Today I’m pleased to bring back as my Featured Guest, Laura Backes. Many of you met her here on February 26, 2010 but I imagine that you’re ready for a refresher course on her wise and helpful remarks. without further ado, here’s Laura!
Top Ten Mistakes Made by Aspiring Children’s Book Writers
by Laura Backes, Publisher of Children’s Book Insider: The Newsletter for Children’s Writers www.CBIClubhouse.com
For nearly 20 years I’ve been writing about children’s books, critiquing manuscripts for authors before they submit them to publishers, speaking at conferences and teaching weekend workshops. What I’ve noticed is that certain mistakes surface over and over. It seems to me that there’s a learning curve virtually all aspiring children’s book writers go through, with most hitting the same points on their journey to becoming published authors. I hope, by telling you what I’ve observed, that you can fast-forward through the curve and craft a manuscript that will catch an editor’s eye. So, for what it’s worth, here’s my own personal Top Ten list of common mistakes made by newbie children’s writers:
1. Ideas aren’t original enough. Editors complain that they see the same stories over and over. I know, from having critiqued close to 2000 manuscripts in 20 years, that often I can guess a story’s ending after reading the first page because the plot is so predictable. Why does this happen? In most cases, it’s because the author hasn’t read enough recently-published children’s books to understand the limitless scope of story possibilities. Not every book has to teach a lesson, or rhyme, or feature talking animals who learn to accept themselves just as they are. So your first job is to read. A lot. And your second task is to sit with your idea long enough that you come up with three or four or five different versions of how your plot might develop, and choose one that’s unlike anything you’ve read before.
2. The author doesn’t understand the basic categories of children’s books. When an author calls a manuscript a “picture book” but it’s 3000 words long, and the age group is designated as “ages 8-14”, the editor knows immediately that the author hasn’t read any picture books recently. Learn the age categories: board books for ages 0-3; picture books for ages 2-5; picture books for ages 4-8; easy readers for grades K-3; chapter books for ages 6-10; middle grade for ages 8-12; upper middle grade for ages 10-14; young adult for ages 12 and up. Each age group has its own word counts, story types, pacing, number of characters and types of conflicts. Nonfiction also falls into the same age categories. Two exceptions: You can have a nonfiction picture book for ages 8-12, which has more text than a younger picture book, and often is up to 48 pages long. And, there’s a new breed of fiction picture books for slightly older kids (third through fifth grades), with longer texts (up to 2000 words) and stories that tie into the school curriculum. (We have detailed lists of the “rules” of each age group in Module 1 of the CBI Challenge writing course on The CBI Clubhouse, www.CBIClubhouse.com .)
3. Authors submit a manuscript before it’s ready. Editors can always tell when an author rushes to get a manuscript in the mail. I know it’s hard to show restraint when you’re flush with the excitement of having finally finished your first draft, but do try to put the work aside for a few days (at least) and then read it again with fresh eyes. Be brutal; assume there are flaws and look for them. Pretend someone else wrote the story if you have to. And finally, join a critique group of other writers whose opinions you trust, and listen objectively to whatever constructive criticism they offer. Put your heart and soul into your first draft, then remove your ego and become an editor for the revision process.
4. The author preaches to the reader. When authors put themselves into the story, stating their opinions to the reader (As you can see, Billy learned a valuable lesson that day.), it shatters the suspension of disbelief the reader has developed. The child is now fully aware that a grown-up is behind the words on the page, and that grown-up wants the child to listen to what she has to say.
5. The author is more concerned with teaching than entertaining. This goes hand-in-hand with #4. If the whole purpose of your book is to impart a lesson, then you’ll end up preaching to the reader. If instead you tell a rollicking story in which the protagonist happens to learn something, your readers will learn as well. This is also true for nonfiction, which must be engrossing and entertaining first, informative second.
6. Telling instead of showing. Telling the reader what’s happening in the story (Jeremy was sad.) rather than showing (Jeremy cried when he heard he wasn’t getting a puppy after all.) is a very common mistake. Show with specific, sensory details, and let the reader draw his or her own conclusions.
7. Weak verbs. Verbs are your workhorses, and can do more to liven up a story than anything else. Specific verbs also show rather than tell. Instead of saying a character “went” across the street, say she “trudged” across the street, or “scampered,” or “skipped,” or “stumbled.” Each verb gives us different information about the character’s physical state, and her state of mind. It adds layers of meaning without adding extra words.
8. Stories without conflict. In order to have a plot, you need conflict. In order to have tension, you need conflict. In order to get your readers involved in the story and turning pages, you need conflict. “Conflict” doesn’t have to be violent or scary; it’s just something standing in the way of your character getting what he wants. If a character has a goal to achieve and an obstacle in his path, he becomes interesting. He has to struggle. Your readers identify with him and want to see if he succeeds. Books without conflict are ordinary. And kids can get ordinary from lots of places besides your book.
9. Authors who don’t target appropriate publishers or agents with their manuscripts. This comes up at every writing conference I’ve ever been to. Not every publisher does every kind of book; not every agent represents every age group. It’s vital that you study the market and find publishers who do the same type of book as you’ve written, and submit only to them.
10. Authors submit weak query letters. The query is your most important sales tool, and often the only chance you’ll have to contact an editor. Some query “don’ts”: Writing a book synopsis that focuses on theme instead of plot (Theme is the message; plot is the action. If you don’t summarize the action, how will the editor know what happens in your book?); telling the editor in great detail how you got the idea (unless the idea stems from one-of-a-kind information, its conception is irrelevant); saying that your kids/grandkids/neighbor kids all loved the story (they’ll probably love anything you write and read to them); writing a query that’s longer than a page (exception: The publisher’s guidelines state they want detailed plot synopses for longer books. Write a one-page letter and attach a separate synopsis. Or, the publisher wants a query and outline for nonfiction. The query is one page, the chapter-by-chapter outline is separate.) Always think about what will be most welcoming for the editor when she first opens your envelope, and what will make it easiest for her to say, “Yes, send me your manuscript.”
If you avoid these common mistakes, you’ll be well on your way to creating work that will rise to the top of the slush pile. And remember: keep learning, keep writing, and keep submitting. Those who persist get published!
Comments and questions are welcome. Laura, I appreciate your article and know that many others will enjoy it too!
Thanks again, Laura!David