The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children
Writer’s Digest Books, 2001
Last year for NaNoWriMo, The (then) Seven-Year-Old convinced me to take a break from writing historical fiction she wasn’t allowed to read, and try my hand at writing stories about rabbits she could read.
The (then) Seven-Year-Old: “And dragons, Mommyo. Your story needs dragons, rabbits, a rutabaga, and a pogo stick that has a sword hidden inside. Write me something that has all that.”
With a writing prompt like that, how could I resist?
But though the finished draft of Ebenezer Rabbit, Dragon Hunter had all the elements The (then) Seven-Year-Old had requested, I felt it was missing something. It just didn’t feel like a chapter book to me.
Try as I might, I couldn’t figure out why. So I asked The (then) Seven-Year-Old. She laughed a few times reading the draft and pointed out some typos.
I asked Daddyo. He suggested changing the name of the dragon.
I asked a writing coach. She suggested trimming it down to be a picture book.
Ebenezer Rabbit, Dragon Hunter would make a great picture book. Especially the bit where the dragon gets a rollicking case of the galloping hiccups from eating rutabaga lasagna. That scene screams to be illustrated.
But I wanted to write a chapter book. While my writing coach’s comments validated my sense that I hadn’t quite pulled it off, they didn’t really get me any closer to figuring out why.
That’s when I pulled out Nancy Lamb’s The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children.
Best writing decision I’ve made all year. There’s lots of great information in there about constructing stories for children. There’s great information in there for constructing stories, period. You should read it sometime.
In the meantime, here’s five of my favorite bits of advice:
Fix #1) Scenes aren’t short stories.
I tend to get through writing novels by thinking of them in terms of short stories. After all, that’s what a scene is, right? A short story embedded in a book? In fact, I think I wrote a writing buddy of mine something along those lines in an email earlier this year.
Boy, was I wrong. As Lamb points out, short stories have a resolution. Great scenes don’t. Ebenezer Rabbit needed to leave each scene in worse trouble than when he began.
Fix #2) Never end a story at chapter’s end. Always leave your reader dangling.
Thinking of scenes as mini-stories embedded in a book gave me the nasty habit of resolving stuff at the end of each chapter. Problem is, if I leave Ebenezer all tucked up and cozy at chapter’s end, my readers will turn off their lights and go to sleep themselves.
So much for writing that thrilling book that keeps kids reading by flashlight long after their parents think they’re in bed.
Fix #3) Everything in your book has to happen for a reason.
When you tell a story, you impose order on a set of imagined experiences. Every single one of those experiences needs to contribute to the overall pattern of your story. You can’t just give a dragon a case of the galloping hiccups because it makes for entertaining writing. His rutabaga allergy needs to drive the plot in some way.
In other words, when you construct your story, you need to think of it in terms of Cause-Event-Effect. A cause leads to an event that has an effect that becomes the cause for the next event and so on.
The only spot where you can get away with a random, unpredicted event is at the very beginning of your story, because let’s face it, something exciting needs to happen to kick that domino chain off.
Fix #4) You have two pages to hook the publisher/agent. Less than that to hook a kid.
Just the place for a random, unexpected, and thoroughly exciting event.
Fix #5) “If you catch an adjective, kill it.” Mark Twain
While you’re there, kill the adverbs too. That’s not a direct quote from Nancy Lamb’s 26 Steps to Good Writing, but it’s close. The other rules are just as memorable.
Some of them, like “never use two words when one word will do” and “never let the truth get in the way of your story” are near and dear to my heart. Others, like “eliminate all unnecessary that’s” are ones I clearly need to work on.
Bonus Tip: Serious sweeping revisions are always worth the effort.
Boy, do I have some sweeping to do. Thanks, Nancy Lamb.