Feeling an urge, a longing, or a
passion to write for children is not enough.
Before you write anything an editor
might consider, you need to know the basics of writing - and then
some! After you have the basics under your belt, there comes voice,
plot, POV and more. And picture books, early chapter
books, rhyme - a whole other ball game, mates.
Get a head start on the craft of writing for
children, by reading the"How To" books I list below.
These all come with recommendations from writers who are happy to
let me quote their words of approval.
I still go back and look stuff up in "Writing for Children
& Teenagers,"by Lee Wyndham. It came with my ICL course
years and years ago.
Buchanan wrote on the CW list:
I still think the best book on how
to write for children specifically is Jane Yolen's "Writing
Books For Children," but it's sadly out of print. And,
of course, there's Elaine Alphin's "Creating Characters
Kids Will Love."
Some other favorites are: Ursula
Le Guin's "Steering the Craft." (or any of her
books on writing); Annie Dillard's "The Writing Life;"
Carol Bly's "The Passionate Accurate Story;" Ben
Yagoda's "The Sound on the Page;" Stephen King's
"On Writing;" E.M. Forster's "Aspects of
the Novel;" and "Aristotle's Poetics."
Martini-Petersonr recommends: Nancy Lamb's, "Crafting
Stories for Children."
also wrote: "I'm reading Nancy Lamb's book now. She was private
critique faculty member at the Big Sur conference...I thought she
was fantastic and I'm really
enjoying her book."
Thomas's: top recommendation is: "The Elements
of Style" by William Strunk, Jr., andE.B. White. Now in it's
fourth edition, it is just as valid today as it was when I first read
it in journalism school. In 105 pages, this book practices what it
preaches about concise speech.
has a few key books that helped her. She writes: "I have dog-eared
the pages, put Post-It notes all over them, highlighted them, often
in two or three colors, and even RE-HIGHLIGHTED things in them, when
the original highlighting faded."
1) A Story Is A Promise by Bill Johnson
2) How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James
3) How to Write a Damn Good Novel II by
James N. Frey
4) Beginnings, Middles, and Ends
by Nancy Kress
5) The Writer's Guide to Crafting Stories
for Children by Nancy Lamb
*Books 1-3 helped me FINALLY understand
that a story is not just plot and character, not just a bunch of exciting
things happening to a character. They helped me fully understand that
the surface plot action is merely the tool/pathway for revealing the
PREMISE of a story. Premise was what I was missing. Without that,
a story lacks soul and meaning. You can have all these exciting things
happening, but if there's no meaning, no why, what's the point.
*Books 2 and 3 also do a great job
of explaining all the story elements clearly, crisply and with good
examples. Trouble on 2 and 3, they may not be in print anymore, but
I think used copies may be around.
*Books 4 and 5 have just played off of what I
started learning in 2 and 3, deeper understandings of conflict,
character, how to actually structure a story, pace it, set up scenes
and weave all of these together.
While most of these are not "writing
for children" per se, they are invaluable to me in learning how
to write a good story, and ultimately, it's the same thing.
Miller likes:Marion Dane Bauer's "What's Your
Story." She writes: "I used this textbook in my undergraduate/graduate
writing course for children. Although it is written for young people,
the presentation -- and information makes it - in my opinion --
one of the best 'technique' books out there."
Wait writes: "My favorite book for writers is The Writer's
Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters,
by Christopher Vogler. Although the title makes it sound intimidating,
Vogler has analyzed the plots of many books and movies (most of them
readers are very familiar with) and found that in most successful
plots the hero or heroine follows the same pattern of challenges,
defeats, and final achievement. Vogler cuts through the verbose theories
in a lot of other books and gives clear structures that work in an
amazing variety of contexts. I have used plot elements from The Writer's
Journey in all of my works, both for children and adults. Highly
writes: "I don't use a "children's writing" book
per se. I read books on writing, and apply what works for writers
in general to my children's work My favorites, bar none, is: A
Passion for Narrative, by Jack Hodgkins, published by McLelland
and Stewart - he's Canadian and actually is related to a good friend
of mine His book is packed with exercises and information on writing
and craft One of the best parts of the book, for me, is that he
introduces elements of the "literary" style into his exercises
and chapters, but in an unobtrusive and simple way. He shows you,
without being pretentious or snobbishly "literary" how
to deepen and layer your work. In addition, he builds from one chapter
to the next, so that instead of exercises that are always disconnected
bits of writing, he will start you on a piece of writing and carry
that work forward through the chapters, so you can see the work
develop as you would with your own writing. There are isolated exercises,
of course, but one of the strengths of the book, in my opinion,
is that you can see how a piece will build and improve while working
on specific sections, like character or setting or dialogue.
