Children’s writers are so creative! But some also make some not-so-very-good-actually-horrible mistakes in their writing. In this episode of the Writing Momentum podcast, Chris and Gena talk about some of the most common mistakes children’s writers make in their books…so you can be sure to avoid them!
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Episode 50 transcription:
[00:00:14].530] - Chris Hey, it's Christopher and Gena Maselli, and we're here talking today about children's writing because we love writing for children, and people are always asking us about stuff about writing for children. And we have talked in the last couple of episodes about all the kinds of things you can write as a children's book, where we talked about the reasons why you may want to write as a children's book, writers, maybe why you shouldn't also. And today we're talking about some of the mistakes that people make when writing for children. [00:00:42].720] - Gena Yeah, I think there's this misconception that writing for children is easy, that you can pretty much just throw whatever you want on a page and it works. I also think that people get so passionate about what they want to share with kids that they make this first mistake. [00:01:01].830] - Chris Yeah, the first mistake is very common. You'll see this often, and that is preaching or teaching your point to the reader. You do not want to have your picture book, your middle grade book, whatever kind of book you're writing, or even your short story be something that preaches to the child. No one wants to read material that's telling them what to do. And yet so often, we as writers, we want to tell kids what to do because we want to help them right, learn from our mistakes. And so we're like, hey, do this, don't do this. But if you write in such a way that it preaches or teaches, it's not going to be received very well. [00:01:42].740] - Gena So really what you're saying is that we need to write in such a way that children discover the truth without it looking like we're standing on a soapbox or we're shaking our finger at them, telling them what they need to do. [00:01:57].560] - Chris Yeah, that's exactly right. [00:01:58].790] - Chris And in fact, the second mistake that children's writers often make is that they have an adult solve the problem in their book. And that is something you don't want to do. You never want to have the adult solve the problem. For the most part, you want to have the child in the book or the childlike character solve their own problem. It's the same issue. If you have that main character who is an adult solving the problem and then preaching or teaching it to the child. [00:02:26].590] - Gena That does not work. And it really takes thinking about what it is that you're wanting to communicate to children. Think about what you want to communicate, and then you have to think about, okay, how can I convince the child that this is important or that this is what they need to do? Or this is how they need to think or fill in the blank, but do it in such a way that they're going to discover it and that they're going to come to the conclusion and that they're going to think that it's their idea. [00:02:57].370] - Chris I think sometimes we get in this mindset because it is like what you just said, where we're trying to convince the child and when we're in the mindset of, oh, I'm going to write something that convinces the child one way or another of what they should do. That's not the framework you want to write from. You want to tell a story more than anything. And that story can have a good theme. It can share a truth. Your story should share a truth, but that doesn't mean it has to be told to the child outright, and especially not by an adult character. [00:03:32].680] - Gena And I would even say that works not only for fiction but for nonfiction as well. [00:03:36].940] - Chris Absolutely. [00:03:37].510] - Gena So let's just take the topic of recycling. You want to convince kids that they should recycle, right? You can tell them you need to recycle. You need to recycle, you need to recycle and they're going to tune you out. They're not going to be interested. Maybe they're not going to pick up your book at all. Or what could you do to solve that problem? [00:03:57].550] - Chris You could create a character. His name's Oscar. He lives in a trash can and he loves trash. And seeing his story play out is funny, and you see his character development as it does. But watching him go through that still tells that story. But it doesn't have someone come up and say, here's why you shouldn't litter. Right. Or here's why you need to recycle. And instead it's just letting the story tell itself. [00:04:26].340] - Gena And I will tag on to that, that it needs to be a good story. Yes, we are living in an age when a lot of people are wanting to they have an opinion on something that they want to convince the world about, which can be great, but it can't be true. Your story is so caught up in that message and that theme or whatever, that it's not a good interesting story, then that isn't going to work. That isn't going to capture a child's imagination or attention. But even say that for nonfiction, say you're wanting to talk about recycling. Maybe you need to tell that in a certain way so that maybe you're going to talk about the trash heaps that are around. So you're not telling kids they need to recycle, but you're showing them what that looks like when maybe we don't recycle. Or there's a lot of different angles you could go with that. But I just want to get that you can still have a message, and you should have a message, but one, your message, your story still needs to be strong and solid and your message, you don't need to hit anybody over the head with it. [00:05:35].930] - Chris No, that's right. [00:05:36].570] - Chris And the next point goes right along with that. It is. This is a horrible mistake that children's writers make all the time. You do not want to talk down to your audience. And it's easy to do when you come into it again with that mindset of, oh, I'm going to share something with a child, right? It's, oh, I'm going to talk down to them and tell them the way things should be. That's not the way you want to do it. Because if a child is reading the book, it's on their level. And so really, I think the best way to keep yourself from doing this is to start having a lot of conversations with children when you do, and you're not just telling them things, but you're just relating to them on their level, you will see that they're, first of all, very smart. They can see right through when you're trying to talk down to them. And they will engage with you when you engage with them. So don't talk down to them, but engage them instead. [00:06:31].770] - Gena And we've even talked about that before. Some of the ways I think in a previous episode, we talked about some of the ways that you can become a better writer, but especially for children. And that is really to work with kids. I think working with kids, either, even teaching writing, that's something that I do. I get to teach high schoolers writing, and it has made me a better writer, as I have had to stop and think about these techniques that I'm trying to communicate. But even working with kids in your church or in a Boy Scout troop or something along those lines, where you're working with groups of kids going to the library and helping with their children's programs and volunteering in that those are great ways to just get in their world so that you can speak to them and write to them in a stronger way. [00:07:22].720] - Chris