Some children's book authors are so good they become a part of you—forever. Each generation has its beloved writer(s), but for me and my sisters, Laura Ingalls Wilder was who we wanted to be. And if we couldn't be her, at least we wanted to know her. But since she died before we were born, we had to make do with what she wrote and where she lived.
This fall, my sister had occasion to get close enough to the town of De Smet, South Dakota, to justify a trip to Laura's girlhood home. Now a shrine to Laura Ingalls Wilder, De Smet was backdrop to the The Long Winter, By the Shores of Silver Lake and The Little Town on the Prairie, which spanned my favorite years in Laura's growing-up life.
The long winter was too short for me. I wanted to get up every morning and bust the ice off my wash water, like Laura. I also wanted to teach in a one room schoolhouse. (Laura hated it, by the way.) My future husband would ride up in a sled—or cart, depending on the weather—and pick me up after I rang the cast iron bell. School's out! And of course, Nellie Oleson would just happen to be passing by, furious that she wasn't the one riding shotgun in whatever sweet ride Almanzo had chosen to bring.
I wanted to wear dresses made of organdy, which I pictured being the orange color of those marshmallow peanuts you have to hold your nose to eat. I wanted to make those dresses. Me, a wooden bench, a sewing needle and yards of fabric on my lap—cascading to the floor—is what I dreamed of.
I wasn't alone in this. If you've read this far, you're probably one of the thousands of children—now grown—who was smitten by a plucky pioneer girl named Laura.
Children's Book Author Laura Ingalls Wilder: De Smet, South Dakota, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
So my sister rides into town in a rented car. While De Smet is home to only 1,200 residents, it boasts a tennis court, a swimming pool, a nine-hole golf course and a nursing home. In other words, you'll need to squint if you want the little town on the prairie to actually look like one. That said, many of the old homes and buildings are still in use, and some people might describe modern day De Smet as a 'one horse town.'
But others might describe it as All Things Laura. Devotees are strategically situated throughout the town to reveal tidbits about Laura and her family that you might not have heard before. (We want them all. Every single one.) The First School of De Smet, where Laura was a student, is still standing, but the Brewster School, where she taught, is a replica. There are all kinds of staged scenes in each of Laura's dwellings with period furniture, clothing and toys like the ones Laura 'might' have used.
Laura Ingalls Wilder described her early years as being full of "sunshine and shadow." The books were about the sunshine—the shadow, not so much. My sister was surprised that Pa had to abscond with his family in the middle of the night from Burr Oak, Iowa, due to the landlord 'not being reasonable.' And apparently, while Almanzo Wilder saved the starving town by making a dangerous run in a blizzard to buy some harvested wheat, the Wilder home MIGHT have harbored a false wall, behind which the family was secretly hording its own stash.
But the biggest surprise was that the entire Ingalls family lived in South Dakota until they died—either together in one home or within spittin' distance of each other—except for Laura. Laura settled in Mansfield, MO, with her husband, Almanzo, and only saw her parents once before they passed away many years later.
What?! Only see Ma one time over a period of 35 years? Good, kind, gentle Ma (even if she was a bit stern)? And Pa, who played the fiddle that Laura so loved? What are we missing here? As kids, we wanted to live with the Ingalls, yet Laura appears to have left them behind in De Smet, no hurry to go back.
We may never understand this. But living was hard on the plains in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the Ingalls bore their share of tragedies, many of which were not included in the books. If the pioneering life wore them down, we can only imagine the toll it took on their family.
A Children's Book Author Pilgrimage: Letting Go of the Story
If you're thinking about visiting a favorite children's book author's home town, brace yourself. You may end up feeling sort of sad. Your journey through the books was yours alone, and adding facts to your memories might not play out the way you think it will.
But if you're OK with reframing your childhood fantasies, have at it! Just be aware that you might alter forever the part of you that was formed by a complete stranger who felt like a friend.
In other words, think long and hard before you buy those tickets to Edinburgh. I'm just sayin'.
Unless you remember what it’s like to be a child, you might have a hard time writing for one. Here’s what kids want hear about:
If your characters aren’t culled from the swirl of emotions you felt every time anything happened when you were a kid, your young readers might not stick with you.
