Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Writing for Children: Guest Post by Vivian Zabel

You will probably notice that this post by guest blogger Vivian Zabel is longer than most. I couldn't help myself. It's so full of good stuff--for writers of children's literature, but, really, a lot for writers in general. If you are a new writer, you won't want to skip over a single word.

By Vivian Zabel

Many people believe that writing for children is easy, that anyone can do it. Having children doesn’t make a person qualified to write for children either. For example, just because I have a heart doesn’t mean I can do open heart surgery. Writing of any kind takes training, starting with reading the type of literature to be written, studying how to write and for a certain audience, and knowing how to use language correctly and effectively. In fact, writing for children is harder than writing for adults because the length of a children’s story is shorter: the plot, characters, conflict, and action has to be concise and precise. Also a child’s attention span is shorter.

So how can a person learn to write for children? One way is to attend conferences and workshops about writing for children. Another is to read articles from those who know.

Now, let’s look at some suggestions for writing successful children’s stories:

1. Learn how to write. Children’s stories should be well written, but they can’t be if the author hasn’t mastered how to write. Ways to learn include taking courses, reading books, joining a writing group that has discussions and/or workshops to help a person improve writing skills (there are online courses and conferences, too). Chasing a publishing contract comes at the end of a long journey.

Some people believe that writings for children can be about anything, written any kind of way, not necessarily of high quality. If anything, works for children should be of the highest quality.

2. Write a good story with a fast-paced plot. Write from the child’s perspective. Action is an important part of any story, but action close to the beginning of a children’s book is a must to grab attention and keep it. A plot is important for any story or book, and one should be included in any child’s story/book. A fast-paced plot with action holds a child’s attention.

In other words, a children’s book should have well-developed characters, plot, conflict, dialogue, a climax to the conflict, and resolution – all written for the audience’s perspective and maturity level. The younger the audience, the less likely an author should have sub-plots. The real difference between a story written for children and one written for adults is the interest level, the focus, and the perspective.

I’ve read stories and books written about children, but for adults and/or from an adult’s perspective. A child’s story should be written from the child’s perspective. We need to approach our writing from the reader’s frame of reference. We need to put ourselves into the mind of a child the age of our audience.

3. Use correct grammar, spelling, sentence structure. Too many “writers” believe that they do not have to be concerned about grammar because that’s the editor’s job. Wrong. If a manuscript has grammar, spelling, or verb tense problems, whatever, most times an editor will not read much more than a paragraph at most before discarding the writing. So what do editors consider problem areas?

Avoid using all capitals. If a character shouts, show that with words and how they are said.

Then the use of exclamation points is a troublesome area in writing anything. They should be used sparingly and then only in dialogue.

Italics should usually be used to show a character’s thoughts, unless the book is written in first person.

Spelling words correctly and using the correct word are necessary. Computer spell check will find misspelled words but not homophones: their/they’re/there, to/too/two, our/hour, your/you’re, for example.

Since we don’t have time to do a complete English grammar lesson and if you’re not good with grammar and punctuation, use a good online grammar site, find a book about grammar that you find understandable, ask an English teacher. One website that is a source of easy to grasp grammar help is

4. Active voice and action verbs and show, don’t tell. Using active voice rather than passive was mentioned briefly in the handout, but action verbs need to be used more than state-of-being verbs. The stories need to have lots of action, and using active voice and action verbs helps develop action.

One way that action decreases is when a writer uses expository dialogue. Dialogue is need, in fact required, to write a good story of any kind, but it needs to move the story, the plot along. Expository uses dialogue to “tell” what is happening rather than “showing” what happens. When a character explains his actions or someone else’s actions to the reader, the author is telling, not showing. For example, if the character walks down the street muttering to himself, “I don’t know where I am. I’ve never been in this part of the city before. I think I’ll walk to the corner and turn left. Maybe I’ll see someone to ask for directions. It sure is cold tonight.” That’s expository dialogue.

But if the same scene is written as follows:

Josh looked at the unfamiliar buildings. “Where are all the people?” he asked himself. “Maybe I can find someone around the corner who can help me.” He blew on his hands, trying to warm them. “Mom told me to wear my coat. I hate it when she’s right.”

Using active voice and action verbs also helps an author show rather than tell. When reading scenes in a story, the reader should be able to see the action in his/her mind. The expository example is also an example of telling, or lecturing. The second example shows us what was happening.

Showing is good in writing. Telling, except in few instances, is not good writing.

5. Vocabulary. According to “experts,” a few challenging words in a story is fine. Picture books are often read to a young child, and the reader can explain what a word means. This increases the child’s vocabulary. Also when a child starts reading for himself, a few challenging words, especially if context can help the child understand the meaning.

However, the author should not use vocabulary that is too far above the reader’s understanding.

6. Insert humor, well-defined characters, and avoid clichés. Let’s start with humor. Making a child laugh helps build a pleasant association with reading. Therefore, where possible, a writer should use humor to help a child, especially a reluctant reader, want to read or hear more. Humor in picture books is broad and very visual. Easy readers (and some picture books for ages 6 and up) begin to introduce verbal humor. Chapter books start to work in jokes needing a setup and payoff played out over several scenes. Dialogue, how characters react to one another, or the situation in which a character finds himself, may be humorous.

Well-defined characters are a must for any story. Many children want to identify with the characters in books. No mater how the character appears on the outside, the character needs to deal with situations that the reader can relate to or understand. Book characters should be rounded, have multi-dimensional personalities, not be caricatures or one sided. They should have strengths and weaknesses as people really do so that the reader will care about them and want to finish the whole story. To make children in a story realistic, observe children the age of the characters: note how they talk, act, react.

