But first – I want to pause and look at some common mistakes. Because these are the things you need to watch out for before you even think about sending out to agents.
The cry-baby little sister. The dysfunctional dad. There are certain stereotypes we take for granted. So think when you make decisions about every character in your novel – can they be subverted? Can you show that boys can cry too, and that dad’s can do all the housework? This goes for race, gender, sexuality, disability and pretty much everything else. Write characters, not clichés.
If you’re writing what you don’t know, get to know it.
This is becoming increasingly important in children’s fiction – and so it should. If you are writing about a character with an experience different to your own, then you need to ensure you do copious amount of research – including speaking to people who live this experience. This especially goes for anything to do with race, gender, sexuality and disability. There are things you can do to help ensure you are not portraying these lives in a way that is stereotypical or harmful. Sensitivity readers are now becoming a mainstay in children’s publishing and authors can even hire their own if they feel the need to check their facts. You should know however that no amount of research ever makes up for the real experience and you should learn from any feedback you have from readers, rather than challenge it.
Don’t let this put you off writing diversely as this is incredibly important for all children’s writers to do, whatever background they are from. But ensure you do it sensitively.
Don’t start a story where the character is waking up.
If I had a dollar for every story I have read that starts with this, I would be a very rich author. Don’t do it.
Your opening scene should grab a reader by the hand and pull them immediately into the action.
Don’t start a story with a scene that has nothing to do with the rest of the story.
Alternatively, don’t go the other way and start your story somewhere that has nothing to do with the rest of the story, just because it is more exciting than waking up.
Your opening scene should excite, but it should also introduce the reader to the world that will appear in the rest of the story. So, if you’re story is about a girl’s relationship with her mother, then don’t start your story in the middle of a fist-fight unless that very quickly turns into something to do with the mother.
Of course, this changes if you are writing fantasy where the beginning of the novel is set in the everyday world before the magic is let loose. Still here though, ensure you are spending time introducing us to the characters and situations that will be important throughout the rest of the story.
Don’t mix tenses, or POVs.
Pick one, and stick to it (flashbacks permitting!). There’s nothing worse than reading a story that switches heads or propels us back and forth in time. Try reading this article on Psychic Distance if you need more clarification.
Don’t tell us – show us (for the most part)
This is one of the biggest mistakes I see writers make – including myself. When you are trying to explain a world or situation, it can sometimes be easier to just dump that information on the page. And some of that is fine, but too much can slow action and feel amateur.
Try showing certain things within your writing whenever you can. For example, if your character is angry, have them shout, rather than putting ‘he was angry’.
Don’t rhyme for the sake of making it rhyme.
This one is particularly for the picture book writers amongst you. Rhymes are wonderful when they work, but I’ve seen writers fall into the trap of sacrificing sentence meaning to shoehorn in a rhyme.
If you are struggling to make a sentence flow because of your rhyming structure, then try something else. Or try no rhyme at all! Some of my favourite picture books don’t rhyme – it’s all about the characters and the story you are telling.
Don’t overuse adverbs and adjectives.
All new writers seem to fall into this trap. Perhaps we want to show off how beautifully we can write, so we pen long, languid sentences that dazzle and glitter with sparkly splendour.
Unfortunately, they also weigh down your words. Keep your sentences to the point and I promise that those metaphors and similes that you do scatter in, will be all the more breath-taking because of it.
Avoid clunky-sounding dialogue.
Usually this happens when we want to try and ‘show’ something and not ‘tell’ it. And we might end up with a scene a bit like this:
“Why are you so upset Billy?” Mum said.
“Because my game was cancelled again, like it was last week.”
“Do you mean when you kicked the ball over the fence and it had to be called off?”
“It wasn’t my fault. A dog came onto the pitch.”
“And we all know you’re afraid of dogs.”
This doesn’t feel very realistic, does it? That’s because people don’t tend to spend their time reiterating things they all already know. Avoid doing this in your own book – especially with parents and their children, which tends to be where the clunkiest dialogue comes into its own! Try these tips on writing realistic dialogue.
Don’t have an adult save the day.
Finally, we have the ending. There is nothing worse than rooting for a child protagonist all the way through a book, only to have a grown-up step in and save the day at the end. Children want to see themselves as having the power to change the world. Sometimes, that might mean asking for help from a grown-up, but the decision to conquer should always come from the child.