How hard can it be to write a children's book? After all, they're short and simple, right?
Truth is, writing well for kids is a unique challenge. The best authors in the genre are masters of economy and action, which can take a lifetime of study and practice to achieve. But there are a few common traps that even the most fledgling author can learn to steer clear of.
Full disclosure: As the co-author of 16 books for kids across all ages and genres, I have made every one of the following mistakes at some point or another. And as a professional editor, I've seen dozens of other authors get de-railed by the same pitfalls. Here, then, are the five most common mistakes to avoid when writing for kids:
1. Wrong protagonist - The best books for children feature a chief protagonist - whether human, animal or anthropomorphic object - of the same age or spirit as the intended reader. When your young reader can readily identify with your central character and the issues they face, you stand a much better chance of engaging their interest.
2. Overwriting - The average picture book is 32 pages, including title, dedications and acknowledgments, and features no more than three to five sentences per page - so it's important to make every word count:
- Don't write what the illustrations will show. Art and text should complement and inform one another, not merely reflect.
- Start your story immediately - don't take up time with settings or descriptions. Which grabs your attention better: "Chutney was a small white dog" or "Chutney was lost"?
- Keep things active. Avoid the passive voice, such as "to be" verbs. Instead of "There were a lot of puffy clouds in the sky," try "Puffy clouds dotted the sky."
- Avoid excessive use of adjectives and unnecessary detail. Distill your storytelling into as few words as possible, artfully chosen.
- Lay out your manuscript in dummy format, 16 pages folded in half to make 32. Visualize the corresponding illustrations. At what point in the text will the reader turn the page?
- Focus on showing through character action and dialogue rather than telling what is happening. Telling is describing: "Sam's knee was really hurting from where he had fallen on it at baseball camp that morning." Showing is revealing: "Sam rubbed his knee and winced."
3. Verse issues - Young readers appreciate the musicality and fun of verse, but many aspiring authors neglect story structure for the sake of rhyme. If you write in verse, take a critical extra step: craft a prose version as well. Make sure you've addressed all the key issues: character, plot structure, pacing, theme etc., before converting back to verse. Verse should be the frosting on the cake, not the cake itself. Also, take care that the verse is first-rate, with true rhymes and consistency of meter. Never try to bend the phrasing or emphasis to accommodate a rhyme.
4. Lack of scope - I once had what I thought was a lovely idea for a picture book, which failed miserably. The reason? Lack of visual interest. The potential for diversity in the illustrations was slim to nil - page after page of two characters in the same setting, just talking. I never forgot that lesson, and I marvel at how many fledgling authors make the same mistake. Again, making a dummy layout is a great tool. Imagine what the accompanying artwork might be, and if you find you have the same scene or setting over and over again, consider how you can open things up to broaden the scope.
5. Teaming up with an illustrator - Many beginning authors assume it is their responsibility to find an illustrator, or think it will enhance their chances of publication to do so. Nothing could be further from the truth. Publishers pride themselves on identifying the right illustrators for projects, so unless you are an author/illustrator, it's best to submit text only. By all means, include in your cover letter some ideas as to the style of artwork you envision, even drop an illustrator's name or two as an example, but be prepared to be flexible. If your book is heavily visual, you can include a dummy with written descriptions as to what the illustrations might be like for easy visualization. But leave the final decision to the professional editors and publishers who will be bringing the book to market.
Emma Walton Hamilton has co-authored 16 books for children, four of which have been on the New York Times Bestseller list. She serves as the editorial director of the Julie Andrews Collection publishing program, and also works as a freelance children's book editor. Her latest book is "Raising Bookworms: Getting Kids Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment" http://www.childrensbookeditor.com