Here’s some stuff they don’t want to read about:
When you’re writing for kids, write for yourself. The person you outgrew years ago, but who’s still hanging out somewhere inside.
Writing for Kids is Like Therapy
Funny thing, when you really get into writing for kids, it kind of wakes you up. It’s as if that child is snoozing in there, hibernating under a blanket of all of the ‘shoulds’ that we tend to weigh ourselves down with when we get jobs, houses and kids.
You’ll know you’ve nailed that cafeteria scene when something inside you stirs as you type the final word. If you once sat on your bed with your ten-year old best friend whose mother just died and you didn’t know what to say, you’ll know you’ve captured that awful day when your eyes blur as you watch the scene unfold on your screen.
It’s a remembering that reaches inside of you and cleans you out. You begin to see the world through your little girl eyes again—in small glimpses, sure—but it’s there. You laugh when people walk into things. You put quarters in a gum machine to get one of those big, stale gumballs. You might even pet the neighbor’s cat. (But think twice before telling your boss to pull your finger.)
And do make sure you have a real, modern-day kid read your stuff! Someone needs to check it for ‘language.’ You don’t want Beaver Cleaver narrating your story. But go too far on the edgy side, and you might be topping out of your age group. (Unless you’re writing YA, which pretty much has everything in it that adult books do.)
Unless you're writing for yourself. If that’s the case, do whatever feels good and throw it in a drawer when you’re done! Learn about our phonics program.
If you are a fiction writer, chances are, you spend a lot of time in solitary confinement. When everybody else is at the mall on a lazy Saturday afternoon, you’re hunched over your computer, typing. When your spouse is running a “Mad Men” marathon on Netflix, you’re still on that dang computer. You miss kids’ soccer games (Can you cover this one, honey?), you don’t exercise and even when you’re not writing you’re scrolling plot lines through your head.
Sounds miserable, doesn’t it? That's because it is. Don’t do it if you don’t have to.
But if you can’t not write, it’s a good idea to develop strategies that help you maintain your social skills, take care of your health and emerge on occasion to spend time with the people who live in your house. (Besides, how else are you going to come up with new material?)
A Writer's Journey: It Ain't Pretty
There are plenty of people who talk about writing but have trouble sitting down to do it. But here, I'm talking about the ones who have a hard time tearing themselves away.
You know who you are. It looks something like this:
A Writer's Journey: Schedule It
First of all, get used to the idea that for some reason, your time on this planet has got to be about writing. Phrases, characters and stories are forever populating your head. Organizing them on a page is the only way to deal with this tsunami of thought that won’t leave you alone.
But it doesn’t have to ruin your relationships. Or your body. Or your life as a ‘normal’ person.
The single most valuable tool for managing a writer’s life is a calendar. Put blocks of time on your calendar for writing and make sure to leave the job at quittin’ time.
Ironically, scheduling your time on the computer will help you write better stuff. If we were all to be honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that our muses get tired after a few hours. And so do our bodies.
If there is anyone in your life that undermines the time you spend in front of the screen, your writer's calendar also sends the message that writing is important to you. There is nothing like a schedule to demonstrate that writing is your priority.
Figure out what time of day and days of the week are your most productive writing time and block out as many time slots as you need.
A Writer's Journey: Take Inventory of What's Bothering You
But beyond scheduling your time, it’s important to identify your personal triggers and plant safeguards to help you overcome them.
Let’s look at the list we spoke of earlier:
Exercise: The best way to make sure you get to that 1:30 yoga class is to put on your yoga clothes, get your mat ready and fill your water bottle before you sit down to write. Part of stopping your work to exercise is the unpalatable list of things you need to do before you even get out the door. Get them all done up front. At 1:15, grab your stuff and go.
Interruptions: You can seriously reduce interruptions by posting your writing calendar so that everybody who needs your services will know when they are allowed to start bugging you. (An added bonus is that some of those people might learn to become less needy.) And now that you're scheduling your writing, the mandatory stuff will get done (dinner, homework etc.), since your writing time no longer overlaps with the critical things you need to do.
Obsessing: How do you stop obsessing about your latest masterpiece? This may be the toughest one of all. But not unlike dealing with an addiction, changing this habit will take some discipline. Here are some ideas that can help you with this:
-Meditation can help you train your brain to respond better to the moment at hand.
