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Six Steps to Make Your Children's Story Sparkle

by Laura Backes

You never thought it possible, but you've finished your children's book manuscript. You worked hard to create layered, believable characters, and the plot has an actual beginning, middle and end. Tonight, you plan to celebrate, then give your manuscript a quick run-through for spelling and punctuation errors. Tomorrow, you'll send it off to a carefully chosen editor.

Not quite. Celebrate, certainly. But then print out your manuscript, stick it in a drawer, and walk away.

Too many authors make the mistake of submitting a manuscript before it's ready. Getting the words down on paper is only the beginning. Editing those words turns that manuscript into a potential book. But you can't adequately edit a story you poured your soul into without first removing some of your ego. So get a bit of distance. Put the manuscript aside for at least a week; two weeks is better. Then, as you read through the story from start to finish, pretend that someone else wrote it.

With this first, fresh reading, examine the story as a whole. Does the main character have qualities with which your target audience can identify? Does the plot take off early in the story with an incident that raises a problem for your character? Does that character resolve this problem in a dramatic, satisfying way near the end of the book? Did you throw enough obstacles in your character's way, creating tension and forcing the reader to become emotionally invested in the story? If you answered "No" to any of these questions, you still don't have a solid working draft of your story. Go back and continue to refine your plot and main character. But if you can honestly answer "Yes," then now the real work begins. Here are six steps to help you flawlessly edit your manuscript.

1. Cut as many words as possible. Children's book writers must adhere to strict industry standards for word counts. Picture books for children up to age eight average 1000 words (though many are shorter); easy readers for ages five to nine are 50-2500 words (depending on the publisher and level of reader); chapter books (short novels for ages seven to ten) typically are 10,000-12,000 words; middle grade novels (ages eight to twelve) hover around 20,000-25,000 words, and young adult novels (ages twelve and up) weigh in at 35,000 to 45,000 words. You'll always find exceptions, but if you're a new author, don't stray too far from the norm. When writing for the younger ages especially, every word must count. Picture book writers are often tempted to add scenes and secondary characters that make the story unnecessarily complex. A good first step when editing any length of book is to go page by page and diligently cut every word, phrase, scene or character that doesn't directly contribute to the plot.

Once you've trimmed the clutter, the remaining words will be more powerful. Now you're ready for the fine-tuning. The next five steps will not only help you polish what's left, but also allow you to "show" rather than "tell" the story to your readers.

2. Begin with a bang. Your readers will stick around for the first few sentences, but if they're not hooked they'll close the book. So make those sentences count. Start your story with action, dialogue, or set the mood in a way that's so intriguing kids can't walk away. You want to begin as close as possible to the story's catalyst, that moment in which your character's life changes from ordinary to extraordinary, and the plot takes off. Let's look at some examples.

The first page Imogene's Antlers, a picture book by David Small, reads: On Thursday, when Imogene woke up, she found she had grown antlers. Imogene's untroubled reaction, reinforced by the illustrations, is just as intriguing as the antlers sprouting from her head.

Barbara Seuling's chapter book, Oh No, It's Robert, dives right into the type of conflict the main character will face: Robert Dorfman hated math. He hated it more than going to the dentist, or eating liver, or cleaning his room.

And the first chapter of Richard Peck's novel A Long Way from Chicago (ages 9-12) sets the time and place in a manner that's undeniably gripping: You wouldn't think we'd have to leave Chicago to see a dead body. We were growing up there back in the bad old days of Al Capone and Bugs Moran. Just the winter before, they'd had the St. Valentine's Day Massacre over on North Clark Street. The city had such an evil reputation that the Thompson submachine gun was better know as a "Chicago typewriter."

3. Go on a low-modifier diet. A few adjectives and adverbs are fine, but if you feel you must pack your sentences with modifiers, you're not getting the most out of your nouns and verbs. Strong verbs not only show action, they can also convey physical and emotional qualities. She went across the street only tells the reader that a character moved; adverbs are necessary to provide more information (went slowly, went quickly, went reluctantly). However, if you replace went with a more specific verb, that one word contains all the subtext you need (She trudged across the street. She scampered across the street. She stumbled across the street.)

Similarly, strong, exact nouns paint a particular picture in the reader's mind. Adjectives such as big, little, beautiful, nice, old and great are too general to be of much use. All Sam's friends thought he lived in a big, beautiful house doesn't show the reader how big, or how beautiful, Sam's house really is. Sam lived in a castle, or at least that's what his friends thought gives the reader a specific point of reference, and also shows the contrast between Sam and his friends.

