Today at the Mixed-Up Files, we are talking about craft! Specifically the hows and whys of writing for children.
With us is Lisa Rojany Buccieri, co-writer of Writing Children’s Books for Dummies, the second edition which came out this past year. During our interview, Lisa shared with us why her book is a must-have for writers starting out and establishing themselves in the children’s market today.
Welcome, Lisa! So tell us, what led you to writing the first edition of Writing Children’s Books for Dummies?
Peter Economy, a veteran Dummies book writer, was looking for a lead writer for this title and found me online through my business, Editorial Services of Los Angeles. We really connected—it was one of those immediate professional love fests—and we started working together about a month later.
What was one thing that surprised you or that you learned as a process of writing this book?
This is Writing Children’s Books for Dummies Second Edition, and it is 80% new material. What surprised me the most was that although the first edition was a thorough and absolutely useful book for beginners, over the years I had further honed my editorial skills and was able to encapsulate even more material into specific, easily digestible bits that have helped writers of both children’s and adult books improve their writing.
How is your book different from some of the other books out there on children’s writing?
Our book gives writers of different levels the whole kit and caboodle. Everything from generating story ideas and the specifics of creating every part of a good book through to the submissions process, self-publishing, e-book and digital publishing, and then marketing, including social media and traditional marketing, such as interviews like these. We even have information on the most important parts of the contract first-time writers should keep an eye out for.
Your book is chock full of information for the children’s writer, from picture book to the young adult novel. What do you think is in here that might be especially relevant for middle grade writers?
A good story is a good story. Middle-grade writers need to master the components of good storytelling and voice, humor and character development, plot and vocabulary level as much as—if not more than—writers in every other format. Middle-grade readers are persnickety, but if you catch them, they will make sure to collect every single one of your books and read them all.
I love the way you encourage writers to use “bibles” (character bibles, setting bibles, etc.). Can you explain this concept to our readers and how you think it helps writers in crafting their children’s novels?
As with any kind of building, you have to first create a solid foundation. Your main character has to be memorable; so I encourage my writers to develop and really flesh out their characters using a character bible. Knowing your characters inside and out means you can see them in your mind’s eye and allow your readers to do so as well.
If the environment will play a large part in a book (fantasy world? magical world?) I encourage the same bible building approach for environments and places. If you can create a place (realistic or otherwise) that is evocative enough to allow readers to imagine themselves there, then you have created a successful place in which to develop your characters and your story.
I also strongly urge writers to create an action outline. An action outline consists of three questions you need to ask for each chapter: 1) How does this chapter develop my main character through his or her actions / reactions? 2) How does this chapter push forward or develop the story actionwise? 3) How does this chapter contribute conflict or drama to keep the pace moving? I even use this approach when breaking down a picture book to make sure every word counts. It really keeps the writing spare and purposive.
What’s the biggest obstacle standing in the way of finishing a project?
Whenever a writer gets stuck on any part of the writing or revising process that impasse creates an opportunity for the process to come to a halt. It can be overwhelming if you do not have tools for each part of the process. And that is what we provide in Writing Children’s Books for Dummies Second Edition: breaking down the process into easily digestible parts and then providing the tools to help take control of each one of those parts.
Characters, dialogue, setting—all three need to be fleshed out bit by bit. That is why bibles are so helpful, because you can amass in one place all the details—that go into creating a well-developed character, a bit of relevant and purposeful dialogue, a bit of the setting that tells us where and when we are—and then mete them out little by little throughout the story.
One great place to develop setting is at the beginning of each new chapter.
A good rule of thumb: Data dumps of background information or setting description of more than one paragraph, maximum two at a time are not allowed.
How might this book be used by a new teacher leading a course in writing for children? What are some common mistakes you think a new teacher should try to avoid?
New teachers of writing need to follow steps that students can understand, one by one, so that they learn to build a story, show a story, not just tell a story. It’s a process that gets honed and added to over time, but never perfected. That’s why writing is as exciting as helping a child grow from an infant to an adult—you can never master the process completely, the surprises are always illuminating, and the possibilities are simply wonderful.
Any parting advice or words of encouragement for writers out there?
Keep writing. Turn off the editor when the creative juices are flowing and just let it come. You can always go back to hone and tighten. If you are going the traditional route of submitting to traditional publishing houses, make sure you have a manuscript in the wings so that you always have some new work to add to someone’s inbox—and new hope for getting yourself published.
And if you are self-publishing, make sure to get al the feedback and help you need, right through to the type and page design, so that when you make your first impression—and you only get one!—it’s a fabulous impression.
Regardless, take every opportunity to participate in writing classes and workshops, conferences and retreats—you never know which one will end up changing your writing life for the better.
Lisa Rojany Buccieri has published over 100 books, including several award-winning and bestselling titles. She has been Editorial/Publishing Director for Golden Books, Price Stern Sloan/Penguin Group USA, Intervisual Books, Gateway Learning Corp (Hooked on Phonics), and other established publishing houses. As well as spearheading four publishing startups, Lisa has simultaneously run her own successful business, Editorial Services of L.A. since 1990.Lisa loves working with new and published writers of fiction and general nonfiction for all ages, helping them make their work the best it can be. She lives with her family in Los Angeles. She may be contacted at www.EditorialServicesofLA.com.
Sheela Chari is the author of Vanished (Disney Hyperion), which was selected as a 2012 Children’s Literature Book by the Asian Pacific-American Librarian Association (APALA).