by Laura Backes, Publisher, Children's Book
Insider, the Newsletter for Children's Writers
Once youíve plotted out your book, developed the
characters and written the last word of text, the real work begins. As busy
editors are bombarded with hundreds or even thousands of submissions a year,
itís more important than ever that authors apply their own editing skills to
their manuscripts before putting them in the mail. Checking your basic
grammar and spelling are of course important, but authors need to go beyond
surface editing if their work has a chance of catching an editorís eye.
Trim, tighten, hack away.
First, second and even third
drafts of manuscripts are almost always laden with extra words and scenes.
Take a break from your book and then read it through with a fresh eye. Write
down your theme in one sentence (what the book is about, such as working
through shyness on the first day of school or showing how Thomas Edisonís
childhood experiences influenced his adult life). The plot (or progression
of facts and events in nonfiction) is your vehicle for conveying the theme
to the reader. Ask yourself if each character and scene advance the plot
toward communicating this theme. And decide at the beginning that you will
give up your precious words and finely-crafted scenes for the betterment of
the book. Pithy dialogue may be fun to read, but if it pushes your story off
track, itís just a literary dead end. Take the publishersí suggested word
limits seriously: no, you donít really need 3000 words to tell your picture
book story about Freddy the Frogís adventures in the Big Pond.
The elements of speech.
Well-crafted dialogue can be a
writerís most important tool. Dialogue is not just there to break up the
paragraphs or show that your characters know how to talk; ideally, it adds
to character development, moves the plot along and replaces sections of
narrative. Each character should sound like himself, with speech patterns
and phrasing that are unique. This is especially true with talking animal
books. I see many of these manuscripts where, if I took away the words that
identify the speakers, each character would sound exactly the same. Donít
have dialogue repeat the narrative and vice versa; "Did you hear that?
Someoneís at the door!" does not have to be preceded by "They heard a sound
at the door."
Show donít tell.
How many times have you heard this?
Itís still true. Comb through your manuscript for sentences that tell the
reader how a character felt (Sara was sad) and replace with sensory
descriptions (Hot tears sprang to Saraís eyes and rolled down her cheeks.)
Avoid telling the reader what to think about the story (Jason foolishly
decided to trust Mike one more time.) Instead, present your characterís
actions and decisions to the reader, and let the reader draw his or her own
conclusions (incidentally, this is how you "teach" without preaching).
Wipe out passive writing.
Search for verbs preceded by
"would" (would go, would sleep, would eat) replace with the past tense
(went, slept, ate). Also look for actions that seem to happen out of thin
air. "The door was opened" is passive, because the sentence lacks a "doer."
Remember, the reader needs to visualize whatís happening in the story. "The
wind blew the door open" is better, because the action can be attributed to
something, and it puts the most important element (strong wind) at the
beginning of the sentence. Simply rearranging the words ("The door blew open
from the wind") puts emphasis on a door that wonít stay closed, making that
the subject of the sentence.
One of the best ways to make your writing
come alive for the reader is to use exact nouns, verbs, adjectives and
adverbs. One well-chosen word is always better than three vague ones.
Adjectives like big, little, cold, hot, beautiful, scary and silly; adverbs
such as quickly, slowly, loudly, and softly; and general verbs like walk,
went, stayed and ate donít draw a vivid picture for your reader. Of course,
sometimes these words are appropriate, but try as a rule choosing words that
describe specifically what you want to communicate. Words that sound and
look interesting are also a plus. Tremendous, tiny, frigid, scorching,
plodded, sauntered and gulped are more fun to read, and they each lend an
emotional overtone to the sentence (if your character gulps his food, you
donít have to tell the reader heís in a hurry).
And finally, make sure thereís a logical cause and effect
relationship between the scenes of your book. Each event should build upon
the ones that came before. The plot should spring intrinsically from your
characters; nonfiction should unfold because of the nature of your subject
and your slant on the material. Itís when everything comes seamlessly
together that you have a winning book. Make it look easy, but donít skimp on
all the hard work it takes to get there.
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
Copyright 2001, Children's Book Insider, LLC