Another one I read and reread and love - Stephen
King's "On Writing" published by Pocket Books.
I'm a King fan, so the autobiographical stuff was fascinating, all
by itself. The writing half was great. I read it and want to go
write. I like his descriptions and the way in which he talks about
the craft as a "toolbox" and what the toolbox should contain,
and what we need to know in order to master our craft. It made my
fingers itch to connect with my keyboard, which is my definition
of a successful writer's book.
Specifically kids writing books: The Writer's
Guide to Crafting Stories for Children by Nancy Lamb. Writer's
Digest Books. I rely heavily on it for putting together my
courses on children's writing. It's logically organized, easy and
engaging to read, and the exercises are terrific.
Two last ones: Bird by Bird
by Anne Lamott. It's not a "how-to" - but more a series
of meditations on writing and the writing life - and it too, makes
my fingers itch.
Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brandt.
It's out of print, now, unfortunately, but it's brought back every
once in a while. Another book on "being" a writer, as
opposed to how to write - but it also makes me want to rush off
I said that any book that makes my fingers itch
is a successful writer's book for me. That's because the *only*
way to master our craft is to practice it - and if the book makes
me go and write, then it's successful. It's all very well to do
the exercises, but to succeed in this business, you have to be passionate,
and for me that's the key - if the book I'm reading makes me want
to go off and write, then it makes me passionate. It's one I'll
read and reread and wear out so that I do go off and write and improve
(NOTE from Margot - I think Bev's last paragraph
is the best kind of writing wisdom)
Lyon wrote: "An essay by Ursula Le Guin.gave me a great deal
of help when writing my novel, The Gift Moves (Houghton Mifflin 2004)
The essay, Towards an Archaeology of the Future, appears at the beginning
of her 1985 novel, Always Coming Home. It is set in Northern California
about forty thousand years from now, and deals with how to find people
who won't be born for years upon years. Toward the end of the essay
she muses about Heinrich Schliemann, the nineteenth-century discoverer
and excavator of Troy." Excerpt follows:
"Could you hear voices, Schliemann, in the
Troy? If you did, you were crazy, too. The Trojans
had all been dead three thousand years. Which is
farther from us, farther out of reach, more silent -
the dead, or the unborn? Those whose bones lie under
the thistles and the dirt and the tombstones of the
Past, or those who slip weightless among the
molecules, dwelling where a century passes in a day,
among the fair folk, under the great, bell-curved Hill
There's no way to reach that lot by digging. They
have no bones. The only way I can think to find them,
the only archaeology that might be practical, is as
follows: You take your child or grandchild in your
arms, a young baby, not a year old yet, and go down
into the wild oats in the field below the barn. Stand
under the oak on the last slope of the hill, facing
the creek. Stand quietly. Perhaps the baby will see
something, or hear a voice, or speak to somebody
there, somebody from home."
"I had no baby to bring with
me. But I could try and lose the adult part of myself,
the part that needs to know what
comes next, the part that fits things into their order and place.
I could try to listen instead. Her words were a big help to me."
Dulemba wrote: "The Golden Book,
"Treasury of Elves and Fairies," and is my "Bible"
for illustrating picture books. It is delightfully illustrated by
Garth Williams. And "dog eared" is right! The book originally
came out in 1951 by Simon and Schuster.
