March 21, 2011

Dig A Pit. Fall In It.

Bob Marley put it far more rhythmically in “Small Axe,” but the image is clear: authors can create the pitfalls that cause manuscripts to stumble. Here are my Top Ten Pitfalls:

1. A character who contemplates the lesson learned (and promises to do better). Some adults want to teach kids to do the right thing. Do readers learn from watching a character struggle and grow? Sure. In the story, look for what’s at stake for the main character and what that character is experiencing in the struggle.

2. An adult character, so clever, so good-natured, so concerned that she or he takes over the story and solves the problem. In books for kids, the kids get to be the ones with the good ideas.

3. “Too” writing: too little, too cute, too cool. For instance, a little girl running as fast as her little legs can carry her. Unless the character is exceptionally smaller than peers, and that factors into the story, she’s not going to think of  herself as “little.” Or, the cute mispronunciations a boy uses or his misunderstandings of the meaning of words. Readers would be embarrassed to death if what they’re saying is thought of as “cute.”

5. Dialogue that doesn’t sound like kid-talk. More of the “too” writing: too polite, too formal, too babyish, too adult, to inform readers of backstory, plot points, things readers don’t know but the characters in the story already do know. This is actually a challenge in writing for every level, every genre.

6. An all-knowing author voice. This is something that one of the members of K.L. Going’s teen panel (see more on this in the post, “What ‘Rings True’?”) described as “a not-so-subtle reminder that it’s an adult writing the book, not a teenager narrating it.” It’s what I heard an acquiring editor term “writing from your conclusions”: we are older and wiser than we were as kids and teens; we have experienced consequences and outcomes. It’s possible to just write to the outcome, rather than develop the actions and reactions as cause-and-effect within the struggle.

7. A plot based solely on “That actually happened to me.” Not every event is a story, though a memory can be a great jumping off point. For the sake of the dramatic effects, can the author bend the facts? embellish? cut? I worked with an author who had enviable stories from her childhood, growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. They didn’t sell in the children’s marketplace, but she has a large fan base and many awards for her humorous fiction and nonfiction. Nostalgia is too weak a word to describe what she does, but there are many adult markets this kind of writing.

8. A character based on a real kid. Again, this can be great as a springboard. But authors writing about relatives, parents writing about their kids, can have trouble showing the “warts” that make for believable, memorable characters that readers can relate to.

9. Characters who have to be politically correct, worry about the rules, ask their moms everything—unless this is a personality challenge or a part of the plot. This may be one reason authors often eliminate the parents in one way or another. An Internet search of orphans as main characters turns up interesting discussions. Think Harry Potter, the Boxcar Kids, Dicey’s Song, The Secret Garden . . .

10. Characters who have to be safe, making a point of putting on their rain boots, knee pads, helmets. Not that helmets aren’t important, but readers will likely make the assumption that the characters follow these general safety rules just like they do, without thinking. This kind of writing might also be viewed as stage-direction-type description. Lest you think, however, that a very powerful book about what can happen not wearing a helmet can’t be written without it being Pitfall #1, read Mick Harte Was Here, by Barbara Park. In fact it’s a great book for showing how to teach without teaching, how to write into the struggle, because the story is Mick’s sister’s story, her struggle, her challenge, and what she’ll live with every day of her life.

With this book, another thread of an earlier discussion weaves through: In 2005, an elementary school in Fargo, ND, received a challenge for Mick Harte Was Here on the grounds that it contained language and themes not appropriate for the students. The school library retained the book.

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