Yeah, that's right. [00:07:23].470] - Chris I think one of the best experiences that we have had before was when we were a Sunday school class to a bunch of middle graders. And it was right when I was writing middle grade books and doing that, first of all, it helped me see the way they think and the questions they ask and the way they approach the world. And it was really eye opening. I really loved it. And that is, again, though, when you're up there teaching, you might feel compelled. Some people teach this way, right? They teach like they're talking down to them, telling them the way it is. But the kids don't receive that way. When you approach them as a friend and just sit and talk to them, to sit and listen, that really comes. [00:08:03].610] - Gena Across what it's about engagement. It's about engaging with them and really getting on their level and talking to them and seeing where they're at. And then if you're in a position where you're actually trying to teach them something, having to take those concepts and we talked about this, I believe, last time, but taking those concepts and having to break them down, it will make you a better writer in general, but also a better children's writer. [00:08:28].350] - Chris That's right. [00:08:29].730] - Chris Another horrible mistake that children's writers make is they don't write a complete story. Right? Usually this happens when they have a certain point they want to make, and so they forget that even children's books have three act structures, right? They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It's not just, hey, I'm going to get in there, share what I want you to know, and then leave. Or it's not, I'm just going to get in there and just play around forever and never get to a point. It is telling a story. So if you feel like you have challenges telling stories, learn about story structure. Learn how you can structure your book in such a way that it makes for that compelling story, beginning, middle and end. And when you do, it just makes for such a stronger book. And again, kids are smart. They can tell when a book doesn't make sense, when it doesn't keep their attention. And so they want a good story. After all, they're inundated with it day in and out anymore, aren't they? [00:09:26].760] - Gena They are. And I would say this actually goes along with one of our earlier points that you made, that we made, is that a lot of times in stories, novice or new writers will initiate a problem. They will wind the problem up, and then they'll come in and have the adult solve it, and it lops off the end. So there's not a complete three act structure. [00:09:51].670] - Chris That's right. [00:09:52].180] - Gena It lops off that end because all of a sudden, the parent or the adult comes in or the teacher and tells them the way it is and gives them the way they should be thinking and the changes they should make. And it just says, nobody cares. Nobody wants to read that. They want something satisfying. That's satisfying for the kid. [00:10:13].160] - Chris That's right. [00:10:13].650] - Gena For the reader. [00:10:14].410] - Chris We have talked in this series about how if you want to write children's books, you need to read children's books. That goes along with the horrible mistake number five, and that is how many children's writers do not engage in children's media. They don't read children's books. They don't watch children's TV shows. They don't watch cartoons. They don't watch the latest movies. I encourage you to spend time just enjoying children's media and also spend time critiquing it a bit. When I say critiquing, I don't mean that in a negative way. When you watch the next Disney movie you go and watch, ask yourself, where does act one start? Where does act two start? Where does act three start? Where is the inciting incident? What is the theme they were trying to get across? How did they build the story? How did they build the subplots? Just let that roll around in your mind while you're sitting there in your seat watching that movie, and you'll be amazed how much you learn from that experience. [00:11:12].680] - Gena I would even say, because I've seen Chris do this many times, when he knows he needs to write for a specific age group and a specific genre and he's writing a specific book. I have seen him go and find books that are in the same vein as what he's needing to write, and then I've seen him outline them. [00:11:33].470] - Chris Yeah, I do that. [00:11:34].260] - Gena We'll take another book that is similar. So if he's wanting to write for it used to be Goosebumps or he's wanting to write for American Girl or something like those. Not saying he's written for those. I'm saying if he wants to write a book like those, he would go and find those books and then he would outline them. [00:11:52].360] - Chris Yeah. [00:11:52].550] - Chris So if I know that I'm writing a book, it's an adventure book for boys, I go find three or four the better selling adventure books for boys. And then I not only read them, but I outline them as I read them. You'll be amazed at what you uncover and how actually complicated a lot of these books are. Right. They're woven very well by the time they get to that published stage. And if you can start at that point, you're going to end up with a very strong book. [00:12:18].490] - Gena And it's going to help you narrow down that learning curve, too. It's going to shorten that learning curve because you're going to see, okay, this is what my finished product needs to look like. This is what this publisher wanted, and it's just a really great exercise as well. [00:12:33].280] - Chris Yeah, that's right. [00:12:34].420] - Chris Tell you what, if you like these blunders, I've actually got about 30 of these, and I teach these in a series called Common Children's Book Blunders. You can find those on our website. Go writingmomentum.com, click on courses and you'll find Common Children's Book Blunders. It's also part of the Children's Writing Super System, and there's a lot in there. But today, let's recap. We want to talk about how the common children's five horrible mistakes children's writers make are what, Gena? [00:13:01].860] - Gena They are. Number one, preaching or teaching at the kids. Also having an adult solve the problem, talking down to the audience, remembering you're reading to primarily entertain as well as educate. But that's your audience. Not writing a complete story, not really understanding story structure, and also not engaging in children's media and not understanding what is popular. And I would even say on this last point that just because, you know, you've loved XYZ when you were a kid, you need to see what is popular now because media has changed. It has changed. [00:13:42].300] - Chris And the way they tell stories has changed. [00:13:44].320] - Chris Yes. [00:13:44].740] - Gena And how fast they tell stories. So really do your research. That's really what it comes down to. You need to do your research don't just think I loved whatever it was. So that must be what kids are writing and wanting today. Not necessarily. [00:14:01].370] - Chris Speaking of doing your research, if you have enjoyed this research that we've done and shared with you today, would you share it with someone that you know, another writer that you know? Go ahead and subscribe to this podcast. Pass it on to someone else. Rate review, subscribe, share, and we'll even give you a shout out on the podcast when you do. Until next time, we enjoy this time together. And remember, together we have Writing Momentum. [00:14:25].420] - Chris Bye bye.