Write it Right: Write a Children's Book: What's Your Idea?
Before you write your first word in a children’s book or young adult novel, you have to know what your idea is. For some, this begins with a question: What was it like to be an American sent to a prison camp simply because of your ethnic heritage? What would happen if you invented a machine that could answer any question – ANY question? What would happen if you thought your family was perfectly normal, only to discover they were actually spies from another country, or aliens from another planet? What does it mean to be an American?
An idea is a great thing, but it's not a book. No matter what idea you explore, someone else has either already explored it or is thinking about exploring it or is writing the book right now. But that's okay. Ideas are not books, and it's the book that matters most. But how do you know if your idea will be enough to base a book upon? All by itself, it's probably not. After all, the idea could probably be summed up in a few sentences and the book will be over 25 thousand words (at the minimum for kidlit novels). It begins with an idea, but you're going to need a lot more.
You’re going to need:
Characters we can care about who grow and change and come into conflict with other characters throughout the book. If we don't care, we won't read. If the characters never change, the book will be boring. If there is no conflict, the oomph of the great idea will eventually sag and grow dull and flat by the middle of the story. So you're going to have to inhabit your idea with people we want and need to watch.
A plot that feels purposeful, organized, and compelling. This can be a serious problem if your idea is about "showing" us something. If your motivation can be summed up by "I want to show kids what life was like in Colonial America" or "I want to show kids that drugs can ruin their lives" or "I want to show how to deal with bullies” then the only way to make that idea work is to then match the idea with a compelling plot that has a strong forward progression. The reader must be hanging on, wanting very much to know how this all works out, and it's through plot that we do that. Don’t let your desire to teach something with your book make you forget to have an actual book, a compelling story that grips the reader and makes him/her anxious to know how it all works out.
A sense of depth. Many stories that are motivated by an author who wants to teach something can end up feeling very surface-y. The characters will feel a little too convenient. The villains will be motivated only by their badness. And stereotypes will be the fall back method of creating the characters. Depth means that ALL your characters have honest motivations – that they are doing things for reasons that make sense to them, that feel right to them. Depth means that nothing in the plot happens because it's convenient for the author, but because the logic of the plot and the people in it demand that event.
Do you want to test your story to see how it's working in the depth department?
Make a list of every character (this might include very brief characters. You can exclude folks like the postman who just happened to say hi as he handed the main character a letter. His motivation is clear. But a character who only enters the story to slap your protagonist in the face – HE needs to have clear motivation.) Beside each person’s name, list three characteristics about them that are shown in the book (if the person is the aforementioned postman, he might not be on the page long enough for three characteristics, but I bet he's there long enough for one.) Then list every major action of the character and why they did it. If you cannot do this, then you have some flat characters. Plump them up.
Outline your plot. You've written the book, now get out your note cards and make one card for every scene. Make a list of what happens in the scene. Then take a set of cards and write out every non-scene narrative event (this is any place where you tell us stuff). In each non-scene narrative event card, list everything that's told. And how long the narrative event lasts (a paragraph? A page? Two-pages?) Now, ask yourself: what is the plot arc for this story? What are we moving towards? Which of these cards best support that arc? What reader-gripping things do all the other cards do? You may find that all your cards work toward the building plot (I know this is true when I write for kids) or you may find some of them build toward something else compelling. But you may find some of them don’t do anything except slow down time and inform the reader of educational things you think they should be told. Teach through the story. Never stop the story to teach.
So, if you've got a great idea for a book, good for you. But understand, that’s only the very beginning of the journey. It's making it to the end that counts!
You’re going to need:
- Characters we can care about
- A plot that feels purposeful, organized, and compelling.
- A sense of depth.
- To make a list of every character.
- Outline your plot.
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