-You can perform a ritual when you finish writing: Walk through an imaginary portal and leave your story behind to be picked up later.
-Practice presence. Notice the way the light is coming through the window, the sound of your children carrying on or the feel of grass on your feet.
If your writing is robbing you of your life, you (and the people who care about you) will begin to resent it. Whatever your triggers are, identify them. Put some sort of support network in place to help you change your automatic responses.
There is a prevalent myth that says artists must be tortured. Not true. Anyone can be tortured. And anyone can be free, too, it they put their minds to it.
Perhaps there was an element of ‘luck’ to the record-breaking popularity of the bespectacled, black-haired boy dreamed up by children’s book author J.K. Rowling. After all, a lot of events had to fall magically in place before one small publisher finally decided to gamble on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Legend has it that the publisher decided to move forward with the book when his eight-year-old daughter read the first chapter and asked for more.
What fabulous luck!
So what does ‘luck’ look like to you? (For example, what does it mean when you say ‘just my luck’? Has something devastating—or spectacular—happened?) Behind every stroke of luck there is typically an iron-willed belief and a lot of hard work. And when these two get together, luck happens.
Alchemy, if you will.
Children's Book Author J.K. Rowling: Dogged by an Idea
According to the well-known story, Rowling mapped out the plot for her first book on a train. The idea of this boy-who-was-a -wizard-but-didn’t-know-it came to her and she simply couldn’t ignore it. Her description of the experience almost sounds like she was receiving a ‘download.’ She could hardly write fast enough to keep up. Where was that stream of consciousness coming from?
We don’t know. But what we do know is that Rowling was an open vessel, ready to receive what was coming to her. She was enchanted by the story and held the belief that she was the one to write it.
Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience with your writing. Do ideas follow you around, begging you to write them down so other people can hear about them, too? If so, you might be surprised by what happens when you sit down to actually write. When an idea is stalking you, there is usually a lot more to follow. The act of getting it on paper may have a quality of ‘effortlessness’ to it.
Children's Book Author J.K. Rowling: Tapping In to Something Inside of Us
Rowling describes her books as touching on religious themes—but not overtly. She is a master at telling a story that has multiple layers, but all she does is tell it like it is. Discovering the universal truths in her mythology is up to each of us to do for ourselves.
And when we do, we feel something.
The Harry Potter series weaves a golden thread of longing, hope, magic and love, beginning with The Boy Who Lived and not stopping until the end. There’s a lot of darkness in the series, too. This epic tale appeals to the hero inside of us—child and adult alike.
I asked one (young) reader what he liked so much about Harry Potter. His answer was simple: “J.K. Rowling is so creative.” But these words didn’t come close to expressing what was on the boy's face—the way it lapsed into a dreamy, far-away look at the mere mention of his beloved Harry. Now a college student, this young man has read the entire series at least 20 times.
Children's Book Author J.K. Rowling: A Flash of Clairvoyance
I love what J.K. Rowling revealed in her interview with Oprah. At one point, Oprah asked Rowling if she ‘knew’ that ‘one day every child in the world will know his [Harry’s] name.’
This excerpt from the 10/3/2010 transcript of that interview is riveting:
Winfrey: But isn’t it interesting that in the first book, when Harry is being dropped-off at his uncle’s, it is predicted – ?
Rowling: One day every child in the world will know his name.
Winfrey: One day every child in the world will know his name.
Rowling: Well, the screenwriter –
Winfrey: So, didn’t you know?
Winfrey: Wasn’t there part of you –
Rowling: Part of me –
Winfrey: Subconsciously, that knew? Yes.
Rowling: I – I remember once and it was like – it was like – well, like – I’m going to call it clash – a flash of clairvoyance now. Obviously if it hadn’t come true it would just be some crazy thought I had. But I do remember one day, writing Philosopher’s Stone, I was walking away from the café where I’d been working on –
Winfrey: Philosopher’s Stone which became Sorcerer’s Stone.
Rowling: Which became Sorcerer’s Stone, exactly. So that’s the first novel. And I had this moment where I suddenly thought – It was like another voice speaking to me and the voice said “the difficult thing is going to get published. If it gets published it will be huge.”
