Thursday, March 24, 2011

Conference Recap: Childish Mistakes in Writing for Children

You like meat? Because I'm about to give you the meat. My favorite class from NCW: Childish Mistakes in Writing for Children by Kelly Sonnack from Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Best class ever? Possibly.

The Andrea Brown Agency also participates in The Big Sur Children's Writing Workshop. Shannon Whitney Messenger just went to the March session. They have another in December and I'm seriously considering it. If you want to write for children/MG/YA, then this workshop is going to be nothing but meat and potatoes. I'm sure worth every penny.

Now to the recap.

What I learned about childish mistakes in writing for children:

1. Don't preach or speak down to children. Children are smart and they'll get bored or annoyed if you try to preach morals or talk to them as if they're babies. In Middle Grade, their moms aren't reading to them, so don't write like you're their parent. Now if you want to have a moral in your story, that's fine as long as you make it transparent and invisible to the child.

2. Don't be a copycat. Don't copy bestsellers or classics. Don't write to trends or for the bandwagon. It typically takes 18 months from signing with a publisher till its release. So if you're writing for a trend, it will possibly pass before your book comes out. Instead, figure out what classics do to transcend their lifetimes. Then put a modern or fresh interpretation on a classic style.

3. Don't write about your pet, grandkid, child, or yourself. Kids won't be interested. Make the experience bigger than yourself and your experience.

4. Is your protagonist the right age? In MG and YA, the protagonist should be the age of your intended reader or a bit older. The protagonist should never be an adult and adults should not be rescuing or solving the central conflict. Empower the child.

5. You might be "telling" if you ...
  • Use the words felt or was.
  • Say something to the effect of "His life changed when..."
  • Write: she raised an eyebrow to show how ridiculous it was. Don't tell what you've shown.
  • List character specs. Let the reader discover your characters for themselves.
  • Use a mirror to describe anything. Avoid the mirror.
  • Use full name to describe your character: John Paul Peterson.
Show, don't tell. I know, we hear it everywhere but it is tough to do well. Showing includes emotion, action, and sensory detail. But avoid: rolling eyes, sighing, blushing, face draining, weather reports, tears or crying (a manuscript should not have more than one cry in the book), !!!!ONLY WHEN YELLING!!!!!!!

6. Dialogue should always move the story forward. Hey, how are you? Good. Good. Cut mundane dialogue or statements. Boring, no one wants to read it. And in MG, word count is precious. Don't use stereotypical dialogue--it trips the reader and makes your characters seem less smart. Examples: Gawd, like. If your character whines, don't drag out words. Mooooooooom, nooooo, sheeeeez. But mostly avoid whiny kids. Don't talk baby talk either. I go bye bye. Me go home now. Don't talk to the reader, don't be a chatty narrator. Don't you think that's unfair?

7. Don't start your story in a fight. No one wants to enter a room where people are fighting. It makes your character less likable. And your protag needs to be likable. So don't overdo teen/pre-teen angst.

8. The villain needs as much depth as the protag. No cliche villains or snide mustache twirling. The most intriguing villains have as much to offer as the hero. Especially when they don't see themselves as villains.

I told you. Meat. Do you have any tips or rules for writing for middle grade?


  1. Great, great stuff, Brooke! I think my protag cries more than once in my novel...I'll have to re-examine the emotional side of things!

    My tip is to make sure you leave space for the reader to do some thinking. Not everything needs to be spelled out.

  2. Great stuff! I made so many of those mistakes with the first novel I queried. I cringed looking at that list because dang, I did a lot of that! Thank goodness we can learn from our mistakes :)