The copy I have was my mother's when
she was a child. The illustrations are so lush - to this day I'm not
sure I've read all the stories. But the binding is falling apart from
staring at the illustrations too much. I attribute to it my initial
inspiration about creating children's books. So, from an illustrator's
perspective, it is definitely my "bible." Reprinted in 1999,
as far as I know it is available from Amazon.com
Harth writes: "My favorite writing book of all time
is "On Writing," by Stephen King. Every time I read it I
find a new morsel of wisdom. I've always liked Stephen King as an
author, not necessarily for his obsession with the horror genre but
for the way he can make me see, hear, smell and feel the places he
writes about. His characters are completely real and he can make even
the most bizarre situations believable. In my opinion, this is good
writing. On Writing takes a conversational, practical and humorous
approach to the technicalities of writing. It's as readable as one
of his novels. This book has already been mentioned by Bev, but it
really is my writing bible."
writes: "My two favorites are "Story Sparkers"
by Debbie Dadey and Marcia Thornton Jones, and "Creating
Characters Kids Will Love," by Elaine Marie Alphin. I couldn't
put my finger on why they were my favorites until I read Bev's comment
that a good how-to book makes your fingers itch. That's what these
books do for me. I never read more than a few pages before I'm tossing
them aside and running to my computer."
Warmflash Rosenbaum highly recommends Lee Bennett Hopkins fabulous
book called "Pass the Poetry Please." If you are
looking for a book that tells you what you might need to know before
beginning to write poetry for children, the question is answered
by many of the children's poets this author interviewed. Well worth
(mfinke at frontier dot com) me
the names of "How To" books
you would like added to this list.
top of page
First - Understand Children's Book Categories
- Publisher of Children's Book Insider (a subscription newsletter)
has compiled a list of the various categories you need to
HERE - to read the list of categories.
The following writing advice is either my
own, or gathered over many years from fellow writers or unknown
sources. If any of the original authors come to light, I would be
happy to give attribution and great praise.
critiques polish manuscripts.
my archived "Musings"
columns for step-by-step writing help.
your "Find" application
to track down the troublesome words below.
If the verb implies down, "down" is unnecessary.
*She sat down in the chair.
*She sat in the chair.
If the verb implies up, "up" is unnecessary.
*He stood up.
If the verb implies out, "out" is unnecessary.
*The cloth was spread out over the table.
*The cloth was spread over the table.
an action follows, "then" is implied.
*He aimed the gun, then fired.
*He aimed the gun and fired.
BEGAN - STARTED:
*He raised an arm and began to scrub viciously at his skin.
*He raised an arm and scrubbed viciously at his skin.
*He lifted the pen and started to
*He lifted the pen and wrote.
FELT - FEEL:
Weak words can often be replaced to create a clearer image
*The chill of the night air had little to do with the cold she felt.
*The chill of the night air had little to do with the cold swirling
Often a given if the subject of the sentence is doing one thing
and then does another.
Also note in the example, down was unneeded.
*Jessie shook her head as she gazed back down at the child.
*Jessie shook her head as she gazed at the child.
BACK - RETURNED:
Sometimes "returned" can signal going back to a previous
*He turned his attention back to the raging storm.
*He returned his attention to the raging storm.
Various methods of torture developed by his ancestors were
ACTIVE VOICE: Harrison
contemplated various methods of torture developed by his ancestors.
Often unnecessary. It's a given that
he didn't land on the chair if he landed on the floor.
*He'd land on the floor instead of the chair.
*He'd land on the floor.
Often causes wordiness
*The door to the office.
*The office door.
Seldom needed. If it's the next action,
writing it as such often eliminates the
need for the word.
*Suddenly the bull lurched forward.
*The bull lurched forward.
makes for longer, weaker sentences.
*I suppose I should be thanking you.
*I suppose I should thank you.
if the sentence conveys the information without it.
*He could see her walking toward him.
*He saw her walking toward him.
*Even better: She walked toward him.
which sentence is stronger and if "would" is needed. Sometimes
*Occasionally, he would catch her watching him.
*Occasionally, he caught her watching him.
Generally weak and should be removed when possible.
*If there are men that close--
*If men are that close--
Use only when you want to create an image of doubt.
*Harry's presence seemed to dominate the camp.
*Harry's presence dominated the camp.