Wow. Great insight. One that begs the question: If you are a writer, are you listening to the voice in your head? Is your heart telling you it’s a go? If so, now may be the time to follow Rowling’s lead and start creating your own luck.
Just make sure it’s the good kind.
Leave a comment! Share your thoughts about 'creating luck.'
A lot of people have one inside of them. A novel, I mean. They think about it, they tell people about it—they might even sit down and write a few pages. But why do so few actually finish writing a novel?
For starters, it’s a big job. And when you have a lot of other things to do, it’s easy to shove your book off to the side, to be written when you have more time.
But if you are able to save it for later, it’s probably not burning a hole inside of you. (And if that’s the case, ‘later’ might never come.) If your unwritten novel haunts you when you’re at work, if you’re developing plots at night before you fall asleep and you’re annoyed with yourself when you see a novel that you could have written hit the bookstores, perhaps it’s time to figure out what’s stopping you.
Write a novel: a secret one
One way to make sure your novel stays where it is now—inside of you—is to tell everyone about it. While some of your friends will be staunch supporters, the people closest to you might feel threatened that you are branching out and trying something new. They might say things like this:
Or: “Shouldn’t you start with a short story?”
Perhaps you have someone in your life who’s even more blunt:
“But you can’t write.”
Most likely, you know who these people are. And if you find yourself unable to resist sharing your enthusiasm with them, you may want to ask yourself why you are opening yourself up to their lack of faith in you. Could it be that they are mirroring something inside of you about your ability to do this? If so, be aware that you will continue to seek naysayers until you believe you can see this project through to the end.
If you need to confide in someone, choose somebody who has always been your champion. As for everybody else? Resist the temptation to share. That way, their negative vibes won’t bring you down.
Write a novel: schedule it
If Phileas Fogg can get around the world in 80 days, you can certainly write a novel by then, too. Consider this: if you write 1,000 words a day, you will have completed your first draft of an 80,000 word novel (a good length for most debut novels) in less than three months. Writing for kids? You’ll be done in six weeks.
But maybe 1,000 words a day demands more resources than you have to spare. No worries. Cut it down to 500 words. Still too much? Shoot for 250. The point is, if you break it up into bite-sized chunks—whatever that means for you—it will be easier for you to set up a schedule and stick to it. By doing this, you'll end up with a completed novel, ready to pitch to agents in 2015.
Let your time with your book be your favorite part of the day. Look forward to it. Savor it while you are engaged in the work you ‘have’ to do. You will find that once you begin writing on a schedule, your novel will stop torturing you. Rather, you will find that the mere thought of it can buoy you up—even when other parts of your life are weighing you down.
Write a novel: choose your partner
Why not tackle this mountain with a climbing buddy? You probably have a friend who wants to write a novel, too. If not, I suspect you do have a friend who would be willing to hold you accountable, and perhaps even read chapters to give you feedback as you write.
Or maybe you feel as though you need a real taskmaster to help you get through this. For those of you who are tired of ‘wanting’ to write a book and ready to get it done, you might benefit from the upcoming National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo is a non-profit organization that provides support for first-time novelists who are willing to commit the month of November to writing that first draft. On an international scale, you can join with other writers who are sick of hearing themselves talk and are ready to write—a whole book in 30 days. Through this organization, you can enjoy pep talks, inspirational stories, contests and forums, but most importantly, you can join thousands of new novelists who have decided that the time is now (or more precisely, November) to get that story written.
Ever hear about the legendary warrior who led his troops by sea onto enemy shores? When they reached land, he ordered them to burn their boats. Think about what it would take for you to embark on this adventure, with no turning back. Once you’ve written one novel, it’s a lot easier to write the second one, which is how most novelists turn writing stories into a career.
How about you? Do you have a novel inside of you? Tell us about it!
Character development in middle-grade fiction: make sure your readers know your people as well as you do
Let's say your main character is a kid who rode on your school bus when you were eight years old. Or, your main character is you when you were eight years old. But now you’re all grown up and this guy or gal is only in your head. Good character development gets these people out of your head and onto the page so they are no longer inside of you. By the time you type The End, your characters should belong to the world.
So how do you do that?
