Children’s Writing Weblog

Children’s Book Fiction: Writers, Keep It Simple!

Posted on: October 9, 2009

A student of mine recently thanked me for reminding her that query letters are best when they’re short and to the point. A published writer, she said she’d gotten away from the KISS method of querying (Keep It Simple, Stupid).

The more I thought about her acronym, the more I realized it applied to all aspects of writing children’s book fiction. When dealing with kids one-on-one, we adults often give them information on a need-to-know basis. When asked, “Why do I have to change my socks every day?” we could go into detail about germs or proper hygiene, but instead answer, “Because you’re starting to stink.” It gets the point across with the fewest possible words. And that age-old parental justification –”Because I said so”–sometimes is the only reason needed.

So why do we get so complex when writing for children? Why do our picture book plots span several weeks and contain characters with large extended families and numerous friends? Why do our magazine articles attempt to cram a subject’s entire life into 800 words? Kids are masters of cutting through the nonsense and getting right to the point. Here are some ways we can learn from our audience:

* Eliminate adjectives and adverbs. If your nouns and verbs are strong, you won’t need to add extra words to describe them. “He trudged up the hill” says the same thing as “He walked slowly and steadily up the hill, placing his feet heavily with each step”, only more succinctly. Instead of describing a house as huge, grand, or enormous, let your character do it with one word: Jason gazed at Grandma’s house. “It’s a castle,” he thought. A single, well-chosen noun draws a picture in your reader’s mind better than several general adjectives.

* Write your plot direction in one sentence. In our Children’s Authors’ Bootcamp workshops, Linda Arms White and I teach writing a story line as a tool for plotting (This a story about __________, who wants more than anything to ________, but can’t because ____________.) This story line identifies the main character, his/her greatest goal, and what’s preventing the character from achieving that goal. Regardless of the length of your story, the age group, or whether you have subplots and chapters, the story line works to keep the action of your plot on track. The key: Keep it to one sentence (there’s no wiggle room on this one).

What if you’re not writing about your character achieving his greatest goal, or its flip side, your character avoiding facing his greatest fear? A plot about something your character kind of wants isn’t good enough. A conflict involving a minor annoyance isn’t as compelling as a life- changing event. Perhaps your character is up against so many obstacles that the reader can’t figure out which one is the most important. As the author, you need to boil your story down to the one aspect of your character’s life that’s going to take center stage for the remainder of the book. Remember, you’re not writing about your character’s entire existence, just the period of time covered byencapsulated in your story. One goal shines above the rest. All subplots and secondary characters are stepping stones toward that goal. Some lead your character in the right direction, some take detours, but all ultimately end up in the same place.

* Give your reader only the information he required right now. Don’t throw in details about a character unless it’s directly related to the current action of the story. This often happens with secondary characters, who suddenly develop a phobia or acquire an annoying sibling in the middle of a scene. Such dangling attributes feel contrived and only raise distracting questions in the reader’s mind. The same goes for a character’s life before the story began. We generally don’t need to know the past of every person who appears in the book. Reveal as much information as the reader must have to understand what’s happening at each point of the plot, and cut the rest.

* Use the “need-to-know” philosophy with query letters. When composing a query letter or cover letter to an editor, include only the information an editor needs to judge whether he or she may be interested in reading your manuscript. Your motivation for writing the story doesn’t matter; your ability to summarize the plot in a few sentences does. Your experience as a parent or grandparent doesn’t guarantee you’ll write a strong article; your adherence to the magazine’s word limit shows you’ve done your research. Editors are busy people who love short letters with lots of white space. Respect the simplicity of presenting your work with minimal buildup and letting your manuscript speak for itself.

Above all, keep your message clear and age-appropriate. A picture book about poverty is too broad and abstract for a six-year-old to understand, but a story about a child who is embarrassed because she gets free lunch at school is more specific. Whatever age you’re writing for, use one well- defined character to represent the bigger issue. Smaller, intimate stories are more relevant to the reader. Nonfiction that shows the reader how the topic relates to his life, or focuses on one aspect of a subject, makes a greater impact. And remember, if you want your manuscript to sell, start with a KISS.

Interested in learning how to write a book and send it to children’s book publishers? Come on over to The CBI Clubhouse for audios, videos, insider writing tips and much, much more!

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