At this point in our series of articles, we’ve gone over most of the critical things you need to know to start writing that children’s book. In this article, I discuss things to look out for as you craft your story—common mistakes I’ve seen writers make over and over again.
COMMON MISTAKES IN CHILDREN’S AND TEEN BOOK MANUSCRIPTS
Mom and Dad or INSERT PARENTAL FIGURE HERE to the rescue!
Too often, writers try to use children’s and teen books to impart the sage wisdom of elders upon young characters. The books are not good stories. They’re themes that go something like this: adults know what they’re talking about; you don’t. While it’s not a bad thing to have parental figures influence young characters in stories, editors frown upon manuscripts where Mommy or Grandpa hand over the solution to the main characters or basically result in Aunt Sue telling little Johnny where he went wrong and how he should behave in the future. Sure, it’s realistic for parental figures to dole out advice to youngsters. But you have to remember that good fiction for youth does not center around parental figures. What kid wants to read about his parents all the time? Or be lectured? What book is interesting when Uncle Joe swoops in and saves the day? Kids want to read books where they’re the heroes, not their relatives or their teachers or the dude next door. The main characters solve the problems for themselves.
If you’ve been paying close attention to my articles, you’ve read WRITING FOR CHILDREN AND TEENS: A CRASH COURSE, SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS, and other books I’ve recommended so far. If you haven’t, your manuscript may just become bad writing. When I do free-tiques (http://www.writingforchildrenandteens.com/freetiques), I see bad writing even from the most dedicated writers. Why? They haven’t take the time to find out what bad writing is or they’re just in such a big hurry to get published, they’re only thinking about the story. They forget about the other half—the writing. Common bad writing symptoms include heavy use of adjectives, poor sentence structure, lack of clarity, redundancy, point of view mistakes—the list goes on and on. So I’m going to say it again—read about what good writing is so you can tell the difference. If you want a crash course on writing mechanics and spotting common writing mistakes, check out my Revision 9-1-1 article.
Many writers know what their story is about, but have a hard time either 1) getting to the point or 2) figuring out the difference between plotting and GOOD plotting. Like writing, you can learn how to plot better than the average Joe. Good plotting usually requires some knowledge about story arc. Story huh? Story arc. Do you remember that graph in school? Where a line starts at the bottom, slowly rises upward to a peak, then plunges back to the bottom quickly? That’s story arc. And there’s tons of theory on what makes good story arc. Check out Sol Stein’s book ON WRITING and you’ll get a good review of crafting stories that keep people reading. Often what I see in manuscripts (picture books through novels) is bad plotting. Bad plotting could result in pacing issues, slow starts, abrupt finishes, a story that dead-ends right in the middle, too much tension, and too little. Take the time to examine how well your story Is achieving that perfect arc. Don’t just throw something out there willy-nilly, hoping you magically figured plotting out through some unknown force that comes out of your fingertips as you type. You’ll save yourself a lot of time if you take a moment to think about plotting as seriously as you think about the writing.
No twists, no surprise
Similarly, the content of your plot also has to avoid this dreaded word: predictability. If the reader knows exactly how things are going to pan out in the end, you have a problem. I don’t mean that you need to write a book where the boy is supposed to save the planet, and you surprise the reader by killing him off instead. That sort of stuff usually only works in Chinese dramas. What I mean is, if the boy is supposed to save the world, have him do it in an unexpected way. Keeping the reader guessing is a great way to develop a good story. Editors are killing for stories that suck them in. And guess what? So are kids! So make sure you add the twists and turns. This is true for even the simplest stories, too. The best picture books offer surprises with each turn of the page, and especially at the end of the manuscript.
A clichéd character is one the reader already knows. I say “used car salesman” and you know exactly the kind of character I’m talking about, right? In children’s books, clichéd characters make your story unrealistic and uninteresting. The reader can already predict what this character is all about. Like I mentioned before, surprises help keep readers engaged. So if you want to make your main character a cheerleader, try not to make her the blonde, bubbly, airheady type. We already know about those cheerleaders. Offer your readers a different kind of cheerleader and *poof*, no more cliché. Your cheerleader longs to be an accountant. Cliché be gone! The same is also true for minor characters, though in picture books, minor characters are often not that developed since the story lines are so simplistic. In novels, however, your minor characters can be just as important as your main character. So think about how you might be stereotyping that nerd in your book. Or the drunk dad, or whomever. Sometimes a few details that go against the stereotypes are all you need to turn a clichéd character into a unique one. If drunk dad is an avid dieter, too, you’ve broken a cliché. If nerd-boy sucks at math, he suddenly becomes unique. See?
Characters in Space or Interior Decorators at Large
So far, I’ve mentioned common theme, writing, plot, and character mistakes. We’re on to setting. I see two things: writers who forget all about setting. Thus, their characters just float in space while the reader tries to figure out where the heck everyone is supposed to be. And the opposite: writers who’ve suddenly gotten advanced degrees in interior decorating. Too much setting can be a problem, too. Take a look at your manuscript. Did you forget to tell the reader where your characters are? Are you so focused on the action, you’ve overlooked saying something as simple as “in the living room”? Or did you do the opposite and describe everything you see in your mind’s eye from the color of the ceiling to the make and model of each carpet fiber throughout the house. Unless you’re doing a CSI scene involving DNA matching with a suspect’s Berber, you need to learn how to weave setting into your novel without it getting in the way. Focus on paragraphs where you might have gone on and on about the handsomely carved wood furniture in the den. Chop things down. If you’re on the opposite spectrum, look for scene changes and make sure you remembered to mention that the characters went from the living room to the interior of a car. Sometimes, just a little awareness can go a long way to making your story come alive on the page without confusing the reader or bogging it down with details know one really cares to know.
There are many more common mistakes I’ve seen but in the interest of keeping these articles short for bizymoms like you, I’m going to point to my series of revision articles to read more about what you should look out for. You can find it here at http://www.writingforchildrenandteens.com/category/revision/.