WAS (and other
linking verbs): Signals a possible weak
sentence that can be punched up with
a stronger action verb.
*His only fear was--
TO BE: Another
example of wordiness.
*He needs to be scrubbing.
*He needs to scrub.
A word we all overuse; sometimes it's necessary, often it's
not. Always try the sentence
without it and see if it means the same.
word we overuse. Try some of the synonyms like merely, only.
Out Those Excess Words!*
Return to top of page
Help You Become Published -
Aim for the WOW Factor
Expose your readers to new worlds
All readers (editors & agents
included) love to learn as they read. Whenever possible, place your
action in a setting that treats your readers to a locale about which
they know very little. A dairy farm, a secret intelligence agency,
a coalmine, even another time in history are all settings that have
the potential to transport readers to new worlds. It's no secret that
the success of medical and legal thrillers is due in large part to
their "settings" (we all love to learn about the inner workings
of hospitals and courtrooms.) Readers love to learn, so choose settings
AND OUT SCENE-BUILDING
Keep things moving
Regardless of what type of manuscript
you're writing, scenes that "drag" are the kiss of death.
Often, dull scenes are the result of elaborate setups and wind-downs
-- extra commentary before and after the critical event. You often
hear successful authors and screenwriters quote the mantra, "In
late, out early." This simply means that they open their scenes
as late into the action as possible and close their scenes as early
as possible (often before the action has even concluded.) If you have
a scene that seems to drag, try trimming from the beginning and the
end rather than the middle.
SOLE DRAMATIC QUESTION
Build your foundation with a SINGLE brick
The best manuscripts have a single
dramatic question: Will Ahab catch the whale? Will the Jackal kill
his target? Will the young lawyer escape the corrupt law firm that
hired him? The twists and turns in your novel can (and should!) be
intricate, but your foundation needs to have a sole, central conflict
around which all the action revolves. A good way to test your manuscript
is to synopsize your plot in a single sentence. Can you do it?
Doling out description in bite-sized chunks
Once you've researched the "specifics"
of your novel, there is an overwhelming urge not to let any of it
go to waste. Be careful. Long dry passages of description are a turnoff
to readers and agents alike. Remember, we read novels to find out
what happens to characters (if we want to read a five-page description
of New Delhi, we buy a travel guide.) whenever possible, intersperse
your factual description with action and dialog. Better yet, have
your characters interacting with your description, that is, let your
characters see, smell, and taste your specifics.
are the 5 "C" rules for writing compelling fiction:
both you and the reader care about
something happens: crises, conflict
your character makes
tie it all together at the end
make the writing tight (don't waffle on about things that don't move
the plot forward)
Goals For Your First
Establish your major character
Focus on what is important
Character's conflict -- make this clear
Set the time frame
Hint at direction -- a good hook into the rest of the book
Checklist for Picture
The protagonist needs to be in conflict with something or someone
for the story to grip a reader. Have some problem that bothers, or
gnaws, or leads to trouble. The hero/heroine gets to solve the problem
over the course of the story. The solving is the meat in your story.
Kids like realistic fast action dialog. It brings things up
close and personal. Try for a good hook at the beginning of the story
- in the first paragraph. Get to the POINT of the story ASAP, because
young kids have short attention spans. You will not hold their attention
if the story wanders from the main point. Read lots of rhyming books
in the age you are planning to write. Ask your librarian for guidance
about what to choose.
GOOD WAY TO PLOT A STORY
Something happens to someone
this leads to making a goal
that needs a plan of action
forces try to stop the protagonist
he moves forward because there is a lot at stake
things get as bad as they can
he learns an important lesson
when he is offered the prize he had sought so hard, he has to decide
whether to take it on not
in making this final decision he satisfies a need created by something
in his past
Tesnion: The Three C's
The Clock - The Crucible - The
We've all heard of the four C's
of diamond buying, but writing suspenseful fiction has some C's of
its own. Here are three elements that your favorite authors invariably
employ in their manuscripts to infuse their stories with extra pace
Placing your action in the shadow of a ticking clock. Nothing
intensifies dramatic tension like time pressure.. a fixed window
of opportunity after which all is lost. In some genres the time
pressure literally can be a ticking bomb (a la James Bond), but
more subtle ways exist to apply time pressure. Bridges of Madison
County is a good example. In Bridges, the heroine must make a major
life decision before her family returns from vacation in three days.
