I do a lot of manuscript reviews, and workshops in which I give feedback to new writers, or experienced writers with new manuscripts. There are often many similarities from project to project in what people struggle with when writing for children. This is especially true when they are new to children’s literature, or are switching age groups to one that they are not necessarily experienced with. Below, I’ve compiled a list of the 5 most common mistakes that I see over and over again.
#1 – The Pastel Filter
There is a temptation to keep things nice and rosy and portray life in varying shades of pastel colours for characters in children’s books – whether picture books or chapter books. As nice a sentiment it is, to want to protect young people from all the dirty, gritty realities of life – that’s not realistic (or all that interesting for readers). Challenge yourself to tackle difficult topics, delve deeply into the hard-to-face emotions that come up in real life situations, and let your characters deal with those challenges head on.
#2 – Character Consideration
Nothing will cause a plot to crash and burn like a lack of conflict. It’s really hard to be mean to your characters when you’ve got children in the starring roles of your book. But the same rules of writing still hold true – no matter what the age of your characters. In each scene, as yourself: What is the worst possible thing that could happen right now? And then make it happen and see how your characters deal with it. That is what will allow you to SHOW us their character, and how they grow and change over the course of the story. When people are reminding you to SHOW, NOT TELL your story – this is what we’re really referring to!
#3 – Lack of ‘Research’
Just because children’s books are often much shorter, does not mean they are easier to write. In fact, in many cases it is even more difficult to communicate complex ideas and story lines succinctly. One common mistake that people make is they don’t bother to get to know their characters as well as they should. You don’t need to put every single detail you know about your character into your story, but you do need to be sure that you know your characters inside and out. This will allow you to write scenes that challenge them, and write their reactions in a way that makes the reader feel like they (and you) know what character completely. Your characters must be distinct, realistic and consistent in order for readers to relate to them. Click here to download this helpful character interview template. Answering these questions for each of your major characters is a great way to make sure their personalities are distinct from each other and well developed.
#4 – Dialogue Discrepancies
There is nothing that can pull you out of a story quicker than dialogue that doesn’t match your characters. In writing for children and teenagers this presents a huge challenge – even a year’s difference in age can make a massive difference in developmental stage and vocabulary. Be sure you spend some time around actual kids the same ages as your main characters – just listening to how they speak and what kinds of things they talk about. If you can’t do that, then be sure to test your manuscript on readers of your target age group and get their feedback on whether or not the characters speech seems to fit their personalities. Doing the character interviews mentioned in step 3 is a great way to get to know your characters. Answer the interview questions in first person, and try to use your character’s voice and language appropriate to their age.
#5 – Lessons Learned
It’s fine if you want to teach your readers about something or impart some kind of moral lesson. However – this needs to be something the character comes to realize or discovers on their own. It’s can’t be too blatant, or overt or the kids won’t buy in to it. They need that aha! moment right alongside the character when they finally figure things out for themselves. The advice I normally give is for people to determine whatever message they are trying to communicate to readers, write it on a piece of paper, and then stick it on a corkboard or wall nearby where they are working. Refer to it often when you’re trying to come up with situations to put your character in so they can learn that lesson, but NEVER USE THE WORDS FROM THAT PAPER IN YOUR BOOK. If you have to TELL your readers what the point of your story is, then you haven’t SHOWN them through the actions of your characters. Remember, readers (especially young ones) are smart. They’ll figure it out if you do your job right.
This list is by no means exhaustive – it’s just a good starting place for those of you who want some specific things to keep in mind while you read through your manuscript. By all means, please share any and all other suggestions you have in the comments section below.
Special thanks to Ailsa Long – illustrator who provided the artwork with this post. This image and several others will be featured (eventually) in the Writing For Children book I’ve been working on the past few months.