The title of a poem, poetry book, or chapbook can capture a reader’s attention, add connotations to what follows, and help readers gain an entrance into the poem.
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
Picture books may be easy enough to write, but writing them for actual kids to read and enjoy requires work. Why?
Your competition increases in this genre.
The children’s picture book market has been down recently.
Colored artwork costs more to print than straight text.
Almost everyone thinks they can write a picture book!
To give your manuscript an edge, study the genre. Talk to young children. Read stacks of children’s picture books and note your preferences. Also:
Ask the librarian in the children’s section of your public library which books parents and teachers recommend and, more importantly, which ones kids return to again and again.
Make a list of interesting, kid-appropriate topics that need to be covered.
Keep an idea file.
Read your manuscript to children in your chosen age group.
Study and follow the guidelines of publishers whose work you like.
In general, a successful picture book manuscript has simple sentences, kid-friendly vocabulary, and only a few words on each page.
In general, each page must be visually-oriented to lend itself to illustration.
In general, the total page length – including front and back matter (title page, copyright page, dedication, bibliography, notes to parents or teachers, etc.) – will be divisible by four since a sheet of paper, folded in half, adds four pages.
Specifically, each publishing company has its own requirements, and each age group has its own needs and interests.
For more ideas and information, see these related articles on In a Writer’s Life and share them with your writer-friends:
If you would like a professional opinion of your children’s picture book or the book proposal you have prepared for your full-length fiction or nonfiction book, contact me through my website.
(c) 2011, Mary Harwell Sayler
Each year when I judge entries in the children’s literature category of the international writing contest sponsored by Writers-Editors.com, I keep hoping to find well-written nonfiction articles or interesting chapters excerpted from dynamic nonfiction books. Some actually do arrive, while others seem promising before descending into a central set of flaws.
In an obvious effort to be fresh and lively, many writers start their nonfiction for children with scenes straight out of a novel. For example, they might begin with dialogue, a problem, a child’s thoughts, or an amusing conversation that reads like the opening of a sit-com. Often, a main character asks a grandparent about a subject soon to be addressed but, unfortunately, not nearly soon enough. These novel openings sound good at first but quickly bring confusion since readers will rarely be able to tell what the book is about until they read a page or two or three.
Another problem arises with credibility and accuracy – or the lack thereof. With no bibliography to cite sources at the end of a manuscript, no one knows if the author has spent weeks searching, sorting, and sifting through reliable information or just passed along personal opinions and assumptions as fact.
A more common flaw occurs in the quality of the writing. For instance, passive voice seems particularly prevalent as illustrated by circling phrase after phrase that states, “It is” or “There was.” Such a passive voice usually comes across as a passive writer, who did not take time to search for active verbs and strong nouns that readers can readily picture.
Speaking of pictures, young readers need to be able to envision what they’re reading whether the pages contain illustrations or not. For the writing to be this clear, each sentence usually needs an easy-to-picture noun that brings to mind a person, place, or thing, but not a vague idea. An active verb can then put that noun into motion. If the nonfiction manuscript happens to be the text for a children’s picture book, those mental images on every page become vital or, voila, no picture book.
That seems obvious, but, fortunately, so do solutions to each of the problems mentioned. Most writers have fine minds and can figure these things out for themselves once they recognize a problem or even know to look for one. What often happens, though, is that we get caught up in stories we can’t wait to share with our kids or grandkids, forgetting that children can not follow unless we remember they’re right there beside us, waiting for the next picture, the next thought, the next word they can easily connect with, enjoy, and understand.
(c) 2010, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved.
Each year when I judge the children’s fiction entered in the international writing contest sponsored by Writers-Editors.com, I often see the same mistakes being repeated. Since the contest is “blind,” I don’t know who submitted which manuscript, much less the age of the writers, but I suspect that most are very young or very not.
Stories and novel chapters typically sound like they’re from young writers when they focus on trends or have fantastic settings with stereotyped characters who aspire, not to replacing Harry Potter, but to being him. I see a lot of fairy tales with little pink fairies flying around too, but nothing to entice readers to follow them into (oh, please) Never (again) Land.
Whether sweet little stories or scary, fantasy fiction often has predictable people or plots. If writers do try something new, they’re apt to forget that young readers cannot always follow their sudden flights into a heightened vocabulary, including made-up words with which any earthling would say “What?”
Inappropriate vocabulary does not affect futuristic manuscripts only though. It’s also a problem in the “good ole day” stories where children-in-the-now do not know slang words or references to fads of a half-century ago. If such out-dated words or phrases have real significance in a story, the context can help to explain, but too much of this will tuck resistant readers into an early nap.
Like most writers, older people (whom, yes, we’re each becoming) just want to tell their tales as a means of recording memories, working through old wounds, or validating their lives. That’s wonderfully healing and very appropriate in a journal, diary, or family album, but these stories seldom have anything to do with young strangers on the other side of a page.
Relaying your own story has another potential hazard, too, since (sorry) such manuscripts often go on way too long. What started out as a good idea gets bogged down in details, descriptions, or rambling events that weaken the overall story. A true episode may be hard to cut, but what interests the avid writer can be too much for a restless child reader to sit still and hear.