(If she'd had the rest of her life to make the decision, the story
would have been dull.) Time pressure forces your characters to take
CRUCIBLE: Constraining your characters as you
apply the heat. A crucible is defined in Webster's as "an enclosed
vessel used for melting materials at high temperatures." Whenever
possible, place your characters in a crucible. Lock them in to that
when you turn up the heat, they do not have the option of running
away. In other words, tie our characters' hands and force them to
become resourceful in finding a solution to whatever challenges you
put before them. Peter Benchley created a brilliant crucible for his
characters in the final scene of Jaws. He placed them on a sinking
boat... with the radio blown out... miles from shore... the shark
closing in. Even if his characters wanted to run, they could not.
They were constrained. The ocean was their crucible.
CONTRACT: Making promises to
your reader, and then keeping them. Good writers create tension
by filling the pages of their novels with "promises" to
their readers. For example, if an author makes ominous mention of
a loaded shotgun in the closet, the reader perceives this as a contract
with the author: If I keep reading, that shotgun will be used. This
promise serves as foreshadowing and creates tension. When will the
gun be used? Against whom? Promises can work on more subtle levels
too. By describing a gathering storm outside a character's window
(and doing it in just the right way) you can promise your reader
that tough times lay ahead for this poor soul. Again tension. Remember,
though, once you make your reader a promise, you better deliver...
FOR MIDGRADE & YA
Does my setting reveal a "new world" to my readers? Does
it have the potential to teach?
IN-AND-OUT SCENE BUILDING:
Do my scenes start late and end early? Does my plot keep moving?
Can I trim excess fat from lead-ins and wrap-ups?
Is the fundamental question driving the action a simple one? Can my
plot be summed up in a single sentence?
Do I employ the three C's? Do my characters exist in the shadow of
a ticking clock? Are they constrained
by some sort of crucible? Do I make contracts with my reader... and
then follow through?
Do I know enough about my topic to write a manuscript filled with
specifics? What (specifically)
will my reader learn?
Is my background information "woven" into my story, or does
it occur in long blocks of description?
Have I reworked my manuscript many times? Have others read it and
offered criticism? Have I tightened dull scenes? Have I seasoned the
The most fun of all
Somewhere along the way, revision
got a bad reputation. Many aspiring writers dread reworking their
manuscripts and therefore don't do it. Few of these writers will ever
be published. Revision is not only absolutely crucial to the success
of your manuscripts, it can be the most enjoyable part of writing.
When you are finally ready to revise, you have already done the bulk
of the hard work; most of your ideas are in place, and all that is
left is reshuffling ideas, cutting superfluous chatter, trimming the
fat, and making all your hard work shine. Revision is like seasoning
a stew... savoring what works and spicing up what doesn't. Enjoy the
process. Remember, when this manuscript is done, you will be back
at page one of your next project.
to top of page
Want to learn how
to become a published writer?
Then study the helpful,
information offered in the websites below.
Rachelle Burk's Resources
For Children's Writers
This is a wonderful writing resource.
Great links and information for the wannabe writer
as well as the published pro. DIVE IN!
Ronsley's - SUN - Editing
and Book Design.
Jill works as a freelancer for small and medium
publishing companies and for individuals.
Many of the books she work on are children's
books, including picture books, short chapter books
and MG/YA novels. Some have won awards (such as the Benjamin
Franklin, Foreword Magazine Award, and the Dove Family
Seal of Approval). Jill also does book design for publishers,
including children's book publishers.
Finke'sWorld of Writing for Children
My Books, DOWN-UNDER Fun or WILD
US CRITTERS. My Critique Service - personal guidance
at reasonable fees. Check out Secrets of Writing For Children
for Self-Editing and great Writing Tips.
Link to "Musings," my columns
on writing for children
E-mail me - mfinke
at frontier dot com
We can chat about the writing secrets you want to learn!