Start by re-introducing yourself to your long-ago friend. Sure you knew this kid twenty-five years ago, but that’s a long time. Remember, if you’re writing in the time-frame of your own childhood, that would be an historical novel. Maybe you wore neon orange and lime-green parachute pants as a kid, but make sure your characters dress the way kids do now.
And notice how confident elementary school children are today. They’ll say anything to anybody. Even to grown-ups (with whom they’ll be on a first-name basis). These kids tend to have a better idea of what they like—and don’t like—and they’re not shy about letting you know.
Today’s boys and girls are more likely to be best friends with each other than they were back then. They’re tech savvy, and they’re less likely to be playing jump-rope or monkeying around on jungle gyms.
And in what appears to be an evolution of consciousness, the children of today are more comfortable with talking about how they feel.
Character development: let your characters speak for themselves
You want your readers to get to know your characters by what your characters say and do. Let’s say that you want to show the reader that your eight-year-old protagonist (Jason) is lacking confidence in his ability to swim.
Here are three ways you can handle that:
1) You spell it out for your reader:
Jason hung back. He wasn’t a very good swimmer, and he always felt embarrassed when he thrashed his way across the pool.
2) Jason tells them, but in case your reader misses it, you tell them, too:
“Hey, Jason! Come on in!”
“I can’t. I forgot my towel.” Jason had hoped that no one would notice that he wasn’t swimming.
3) Let JASON show your readers how unsure he is:
Sam and Eddie dove into the deep end. The water was a shade darker—and colder, Jason thought—when the drain was so far down you could hardly see it. He grabbed a kickboard from the deck and jumped in.
"Look! I'm Eddie! I'm a big baby!" Jason held his nose with two fingers and began splashing his way across the pool. The spastic sound of his feet slapping the water trailed behind him, but all he cared about was the clock on the wall over the picnic tables. Two more minutes, and the lifeguard would blow the whistle for adult swim.
Character development: be consistent
A general rule of thumb is this: when your character talks, the reader should know who’s doing the talking without any prompting from you. While this can’t be the case for every line (Wow! Cool!—all kids say that), it’s helpful to think about this ‘test’ as you’re writing dialog. Each character should have a unique voice. I recall reading a book one time and wondering why it wasn’t working for me. It wasn’t until after I had finished the whole thing that I realized all of the characters spoke in the same witty banter.
While there might be one quirky character in a book, they can’t all be. The others need to be something different to provide contrast.
Mostly because that’s how it is in real life. Everybody’s different. And in order to create a scenario that your readers can get lost in, they need to feel the way they do when they meet real people—interested, curious and wanting to know more.
So you’re ready to write that novel. It’s been festering in the back of your mind for weeks—or years—and something about this moment is making you say “It’s time.” Short of a professor who threatens you with an ‘F’ if you don’t turn it in, how do you make sure you get it done?
Join a writer’s group. Or start one.
It’s not easy to add one more commitment to a long list of things you have to do, but if you want to hold yourself accountable for writing a whole book, you’re going to need help.
Step One: Stop reading
You’re going to need about two hours a week to meet with your new group, and about ten hours a week to write your book. So where’s the time going to come from?
You need to quit something. And the first thing that’s gotta go is reading. Stop curling up with a juicy book. Quit your book club. Reading (a lot) is the key to becoming a good writer, but writing is more important for you now. (Besides, if you are a writer, you’ve probably already done a good job on the reading part.)
Think of it like this. If you were going to be a chocolate maker, you would need to sample a lot of chocolate. But at some point, you’ve got to stop eating chocolate and start making chocolate. Over-indulgence will make you sick. You’ll get frustrated by all of the bad chocolate out there and how you could do it better. And when you taste a heavenly bite? You’ll get depressed, wondering if you could ever be as good.
Sound familiar? If this is how you feel when you browse through a bookstore, it’s time to stop reading and start writing. When you’re deep into your novel, you can start reading again. That’s when reading becomes an education rather than a pastime.
Step Two: Lay some ground rules
One woman I talked to who joined (and quit) a writer's group said that nobody wanted to say anything bad about anybody’s writing. She didn’t feel she was getting enough guidance. The group was too ‘nice.’
Mine wasn’t. My group was mean. And because of it, I have a much better novel. Finished and polished.
