I recently had the pleasure of attending a writing workshop with children’s author Jean Alicia Elster, who has written a four-book illustrated series for children (the “Joe Joe in the City Series”) and two novels for eight- to twelve-year-old readers. She’s also done ghostwriting, grant-writing, editing, and has even written those short stories found on standardized tests. This writer really knows her stuff! It was easily one of the best workshops I’ve ever been to – just jam-packed with useful tips and info – and now that I’ve managed to decipher my own handwriting, I thought I’d pass along some of what she shared.
Tips and Info from an Awesome Children’s Author:
-There are many fallacies when it comes to writing a children’s book. Here are a few facts to clear things up: You do NOT need to find your own illustrator before submitting your children’s manuscript. You do NOT need to illustrate the manuscript yourself. Doing either of these things is like waving a red flag that says “amateur.” Publishers won’t take you seriously. Also, it is NOT necessarily faster or easier to write a children’s book than it is to write an adult novel. It can take just as long to write a fifty-word book as it can to write a 120,000-word book. It can take years of effort just to get those fifty words absolutely perfect. The fewer words you use, the better they have to be.
-When writing for children, it is important to actually like kids. Not only that, but it’s important to know kids – know how they speak, know how they act, know what noises they make, and know what types of things interest them.
-Listen to the rhythm of how kids talk – often, they don’t use the same natural pauses that adults do, which means their dialogue should include fewer commas. Also, pay attention to how young people interact with one another on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Texting and other forms of electronic communication are (for better or worse) becoming more and more prevalent in the way kids talk to each other.
-Know which audience you’re writing for, and include things that particularly appeal to that audience. Boys, for example, like reading about sounds, so make sure to include lots of onomatopoeia. Boys also enjoy gore, like squirting blood, and other “gross” things, like boogers and flatulence. Girls, on the other hand, like reading about scents.
-Worrying too much about word-count limits while you’re writing can lead to a rushed ending. Tell your story the way you want to, and worry about cutting it afterwards.
-Children’s books with series potential have a better chance of getting published than stand-alone books. Series’ are more profitable because they are more visible on bookstore shelves, and because they can grow in popularity with each new book. A series can build a following in a way that stand-alones can’t.
-There is a difference between illustrated fiction for children (e.g. The Velveteen Rabbit) and a picture book (e.g. Where’s Spot?). Know which one you’re trying to write.
-When writing for children, it is important to have a mission. Jean Alicia Elster’s mission is to educate kids about history, racism, and difficult situations faced by today’s urban youth. Another author at the workshop had a mission to expose children to nature and wildlife in an engaging way. Have a clear understanding of your mission – and your message – before you start.
-Kids are smart – don’t underestimate their intelligence or dumb the story down for their benefit. Write a story that has a strong plot, structure and character development. Leave room for your characters to grow and evolve with you and your audience. Write stories that are multilayered and will appeal to a wide range of ages on different levels – for example, in Jean Alicia Elster’s illustrated fiction series, there is an adult character named Cecil. It is never specified what Cecil’s occupation is, and younger (five- and six-year-old) readers simply know that Cecil is a bad guy – he’s doing something that is wrong/illegal. However, older readers instantly pick up on the hints that Cecil is the neighborhood drug dealer.
-Read tons of children’s literature. Study the classics. Try to discover what specifically makes them so appealing, what makes them stand the test of time, and then try to emulate that. If you read a bad book, study that, too. Ask yourself why you didn’t like it, where it went wrong, and try not to do that.
-Don’t read a terrible book and think, “Well, if this thing got published, then my book can, too.” Don’t strive to be better than an awful book. Strive to be as good as the best.
-When you’ve finished your story, trying re-writing it from another character’s POV – you might get a whole new story out of it! Some authors can write an entire novel series about a single event, each book told from a different character’s perspective.
-A typical children’s book is thirty-two pages. Chapter books are sixty-four pages. (I had no idea about either of those things.) Young Adult novels used to have a specific page-count as well, but that has gone out the window with the likes of Harry Potter and Twilight. In any case, when writing a children’s book, you do not have to worry about which lines of text go on which page – the editors will take care of that.
-Look around you for inspiration – did you experience something that upset you, that moved you, that challenged you? Let your passion guide you in your storytelling. If your message comes from within, the audience will feel that.
-If you’re serious about writing for children, consider joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (www.scbwi.org). They are an international organization that has a U.S. national chapter as well as state chapters. The author mentioned that the Michigan chapter has great, in-state workshops, and one of the coolest things about these is that many times editors and agents will agree to read manuscripts submitted by attendees. You can indicate on your manuscript that you were at the workshop, and the editor/agent will pull your book from the slush pile and actually read it. (This is an excellent opportunity, because most unsolicited manuscripts in the slush pile will never actually be read.) Some workshops also have a “pitching lottery,” where you can run your book idea by agents and editors and get real feedback. The Highlights Foundation Workshops ( http://www.highlightsfoundation.org/ ) are also recommended.
To learn more about the wonderful author Jean Alicia Elster and her upcoming works, please visit her website: www.jeanaliciaelster.com . She has a new book coming out called The Colored Car, a sequel to her first children’s novel, Who’s Jim Hines? She also has an excellent illustrated fiction series called the “Joe Joe in the City Series.”
Hope these tips were as helpful to you as they were to me! Next workshop on the schedule: “Submitting a Novel.”
In the meantime, keep writing!