4. Reveal character with descriptions. Descriptions should reveal how your protagonist operates within the setting of the story, or feels about the other characters. If the action stops cold so you can wax poetic about a sunset, then the description is more about you than your main character. You have to remain invisible -- interpret all details through the eyes of your protagonist. If your character is familiar with the book's locale, she won't remark upon the setting as if seeing it for the first time. In Sarah, Plain and Tall, Patricia MacLachlan's novel for ages 8-10, Anna muses about her prairie home in the late 19th century:

I wiped my hands on my apron and went to the window. Outside, the prairie reached out and touched the places where the sky came down. Though winter was nearly over, there were patches of snow and ice everywhere. I looked at the long dirt road that crawled across the plains, remembering the morning that Mama had died, cruel and sunny.

MacLachlan's verbs -- reached out, touched, crawled -- are gentle, reflecting Anna's love of her home. But the setting is also infused with loss. Because Anna sees more than just prairie when she looks out the window, the words embody her backstory as well as her surroundings.

Since picture books have illustrations on every page, their text contains very little description. Don't waste precious words explaining that a character has "red, curly hair" unless the nature of her hair is a crucial plot element. But precise, sensory details can enhance the visual nature of the book while adding layers to the protagonist. Grandpa was an old, wrinkled, cranky man is a description that could come from any character that happened to spend a few minutes with Grandpa. Hannah thought Grandpa looked like the lemon she had left in the sun for her science experiment: brown, shriveled, and probably just as sour is a viewpoint that can only belong to Hannah.

5. Use triple-duty dialogue. Dialogue does three things: it supplies the reader with information about the plot, it gives insight into the speaker, and it shows the relationship between all the characters in the conversation. If your dialogue sounds too lifelike, full of pointless small talk or boring lists of the day's activities, then you've cluttered the pages with conversational filler. First, whittle the dialogue down to the essence of the exchange. Then, add layers of subtext to what's left. The use of body language, tone of voice, and bits of action that break up the dialogue (slurping a soda, staring out the window) clue the reader into how the characters feel about the what's being said.

Each speaker has a distinct way of talking with unique speech patterns and phrasing. If you're forced to identify the speaker for every line of dialogue in a running conversation, then you haven't allowed your characters' personalities to seep into their banter. This is just as true for talking animals as it is for people. In Let Sleeping Dogs Lie from the "Hank the Cowdog" series by John R. Erickson (ages 8-12), Hank, the ranch's security dog, finds a dead chicken. In the following passage, speech patterns easily delineate the speakers. This dialogue jump-starts the plot, and clearly shows that Hank has a different attitude toward his job than does his sidekick Drover:

"Drover," I said after sifting the clues and analyzing the facts, "this was no ordinary murder. It's the work of some kind of fiend. And he may still be on the ranch."
"Oh my gosh! Maybe we better hide." I caught him just as he was about to run for cover. "Hold on, son, I've got some bad news. We're this ranch's first line of defense. If there's a murdering fiend on the loose, we have to catch him."
Drover shivered and rolled his eyes. "You're right about one thing."
"And what would that be, Drover?"
"It's bad news. I'm scared of murdering fiends."

6. Pace yourself properly. Picture books are written in a series of scenes, each of which can be illustrated. The average picture book is 32 pages long, but the front matter (title page, copyright page, etc.) eats up about four pages. So assume you have 28 pages for your text. Mark up your manuscript where you think the page breaks might go, or place the text on 28 separate pages, staple them together like a book, and read the story as you turn the pages. Does each page of text inspire a different illustration? Is there something that occurs every other page (a tantalizing turn of phrase, a rise in the action) that makes the child want to turn the page and see what happens next? Is the plot's resolution withheld until the end, or are the last few pages a letdown? Does the story as a whole have a satisfying rhythm that makes it easy to read aloud?

Easy readers, also heavily illustrated, are designed to be read by the child, and so the stories are conveyed through action and dialogue. Keep the pace moving. Chapter books have slightly longer paragraphs and short chapters (about four pages each), but are still heavy on the action.

Middle grade and young adult novels can contain sub-plots and more description, but in any book that has chapters, it's wise to end the chapter on an emotional note. Breaking in the middle of a tension-filled scene is a good strategy: The scratching grew louder as Jake crept down the hall. He stopped in front of the coat closet. His hand shook as he reached for the knob to open the closet door. Run! screamed a voice inside his head, but Jake's feet felt glued to the floor. Just before he touched the knob, the door slowly swung open on its own. End the chapter here, and your readers will have a hard time putting down your book and turning on the television.

Remember, you are your book's first, and most important, editor. By using these six steps, you'll whip your manuscript into shape and impress your next editor, the one who offers you a publishing contract.

Copyright © 2007 Laura Backes/Children's Book Insider, LLC
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Laura Backes is the author of Best Books for Kids Who (Think They) Hate to Read, from Prima Publishing. She's also the publisher of Children's Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children's Writers. For more information about writing children's books, including free articles, market tips, insider secrets and much more, visit Children's Book Insider's home on the web at http://write4kids.com.

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