Make decisions about how you will all work as a group:
Step Three: Find your people
Talk to people you know. Most likely, there is another closet novelist in your office, school or neighborhood. But if not, go to www.meetup.com or www.craiglist.com —two great sources for finding like-minded individuals. And if you can’t generate local interest, go wide. You can hold your meetings via Skype or Google Hangouts.
Don’t worry about needing to find people who are writing in the same genre as you. A good book is a good book. The members of your new writer's group will have been voracious readers for years. They can help you identify qualities about any style of writing that are uniquely yours—the good, the bad and the ugly.
Writing for kids is easy. The words are short, the books are short—the readers are usually pretty short. They’ve got to be less discerning than adults, right?
If your book is about wizards, mean girls or vampires, you might have a shot at going viral with a mediocre tale. But don’t count on it. Children have a sensor inside of them that gravitates toward good writing. Well-written children’s books rise to the top. And although it might look like an author simply got lucky by thinking up a good story, if you were to deconstruct that story, you would find an intricate piece of work that took a lot of time, thought and false starts to write.
Children are people, too. Myths, archetypes and human struggles resonate with them as they do with us. Kids want to cry, laugh, side with the hero and imagine themselves in the situations they are reading about. If the language is trite or the plot is forced, nothing happens inside. Write for the heart and you’ve got something worth reading.
In some ways, writing for children can be more challenging than writing for adults. If you’ve ever seen sketches of Picasso’s bull, you will know what I mean. Picasso went through multiple iterations of a finely detailed sketch before stripping everything away. In the end, The Bull was a simple form—a suggestion of a bull—now on display at the MoMa.
Make sure your book has substance, especially between the lines. Your readers might not see it, but they’ll feel it.
Children's books have a singular theme.
Harry Potter aside, children usually prefer to follow one story at a time. Subplots bore them. If they’re headed down one path, they don’t want to be taken down another. Adults are a little more patient with this. We like to savor our books, make them last. If we have twenty minutes before bedtime to read, we feel lucky.
Children inhale books. They want to get to the end, even if they’re having a good time on the way. If the hero is on the verge of discovery (or death, or losing some kind of conflict), it’s best to stay on that track.
And if you are going to introduce a subplot, that’s okay if it advances the action. Just make sure that it supports the hero’s journey and the arc of your story. And please make sure your side trip doesn’t include parents or teachers. There’s no getting around that one. Adults should be background noise at best in a book for kids. (Remember the adults in the Charlie Brown TV shows? All they ever said was “Wah, wah, wah.”)
Writing for kids and the concept of time.
Pick up any work of middle-grade fiction—Harry Potter aside—and you will find that most of them take place within a few days. Maybe a few weeks, but seldom will they span a year. Kids have a limited view of the future. If something big is going to happen on Saturday, that’s about as far out as they can see.
Young readers are going to want to experience your hero’s day. A rock comes through the classroom window with a note attached to it. The new kid smells like a banana. A best friend’s desk is empty, and the teacher looks like she’s been crying. The math problem on the board is a string of mysterious—yet strangely familiar—numbers. A secret code, perhaps?
All of this needs to happen even before the bell rings for lunch.
Pacing your middle-grade novel.
It goes without saying that a kid’s book should move along at a pretty good clip, Harry Potter aside. (Sure, the Potter books move. But they also spend a lot of time meandering in the halls, the cafeteria and out on the school grounds.) Keeping the pace up is not always easy to do. There’s backstory that needs to be established, locales to describe, and characters to introduce.
Try doing it with dialog.
Kids love when the characters talk to each other. How to talk like a kid is a topic for another day, but dialog is a great way to fill in the gaps and keep the story moving at the same time.
Be careful with this. Using dialog to clue the reader in can backfire if it’s too obvious:
“My parents told me they’re getting divorce and I have to go live with my dad. He’s moving to Chicago, so I have to start at a new school. I’m really bummed.” Alexander kicked at a pebble with his toe. He didn’t look up, but he knew that Casey was staring at him.
Now take a look at a more natural unfolding:
Alexander kicked at a pebble with his toe. “I’m not coming back next year,” he said.
“Why not?” Casey asked.
