that this book thinks bigger than our closed up and personal stories!
As attested by the review copy Writer’s Digest Books kindly sent me to discuss, Writing Irresistible KIDLIT is “The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers.” Having now thoroughly read the book though, I have to say that writers of novels for pretty much any age will welcome this lively text with all sorts of helpful, step-by-step information.
With middle grade (MG) and YA ( young adult) readers the primary concern, however, the first couple of chapters describe the reading audience, give you the typical lengths of manuscripts for each age group, then help you slip into “The MG and YA Mindset” where “tweens are focused on themselves,” and “thinking about how how others perceive them.”
As readers reach teen years where concerns grow faster than bones, they “feel everything very intensely, and two things in particular: An interest in romance and darkness.” Since fears and fantasies abound, “they use fiction to explore these issues in a safe way.”
The same can be said for big people books too, but regardless of the age group we write for, we want our work to be distinctive. As Mary Kole says, “It’s not the story, per se, it’s how you express it, the theme you project upon it, the characters you create, and your own unique voice.”
To get there, we go past a helpful list of cliché characters to avoid and consider the goals and motivations of each story person with whom we people our book. As the author explains:
“We root for people in life when we know their desires and goals. Will they persevere (like we want to with our own goals)? Will they fail (like we’re afraid to)? We start to care once we see a person in trouble. This empathy is an important bond to create between reader and character, and you should do it as early as possible.”
Although we don’t want characters to be too conflicted, we do want them to face conflicts, whether internal conflict such as loneliness or fear that “exists in the character’s head alone,” or external conflict, which can be a societal conflict that “happens on a grand scale” or an interpersonal conflict such as “a fight with a boyfriend, problems with the parents, a forced summer job, a bully at school, etc.”
Also, “Being forced to so something you really don’t want to, or being kept from your one true goal, are two enduring thematic conflicts in MG and YA” but can work well in adult fiction too. To know how this will work for any character of any age though, your characters need you to develop their character.
To give you a few examples from a character worksheet in the book, ask:
• What are a character’s primary objective and two secondary, smaller ones?
• What motivation does your protagonist have for each of the above?
• What value does she hold highest above all in herself and in other people?
• What is his core identity based on the above virtue?
• What is his vision of moral right and wrong?
• What is her worldview?
Although this book addresses manuscripts sought by secular publishers, you can see how the above questions will also help to guide the books you want to write for Christian children and teens and, yes, for adults too.
A novel offers more than a portrait, though, as the main character moves from one scene to another where “The most effective scenes flip action, plot, or character in unexpected ways. They shift mood. They make waves that will affect everything else that happens after. We should also learn something new in every scene; otherwise it’s not worth keeping.”
Similar to actions in a movie, the author advises us to “Vary your story’s rhythm by giving us long scenes and short scenes in a pattern. If we have long scene after long scene, no matter how tight, your readers will start to drag. Too many short scenes in quick succession and your audience will get whiplash.” Keep in mind, too, “You can’t choreograph every moment of your scene, so don’t even try. Leave gesticulation to your reader’s imagination.”
Other chapters break down what works and what does not in plotting plots and setting scenes or people in proper surroundings for a story to maintain credibility and retain reader interest. You’ll also find out more about distinguishing voices, including your own. When you’re ready to release your work to an editor, publisher, or literary agent, this book will show you how to go about that too.
Since I did that on more than one occasion when my now-grown children were growing up, I wanted to see if the time lapse had created an abysmal gap or if I could still relate to MG and YA readers. This book reminded me that trends change, in and out, but kids are kids, people are people, and a memorable story is well-written regardless of age.
© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer, is poet-author of 27 books including Living in the Nature Poem, Outside Eden, and a book of children’s poems, Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, recently released by Kelsay Books.
Writing Irresistible KidLit, paperback