June 29, 2010

Writing Children’s Stories With No Pink Fairies Or Old Fads

Each year when I judge the children’s fiction entered in the international writing contest sponsored by Writers-Editors.com, I often see the same mistakes being repeated. Since the contest is “blind,” I don’t know who submitted which manuscript, much less the age of the writers, but I suspect that most are very young or very not.

Stories and novel chapters typically sound like they’re from young writers when they focus on trends or have fantastic settings with stereotyped characters who aspire, not to replacing Harry Potter, but to being him. I see a lot of fairy tales with little pink fairies flying around too, but nothing to entice readers to follow them into (oh, please) Never (again) Land.

Whether sweet little stories or scary, fantasy fiction often has predictable people or plots. If writers do try something new, they’re apt to forget that young readers cannot always follow their sudden flights into a heightened vocabulary, including made-up words with which any earthling would say "What?"

Inappropriate vocabulary does not affect futuristic manuscripts only though. It’s also a problem in the “good ole day” stories where children-in-the-now do not know slang words or references to fads of a half-century ago. If such out-dated words or phrases have real significance in a story, the context can help to explain, but too much of this will tuck resistant readers into an early nap.

Like most writers, older people (whom, yes, we’re each becoming) just want to tell their tales as a means of recording memories, working through old wounds, or validating their lives. That’s wonderfully healing and very appropriate in a journal, diary, or family album, but these stories seldom have anything to do with young strangers on the other side of a page.

Relaying your own story has another potential hazard, too, since (sorry) such manuscripts often go on way too long. What started out as a good idea gets bogged down in details, descriptions, or rambling events that weaken the overall story. A true episode may be hard to cut, but what interests the avid writer can be too much for a restless child reader to sit still and hear.

One way to know whether you’ve fallen into this common trap is to ask if your story has a specific theme and purpose. If not, the pages may be a series of events loosely linked by the characters or setting. All is not lost though! As you revise your fiction for children, try these tips:

Focus on a child or a group of children within your chosen age group.

Revise or rewrite your story with those specific faces in mind.

Look for a relevant theme to guide your revisions. For example, omit episodes that do not help either to enforce or to oppose your theme.

Begin the story with the main character identifying, clarifying, and/ or working toward resolving the main problem.

Consistently stay in the viewpoint of that character.

Without going back and forth, let the plot unfold as the story happens.

Remove long descriptions that hinder the story's movement.

Use a variety of sentence structures and lengths for older readers, but shorten long sentences in stories for young kids.

Avoid slang, archaic phrases, and words outside a child's vocabulary.

Be sure the context clarifies the meaning of new and unusual words. If a word is key to the story, use it right away and include a definition.

With the possible exception of an occasional crank or crackpot, portray adults in a positive light with no demeaning statements about cops, teachers, parents, or grands.

Avoid bigotry of all kinds.

Avoid lopsided viewpoints and unbalanced information. For instance, if you use a historical setting, make sure you have intelligent, caring people on both sides of the story.

Remember the adage: "Show. Don’t tell." Let your well-chosen characters care enough to act in character and resolve -- or accept -- the story's problem by The End.

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(c) 2010, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved.

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