One way to know whether you’ve fallen into this common trap is to ask if your story has a specific theme and purpose. If not, the pages may be a series of events loosely linked by the characters or setting. All is not lost though! As you revise your fiction for children, try these tips:
Focus on a child or a group of children within your chosen age group.
Revise or rewrite your story with those specific faces in mind.
Look for a relevant theme to guide your revisions. For example, omit episodes that do not help either to enforce or to oppose your theme.
Begin the story with the main character identifying, clarifying, and/ or working toward resolving the main problem.
Consistently stay in the viewpoint of that character.
Without going back and forth, let the plot unfold as the story happens.
Remove long descriptions that hinder the story’s movement.
Use a variety of sentence structures and lengths for older readers, but shorten long sentences in stories for young kids.
Avoid slang, archaic phrases, and words outside a child’s vocabulary.
Be sure the context clarifies the meaning of new and unusual words. If a word is key to the story, use it right away and include a definition.
With the possible exception of an occasional crank or crackpot, portray adults in a positive light with no demeaning statements about cops, teachers, parents, or grands.
Avoid bigotry of all kinds.
Avoid lopsided viewpoints and unbalanced information. For instance, if you use a historical setting, make sure you have intelligent, caring people on both sides of the story.
Remember the adage: “Show. Don’t tell.” Let your well-chosen characters care enough to act in character and resolve — or accept — the story’s problem by The End.
(c) 2010, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved.
Each year I judge the manuscripts for children entered in the international writing competition sponsored by Writers-Editors.com, and each year I enjoy seeing the fresh approaches poets and writers come up with as they address kid-favored subjects. I try to acknowledge those outstanding moments in personal Post-A-Notes to the winners or in a brief blurb by each title on the webpage that announces the winning entries. Hopefully, each poet and writer who visits the site will not only find out who won but why.
What I don’t mention is why an entry doesn’t receive an award or honorable mention since that would seem like, well, a dishonorable mention. Such information has no place on an announcement page, but I thought you might want to know what does not work well in writing for children, so I’ll discuss that in the next few postings. I also thought you might want to know that I’ve made these mistakes myself and, therefore, noticed them often in the works of others.
One big reason (perhaps, the biggest) a poem, story, article, or book chapter does not win a writing contest is because it will not win the attention of an editor or, more importantly, win over a child. In reading our own manuscripts, this can be hard to see but is obvious in reading the “blind” entries that I not only did not write but have no clue who did.
Being able to distance ourselves from our work proves useful in revising because familiarity breeds affection more often than contempt. We get fond of our own words and phrases and stories. Nevertheless, we can know if a manuscript is kid-friendly by letting it sit until we don’t remember what it says. When we come back to that first draft, we’ll have the distance needed to be more objective. If not, a professional evaluation and the immediate feedback of our target age group will certainly help.
We can also ask ourselves such questions as, “Why would a child who does not know me even care what I say?” and “Will children really relate to this?” Frankly they might not, but that works both ways. i.e., Some manuscripts seem as though children were an insignificant after-thought and not really considered at all.
In considering your special group of young readers, investigate their most likely interests, vocabulary, and level of maturity. What worries them, scares them, or makes them mad, makes them laugh, makes them burst into tears? Here’s where you can especially draw on your own feelings and emotional memories.
Kids today feel the same as we did. The difference is that their emotions have different triggers. For example, I never worried about the next meal, but some children live in poverty, live in the street. During thunderstorms, I hid under the covers, but children today might hide from bullies, child predators, abusive relatives, drug dealers, or dysfunctional families. Fantasy for me mainly meant Cinderella, not outer space trips or time travels, but I worried about my dad coming home safely from work and a war, and so does my grandchild.
Finding connections between us and our children takes time but makes good use of prior knowledge, understanding, and maturity, thereby helping young readers to sort through a similar experience and make some sense of it. If we can remember what made us giggle at their age, great! If we can observe them, interact with them, and listen to what makes them laugh, feel, and hope, so very much the better.
(c) 2010, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved.
Recently an editor returned a manuscript I’m sure needs to see print, so this did not make me happy. Since I’d already gone onto other projects, I then had to backtrack a bit to look for another potential publisher, which takes time – sometimes years! As much as I hate to admit it though, this can be for the best.
To give you an example, some children’s novels I wrote when my kids were growing up are just now getting ready for my young grandchildren. When the manuscripts didn’t place right away, I stuck them in a file cabinet and went on to write other books that were eventually accepted by traditional publishing houses. In fact, I forgot about those stories until my grade-school granddaughter asked, “Do you have any more books for me?” For her? Anything! So I got out the old file folders, and, together, we went through them.
Amazingly, she knew exactly what worked and what did not! Equally impressive, she was not afraid to tell me so. (Oh, what an ideal reader!) We agreed that one unfixable picture book text forever belongs in a file drawer, but two novels for middle-grade readers really do need to be published. Why? Young readers will welcome the stories and relate.
So, now what? My next step will be to check book titles and topics in Internet bookstores to make sure no one has already picked what I’ve chosen. I’ll look at writers’ guidelines on publishers’ websites, too, and see who’s open to this particular type of book.
If I find a book-line that’s similar to my work, that company will rank high on my list of potential publishers. If the manuscript comes back with a no, I’ll just try to keep company with the next good company on my list.
(c) 2010, Mary Sayler, all rights reserved.