Clichés weaken any type of writing. Using them is lazy writing and avoids showing the story in a way that the reader “sees” what is happening. The brainy boy who can never attract the pretty girl but somehow saves her is a cliché. The idea that a blond is dumb or an athlete is, both are clichés. Use originality to make a story entertaining and characters believable.

7. Story should translate into illustrations. A story for a picture book should be written with paragraphs that translates into illustrations. This idea goes along with the show, don’t tell idea, too. Only paragraphs with action can be “translated” into illustrations.

8. Morals or lessons should not be “preachy.” A writer’s job is to entertain. If a story has a message, the author should tell it through the plot and characters, not by attaching a moral at the end, or emphasizing the moral or message anywhere in the book. Be subtle, and not force the moral down readers’ throats.

9. Stories should be relevant to the age group. The text should be relevant with plot, approach, and language. Books for children don’t necessarily have a little kid in them. In fact, most children prefer characters to be a bit older than they rather than younger. The plot should be one that the reader can understand and follow without someone having to explain.

Children shouldn’t be “talked down to.” If a writer is condescending or patronizing, children will not want to read the story.

We want children to enjoy our books, not be frightened or exposed to ideas too mature for them, not should they be expected to read things that are stupid. Many children find bodily functions funny, but that doesn’t mean such functions make good topics for children’s literature.

10. The story shouldn’t be too long or wordy. Every word, every sentence should be needed for the story. Avoiding wordiness equals tight writing. If a description or narrative doesn’t move the plot along or isn’t necessary to the story, it should be deleted.. Extra words that add nothing to the story makes listening or reading boring.

Also remember, a child’s attention span depends on the child, but most the age of those listening to or reading picture books will not be interested in a long story.

11. Alliteration, meter, and rhyme must be used well or not at all. Many publishers no longer accept children’s books written in poetry or with alliteration. The reason is too many authors do not know how to use them well.

Alliteration tickles children’s ears, and they like the sounds. However, too much of even a good thing is too much.

Many who try to write stories in poetry form convolute wording to “force” a rhyme. The result is confusion for the one listening or reading.

4RVPublishing is inundated with manuscripts for picture books with the text in rhyme – very bad rhyme. It is better to write for children in prose than in bad rhyme.

12. Use talking animals carefully. Animal characters must be as well developed as a human character. They should have strengths and weaknesses, three-dimensional with quirks, failings, motivations, and personalities.

Many times a novice writer incorporates animals as characters in a story resulting in clichés: the ugly duckling that turns into a swan; shy creatures that suddenly become bold enough to save the day; apparently moral-filled stories that show it’s okay to be different.

According to, using talking animals isn’t all bad. “What’s important is that your animals have completely developed, unique personalities and characteristics.” Children will not be drawn to characters that are stereotypes, even if they are animals.

13. Use serious and/or controversial subjects appropriately. Children are bombarded with serious subjects every day, many times without understanding them. Television and video games, as well as web sites surfed, smoother kids with tragedy, even if death and violence hasn’t touched them personally. A story that introduces topics such as death and handles the subject in a realistic, sensitive way actually help children cope with the realities of the world. Often the plot of a book will open the door for parents to answer questions that disturb their children.

In one of my children’s story, the main character, Louie the Duck, doesn’t understand why Gus Goose has to live with his grandparents. Mrs. Goose tries to explain that hunters were allowed at the lake where Gus and his parents lived. Louie doesn’t completely understand, but he gets the message that hunters did something that left Gus alone.

14. Research material for a children’s book. Imagination gives some leeway in writing fiction; however, a writer needs literally to have his facts straight when writing about anything factual. False information in a children’s story is as bad, if not worse, than if in a story or book written for adults.

15. Adults should not “carry the day.” Plots need to empower the young protagonist. Of course adults are needed, and their help may be required. However, the solution shouldn’t be an adult making a miraculous save, but the character or characters solving problems.

16. Use a large dose of imagination.

17. Illustrations. An author, unless a professional quality illustrator or artist, should not try to illustrate his own book. In fact, most publishers require that one of their illustrators do the work unless the author is a professional artist.

Books by Vivian Zabel

Under the name V. Gilbert Zabel (for youngsters and teens):
The Base Stealers Club
Case of the Missing Coach took 2nd place in the North Texas Book competition
Prairie Dog Cowboy and finalist (top 3) in Heartland New Day BookFest competition (results will be known on April 9)

Under the name Vivian Gilbert Zabel:
Midnight Hours, finalist (top 3) in Heartland New Day BookFest competition (results known April 9)

Coming in 2010 – Stolen

Vivian blogs other helpful articles for writers at Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap: She is also a publisher:

Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of This Is the Place; Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered; Tracings, a chapbook of poetry; and two how to books for writers, The Frugal Book Promoter: How To Do What Your Publisher Won't and The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success. Her FRUGAL book for retailers is A Retailer’s Guide to Frugal In-Store Promotions: How To Increase Profits and Spit in the Eyes of Economic Downturns with Thrifty Events and Sales Techniques. She is also the author of the Amazon Short, "The Great First Impression Book Proposal". Some of her other blogs are, a blog where authors can recycle their favorite reviews. She also blogs at all things editing, grammar, formatting and more at The Frugal, Smart and Tuned-In Editor .

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