“Because my mom and dad are stupid.” Alexander wondered if Casey had heard that his parents were splitting up.
You may have heard that good dialog sounds the way people really talk. Well, it doesn’t. In real life, people aren’t that clever. And articulate. And they’re not always telling a story, which is a role you can never break when you are writing one. Good dialog is a delicate balance between sounding natural and moving the story along.
Now about Harry Potter.
The Harry Potter series violates almost every rule for writing a good children’s book. Genius is like that sometimes. If you have a genius inside of you, throw the rulebook away and follow your muse.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. How do you write a novel? Make yourself sit down at your computer. Then, get up, go to the kitchen for a snack, eat it over the sink, sit back down again, look out the window and finally, go to Starbucks.
At least, that’s the way it was for me.
Getting started was the hardest part. After that, stopping was the hard part. I found that I had been thinking so long about my book, that when I actually sat down to write it, the first half or so seemed to write itself.
And the rest followed pretty quickly. But then it got hard again. Because once it’s done, you’ll most likely need to start over.
It took me about six months to write my 50,000 word middle-grade novel, and about two more years to do enough rewrites to get it in good enough shape to pitch to agents.
The main character in my book is named Skyler. When I completed my first draft, my oldest son read it. After he finished, he turned to his brother and said, “Skyler talks like mom.” Since Skyler is only twelve years old, that wasn’t a good thing. Twelve-year-olds don’t typically say things like “Why don’t we think this through?” Or “Darn it. I’ve got homework. I can’t go.”
My second draft was me writing the whole book over, starting with page one.
Editing your middle-grade or YA novel
Writing is a solitary pursuit, but editing is not. Here are some of the reasons I’ve heard that people won’t show their stuff to anyone else:
Let’s pretend that all of these are good reasons to skip the part where you let friends, family and strangers (if they’re willing) tear your stuff apart. Because it is pretending. It’s a bad, bad idea to not get feedback on your book.
Solicit as many warm bodies as you can to read it. Your neighbors, your boss, your kids. Join a writer’s group. Upload your book to www.lulu.com or www.amazon.com and self-publish it. Not to sell it, but to hand a paperback to each of your readers. It will be much easier for them to read on paper than online, and they will be more likely to do it. Tell them to read it with pen-in-hand and make notes in the margins.
If you do this, I promise you will get depressed. You’ll get so many put-downs about your book, you’ll be tempted to quit. (Or you’ll find yourself wondering how people can be so stupid and that maybe you need new friends.)
And the worst? When nobody can seem to get through it. I’ve been sooo busy. But I’ll get to it. I promise. After I finish watching the last seven seasons of House in the next few weeks or so.
That’s feedback, too.
Taking a fresh look at your middle-grade or YA novel
But after you’ve stuck your book in a drawer for awhile, the feedback you’ve been getting will start to percolate. You’ll notice patterns. What your (suddenly smarter) friends are saying will start to make sense. You’ll figure out how to fix it. And when you do, the next round of readers will reflect that. They’ll come back to you a few days later and say “I couldn’t wait to find out what happened.” And instead of telling you what’s wrong with your book, they’ll start musing about the characters and about what happened to them.
More like a book club than a billy club.
Here’s something I find interesting. I’ve seen writers defend the way they’ve written a phrase, a paragraph or even a plot-line, even though their readers are telling the author that he or she has missed the mark. Think about that one. Is the writer going to have the opportunity to explain his or her logic to everyone who buys the book?
If you’re not writing for the reader, you’re writing for yourself. Which is OK, as long as you’re not interested in getting published.
Leave a comment! We’d love to hear how you feel when people give you feedback on your writing.
Speaking of Kids
Online phonics program blog: Musings, stories, and tips about teaching, reading, and parenting.
ABOUT MARY FOLLIN
Mary is the author of TEACH YOUR CHILD TO READ and ETHYR, winner of the Moonbeam Children's Book Award and the Gertrude Warner Book Award. She is mom to two grown sons and enjoys sharing her more seasoned perspective with parents of younger children.
ABOUT KRISTI CROSSON
Kristi is a professional photographer and homeschooling mom of three small children. She has a passion for helping other moms make healthy choices for themselves and their families. To learn more about Kristi, please visit her website.
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