A Monthly Column by Anthony D. Fredericks
Three Classic Mistakes
I was in southern Virginia as the visiting children’s author at a local elementary school. The slide show was over and it was time for questions from the audience. I responded to the usual barrage: “How long does it take to write a book?” “Have you ever written a book about dogs?” “Are you rich?” And (my favorite) “You look pretty old. How come you’re still writing children’s books?” Then, a fourth grader hit me with an unexpected question: “When you teach writing workshops, what are the three biggest mistakes you see?”
It was a great question—one I had to think about for a while. I eventually responded by telling her that I often see mistakes relating to character development, conflict resolution, and an overuse of adjectives. For the purposes of this month’s column (and as a good refresher), let’s take a look at these frequent miscues in a little more detail.
Are you perfect? No! Am I perfect? Definitely not! Are any of your friends, relatives, or colleagues perfect? Categorically no! We live in a world of imperfections, and it is those imperfections that create characters. No book character—either those in adult books or those in children’s books—is perfect. We remember characters because of their imperfectness, not because they do or say everything perfectly. That would be boring. The same holds true for your characters. Make them slightly less than perfect. Make them wild. Make them weird. Or make them all of the above.
- A boy, afraid of heights, who must climb a mountain to rescue his dog
- A rich girl who steals from the hardware store
- Three gangly brothers who attend ballet school
- A kid from “the wrong side of the tracks” who writes poetry
- A shy and withdrawn girl who is asked to give a speech to the entire school about her writing award
Memorable (and readable) characters are imperfect . . . just like you and me!
Lack of Conflict
Memorable children’s books have conflict—a challenge the main character has to solve or overcome. Here are a few examples:
- In Bridge to Terabithia (by Katherine Paterson, 1977), Jess has to come to grips with a terrible tragedy to his best friend. Only then does he understand the strength and courage his friend has given him.
- In The Great Kapok Tree (by Lynne Cherry, 1990), a man in the Amazon rain forest has to make a critical decision after all the forest animals whisper in his ear, begging him not to destroy their home.
- In If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (by Laura Numeroff, 1985), the reader must face the challenge of offering a rodent a tasty treat . . . and all the consequences that follow from that simple act.
If you just offer a “day in the life” story (boy gets up, boy goes to school, boy comes home, boy eats dinner, boy goes to bed, boy goes to sleep), you’ll seldom attract the attention of a child much less an editor. Provide your main character with a conundrum, challenge, or personal obstacle to overcome and your manuscript will, most certainly, rise to the top.
Overuse of Adjectives; Underuse of Verbs
Want to put more power into your sentences? Then eliminate most of your adjectives and concentrate on your verbs. Believe it or not, there is more power in a carefully chosen verb than there is in all the adjectives in the English language. Here’s an example of a sentence overloaded with adjectives: “He was a strong, muscular, handsome, dashing, well-groomed, and outstanding young man.” You see, the problem with this sentence is that we know so very little about this individual other than what the author has told us (telling vs. showing). The author has relied on a string of adjectives to describe this person, but has not taken the time to show us the real person he is.
On the other hand, a carefully chosen verb can add considerable power to a sentence—one that helps the reader gain a clear mental image of what is going on. For example, take the following sentence: “She walked down the street to give Candice a lesson she would never forget.” “Walked” is a weak verb—it’s ordinary in the same way that “talk,” “say,” “run,” or “move” are weak. But, substitute a potent verb in that sentence and it carries a much more powerful message. For example, “She stormed down the street, ready to give Candice a lesson she would never forget.” See the difference? You’ll also note that there is no adjective in the first part of that sentence, yet through the use of a certain verb we know quite a bit about the central character.
These admonitions have one thing in common above all: they can all be controlled by you! Each of these three mistakes is under your influence. You have the power to address all three or none at all. Take it from a “pretty old children’s author,” close attention to these issues will make a significant difference in your writing!
Tony is the author of more than 50 award-winning children’s books including A is for Anaconda: A Rainforest Alphabet (Sleeping Bear), Mountain Night, Mountain Day (Rio Nuevo), and In One Tidepool: Crabs, Snails and Salty Tails (Sourcebooks/Dawn). His latest children’s book— “All Aboard!” Starts with A—has just been released.
Thank you for this excellent advice!