I recently opened up my email to find this message: “Can I get published as a children’s book author if I’m not a good writer?” I was taken aback at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I appreciated the question. The sender is aware of her limitations, but dreams of getting published anyway. She’s not suffering under the delusion that she’s the next J.K. Rowling, and I admire that. She’s going to look at her work with a critical eye, and search for ways to make it better. This is assuming that it’s possible to learn to write well. I believe that it is.
Very few writers have the natural ability to create vibrant, relevant, compelling stories right out of the gate. Most have to work at it. And those who see writing as a skill that is never quite mastered, requiring a lifelong devotion to the learning process, will be most successful. Where this gets tricky is that unlike other skills – such as making a pie – there is no foolproof way to learn how to write. So while I can’t give you a one-size-fits-all method, I can offer up some ideas on how you can find the path that works best for you.
Read, read, read. Why are editors always telling aspiring authors to read piles of children’s books? Because they give you a concrete representation of what works. Be sure you read good books (check reviews or ask a librarian or teacher for recommendations). By simply reading, you’ll grasp the ebb and flow of a story, how a character is introduced and developed, the types of conflicts appropriate for each age group, how to build tension in scenes and chapters, the relation of sub-plots to the main storyline, how dialogue moves the plot along, and much more. You’ll experience firsthand how a skilled author uses sensory images to immerse the reader completely in the story. By comparing several authors writing for the same age group, you’ll discover different literary voices.
I suggest reading books similar to those you wish to write, as well as books one level younger and one level older. So, if your plan is to write a middle grade mystery for ages 8-12, also read mysteries for ages 7-10 and 10-14. In this way, you’ll become educated about exactly what makes up a middle grade novel and how it’s different from fiction for older and younger readers. You might even learn that your story isn’t really for middle grades after all.
Another reason for reading a lot of quality books is that you need a yardstick against which to judge your own work. You’ll learn which “rules” can’t be broken and those that have more wiggle room. For example, you’ll be hard pressed to find a 60-page picture book in the stores, even by a well known author. If your picture book’s that long, you’ll have no choice but to rework the story and fit it into 32 pages. However, you can experiment with unconventional characters and unexpected viewpoints. And the older the reader, the fewer rules apply. But no matter what you do with your plot, characters or writing style, make sure you know why you’re doing it. Don’t write the story in present tense unless it needs to unfold in real time for the reader. Don’t incorporate flashbacks unless they’re vital for understanding what’s going on in the story now.
Find a system that works for you. The first step toward learning to write is figuring out the best way for you to learn. Some authors I know are very left-brained; they enjoy charts and graphs and lists. They thrive on tracking their scenes and plotting out their book on every level before they start to write. Those left-brainers will study published books and count the words per page, note which scene contains the plot’s catalyst, graph out where the tension rises and falls in each chapter. Others prefer to learn more intuitively. They read books, absorb the different writing styles, and maybe jot down a few notes with overall impressions or key points they want to remember. They have a general idea of where their own story is going, and aren’t afraid to experiment and take detours along the way.
If you don’t know where you fall on the spectrum, try different approaches and see what feels right. Remember that there is no one way of doing this, and each method has its pros and cons. Plotting out your story beforehand can prevent you from wandering off track, but the lists can become an evasive technique to keep you from actually writing the book. Letting the words spill onto the page with no grand plan feels very creative, but usually results in huge first drafts that have to be significantly trimmed and shaped. If you write long enough you’ll discover your weaknesses and devise ways to work around them. Maybe you outline first, then put it away while you write your first draft. Maybe you lay out your scenes on a plotline after each chapter, then revise as needed before moving on to the next chapter. If your dialogue tends to wander in circles before coming to the point, you’ll learn to get it on paper and then tighten it in the second draft.
Know your strengths. Some authors are brilliant nonfiction writers but can’t sell a fiction story. Others write wonderful picture books but can’t deal with the layers to a novel. Instead of trying to force a style that isn’t you, start with what you’re naturally good at. You don’t have to publish fiction to be a successful author. You may dream of writing picture books, but if you have a knack for relating to teenagers, maybe young adult novels are your future.
Discovering your strengths involves experimenting with several writing styles and age groups. If you’re not certain where to start, think about the kinds of children’s books you most like to read. Then fiddle around with writing dialogue or scenes for the same age group. If you’re naturally drawn to nonfiction, make a list of topics that excite you. Begin by writing about one of the subjects in the style of some of your favorite children’s magazines.
Practive, Practice, Practice. Over the years I’ve worked with writers who have gotten published through sheer force of will. They’ve gone over manuscripts again and again, taking them from mediocre to polished. They’ve set aside ideas that simply didn’t work and turned to something new. And they never submitted the first or second draft to an editor, because those manuscripts could always be improved. They weren’t very good writers when they began, but they learned. And you can too.
- I could have written that (writeaubreywrite.wordpress.com)
- Picture Books – What Do We Tell Children? (kathytemean.wordpress.com)
- The Write Faith (graceandfaith4u.com)