Get her terrific "Nuts & Bolts & Magic Wands."
This covers children's writing from A to Z -- her style makes
learning fun. Jan is one of the CW moderators who keeps us in
line, and cools down any ruffled feathers. Jan's World of Writing
offers writing great advice and is much appreciated. Her online
Magazine gives help, interviews, and suggestions to those
who write for magazines.
A mult-published author. A wonderful resource site. Verla is a
longtime trusted, respected, and much appreciated CW member.
Purple Crayon - Harold Underdown's
For writers of children's books. His
advice, books on writing, and links to other great writing sites,
can not be beaten. Absorb the wisdom and plain facts he offers.
Also track Editorial
Staff Changes at children's book publishers.
(Children's Book Council)
A great site, full of information about writing, authors, books
They update information regularly, including editors to contact. They
have a program where you can track submissions, but it costs to join.
Beats buying the market guides every year. Writer's Market also has
a free update site. You don't have to subscribe to the magazine to
get the updates.
Digest - Home
ICL is one of the best writing courses you can take.
WD has a Newsletter with lots of great
information, and genuine writing contests.
Jon Baird offers links, helpful advice, writing news
&newsletter. Surf this site to find every
writing tool you need.
Writers and Illustrator's Market (CWIM)
CWIM - NOT A WEBSITE, yet
very helpful. BUY the current hard cover edition. This lists
publishers, their editors & their currents needs, and information
that will help you decide if a
particular publisher is right for your book.
(Society of Children's Book Writers &
They offer conferences in every
state, lots of information, plus an extremely helpful and
experienced staff and membership. Join - it is the best way for a
children's writer to spend $60.00.
of SCBWI -
A terrific bunch of dedicated and talented writers and illustrators.
They give help and support to all
who join. Of course Robin's frogs are just icing on the cake!
This is a delightfully designed site, specifically
for those who write and illustrate children's books. Helpful tutorials
for writer/illustrators, and lots of links. Coming soon is News
Leitich Smith - WEBSITE
Cynthia's Website is chock-full of helpful information
and links to other great sites. Her books
and her insights are well worth the trip to this website.
Writing for Children Center." - WEBSITE
new site has everything: from Book Reviews to Writing Classes, and
To give you a good idea of this site's quality, here's some text
from home page:
If you sign up (free), you receive the following:
"Get Your Freelance Writing
Career Off the Ground"
and "Tricks of the Trade: Learn to Write for Children."
Every weekday morning you'll also receive "The Morning
Nudge," a few words to
inspire and motivate you to get a little writing done.
Midwest Book Review - WEBSITE
offer a variety of information and Review Sites for writers and
readers of good books.
Check out their terrific resource pages:
*Online Book Reviews
*Links to Writing
Calvani's - BLOG
This is an interesting and quirky site. It offers
wolf pups, book reviews, Mayra's books, and
great articles on aspects of writing - or not writing?
PLUS: a link to the terrific book her
9 year old daughter Melisa had published.
Prochovnic's website offers a "Sign Language Workshops
for Kids." Check her links (on the left) to read about
Benefits - Workshops - Success Stories - and more.
has a neat website that offers good links and other writing information.
artist & illustrator. One click opens each
of his thumbnail pictures into a gallery of interesting and delightful
artwork. Well worth surfing.
Linda Jo Martin
offers a Weblog, Links, a NEW Homeschoolers Literary Journal,
Literature For Kids, and her Web Design site, "Klamath Design."
There is much more. Go visit: it is a trip worth taking.
wrote the book, "Publishing," about the ins-and-outs
of the publishing game today: What's it like to have a career
in book publishing? Here's an inside look at the role of writers,
literary agents, book editors, designers, and sales people in this
field. Publishing explores what each job entails, the required skills,
and some suggested preparation for each of these careers. Although
intended for a middle grade audience, this latest book in Lucent's
"Careers for the Twenty-First Century" series will also
be of value to others interested in the book publishing industry.
If you want to be a writer, check out her website's links and
April Robins offers books,
fun, many great links, and lots to interest children's writrs.