Jesse Florea has been the editor of Focus on the Family Clubhouse magazine for 12 years. Additionally, he’s co-written several books (including GROWING UP SUPER AVERAGE, THE ONE-YEAR DEVOS FOR SPORTS FANS, and THE ONE-YEAR EVERYDAY DEVOTIONS, all with Tyndale). He lives with his wife and two children in Colorado Springs.
Kids crave fun, energetic, playful storytelling, yet many manuscripts are dry, predictable, and preachy. By following these do’s and don’ts, you’ll learn how to entertain a child and catch an editor’s eye.
I had the good fortune to attend Jesse’s workshop at NCWA’s conference earlier this month. I’ve always enjoyed children’s literature and currently find myself writing for a variety of age groups. This seemed like a very relevant workshop and I wasn’t disappointed. Jesse’s talk was very lively and informational. He touched on 15 key points:
1. DO challenge kids with your writing. Explain in kid terms but don’t write down to them.
2. DO get into a child’s mind. What do they want to read? What do their parents want them to read?
3. DO work on a gripping opening. You only have 10 seconds to catch a child’s attention.
4. DO use vibrant, active verbs. Kids need action and the story to MOVE. Do not use ‘is’, ‘were’, and don’t let the story drag. ‘It’ or ‘there’ automatically drops you into passive voice. This is the first thing Jesse looks at when reading a submission.
5. DON’T go adjective crazy. One well-chosen adjective is better than five poor ones. They slow down writing.
6. DO use interesting and realistic dialogue (the second thing he looks at). Don’t use slang or “cute” language that kids use because it can become quickly outdated.
7. DO use humor. People retain 80% more of something that makes them laugh. These can range from personal experiences; extremes (like Lemony Snicket); repetition; switches (‘Freaky Friday’-like, where something becomes something it is not); exaggerations – take things to ridiculous conclusions; and word play.
8. DON’T wrap your story in a nice little bow. No “they lived happily ever after”. Kids are aware of world events and bad news. They want satisfaction tinged with dissatisfaction when they finish reading.
9. DO play by the rules. Rewrite, work through drafts, outline, do whatever is necessary. Get everything on paper first, then self-edit.
10. DO stay out of cliché-land.
11. DO leave your readers with a nugget of truth/takeaway value. We are responsible for their character development. Kids’ sense of right or wrong is generally locked in by age ten. We’re doing a service if we can help kids get their roots firmly planted in faith.
12. DO be creative – not derivative or “the Christian version of Harry Potter” – write what the Creator gave you the creativity to write.
13. DO know industry trends. Take a good idea and tweak it.
14. DO write compelling characters.
15. DO be yourself.
A few comments on the conference itself: I made the conscious effort to not pitch to any editors or agents this time around. While I have projects in various stages of completion, I felt I would be better served holding off until next year. Still, I met with Luke Hinrichs of Bethany House and Greg Johnson of WordServe Literary. Both men were very kind and generous with their responses and input. I always come away from these sessions realizing how people in the publishing industry are the same as me. We are all just people, genuinely human. At last year’s conference, my daughter had returned home from a liver transplant just as the conference was set to begin. My wife was so gracious to let me attend and it was a great event. This year was that much better. I made some wonderful new friends and learned a great deal. God’s grace has followed me as I stepped out in faith to pursue a writing career. The NCWA conference only cements the positive signs He has used to urge me forward.
Kirk Kraft lives with his wife, Patty, and four children in Marysville. He works in sales support for a local medical device manufacturer by day, and writes by night – or whenever else he can find the time. It’s a challenge with four children eight and under. He is working on a YA fantasy novel, several picture books, and essays his daughter Sarah’s liver transplant. You can read more about his family’s new “normal” at his blog, http://livingwithbiliaryatresia.blogspot.com.