Inspired by Broadway personality Seth Rudetsky's extraordinary "Seth Rudetsky Reveals the 5 WORST Audition Mistakes," I humbly offer my own List of Dreaded Errors you should try to avoid in your children's or YA manuscript.
#1. NOTHING AT STAKE FOR THE READER This is a BIGGIE, because readers, and maybe even your editor, will forgive a multitude of sins if you’ve got this one working. Is there something in your story we’re rooting for? A character we care about whose situation we can relate to? Don’t give us a kid who has a lot of things to say about his life, his parents, his school, his crush, but doesn’t have any problem that pulls us through your book.
#2. THE VOICE IS TOO YOUNG, OR TOO OLD, FOR THE AGE OF KID YOU ARE WRITING ABOUT. Think carefully about what your character would notice at his or her age. And please don’t try to sound cute. Deliberately misspelling something to appear childlike, or having your character say, for example, pasgetti instead of spaghetti, may cause an editor to turn off his computer and start rummaging for an Advil.
#3. TRYING TO SOUND HIP, STREET OR ETHNIC IF THAT'S JUST NOT YOUR THANG. We editors implore you to cut this one out! I’ve seen Italian mothers come out with sentences that are practically “Mama mia, that’s a spicy meatball” or an Asian kid in a lunchroom say “my grandfather says, reading enriches a man, conversation makes a man shrewd.” Really? A kid in the school cafeteria would say that?
Today this mistake turns up most often when writers try to write in what I’ll call Black or Latino street lingo. We need diverse books, absolutely. We all agree on that. But you don’t have to try to right every wrong in your own novel. If you can’t comfortably and naturally write in a particular dialect, don’t do it.
#4. DIDACTICISM'S HEAVY HAND. This used to be the number one mistake children’s book editors saw, and it’s still very common. There’s nothing wrong with teaching if that’s the intent of your book. But, let me be clear: in fiction, your job is to tell a story. Do you pick up your favorite mystery or thriller writer because of the moral lesson or educational value you’re going to get from the book? Or do you read it to be entertained? Guess what, that’s what young readers want, too.
#5. WAITING FOR THE STORY TO START. I’ll give it maybe ten to twelve pages, but if you’re setting up a situation and showing us character and then telling us about the town your story takes place in and nothing has happened, I’m out. Editors often refer to this as the infodump at the beginning of the book. Take a look at Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. The author does a masterful job of evoking the world that Theo lives in, but first, the book opens by showing Theo, years later, in a hotel in Amsterdam, in a lot of trouble and remembering the day, as a child, he lost his mother. So when Tartt cuts back to that day, we’re happy to read each detail because we know something big is coming.
(By the way, THE CONVERSE OF THIS TIP IS TRUE, TOO. You don’t have to grab us with too much at the beginning. I often worry that a downside of all the ten-page critique or “first pages” sessions held at conferences is that writers end up front-loading a story with too much action.)
#6 IN HISTORICAL FICTION, DESCRIBING A LOT OF STUFF YOUR CHARACTER WOULDN'T ACTUALLY NOTICE. Roger Sutton puts it this way, “There was this great article in School Library Journal by Joan Blos called ‘Bunches of Hessians’ where she talks about the various mistakes that are made in historical fiction. She said to take something from a historical novel--for example, a mother making dinner--and translate it into contemporary fiction. And then she wrote this hilarious passage about ‘Mother stood in front of the white box and carefully adjusted the black dial.’ It has to be natural to the person telling the story. They shouldn't be noticing things that only an outsider would be paying attention to.”
#7. In fantasy, sci fi, paranormal and dystopian, MAKING UP CONVENIENT RULES FOR YOUR WORLD THAT APPEAR AS THE STORY PROGRESSES. I see this most often in the genres I’ve listed, but all fiction can suffer from it. The world you are writing about has to have an internal logic or rules of its own. The reader (and editor!) can tell when you are just adding a new character/planet/magical property/suddenly appearing warring army to get yourself out of a jam.
Many years ago, I read a brilliant article on this subject by Newbery-winning author Lloyd Alexander called “The Flat-Heeled Muse.” I’ve reread it several times, and it has so much to say about good writing that I recommend it for anyone reading this blog post.
#8. CHARACTERS DESCRIBING THEMSELVES BY LOOKING IN THE MIRROR, OR IN OTHER AWKWARD SELF-REFERENCE. Everyone is tired of the mirror trick. And Literary agent Emily Mitchell offers this example of a cheat that still doesn't work: "I looked down at my jeans and light coral tank, which matched my earrings perfectly . . . "
#9. I’ll skip the most talked about picture book mistakes: rhymed verse, or too many notes for the illustrator, or overdescribing things the artwork in a book can show. Here’s a slightly more subtle point that we see all the time, THE ONE-JOKE BOOK. Perhaps you have a twist, or a surprise, which is the purpose of your story. In other words, the book is about getting young reader or listener to that punchline. Readers, that’s not a picture book text, that’s a gag.
#10. Also in picture books, what Nina Laden calls "stories that are 'Babette's Feast'- just TWO CHARACTERS TALKING, NO ACTION, NO CONFLICT." And while you're at it, avoid grandparents imparting gentle wisdom and parents or teachers who save the day with a solution your protagonist couldn't come up with on her own.
And there you have ten. But here's one more tip, from my friend Karen Riskin: TOO MANY ADVERBS, she suggested pointedly.