Archive for August, 2010

As a school librarian, I can’t tell you how many times people offer used, new or self-published books for the school library. For one reason or another, nine times out of ten, they are not appropriate for our collection.

Want your book’s spine facing out on the library shelves? Then listen up…


1. Enough with the anthropomorphic animals, people!

So you wrote a charming picture book about a helpful squirrel or a shy frog. Good for you. I have 3, 276 of them already. Talking animals have been done to death. Unless you’re the next H.A. Rey or Kate DiCamillo, please consider a premise with more minty freshness. Kids are tired of these books and so am I.

Talking robots or mutant woodchucks?  Now you’re talking.

2. I will throw your book across the room if you mention the phrases “learns how to…” or “teaches a lesson…”

Seriously. One whiff of GRANDMA TAKES RAINBOW KITTY TO THE DENTIST and I’m out. Kids want to read about complex characters tackling conflicts in a vivid setting. They don’t want to be taught or lectured. They want to get lost in a story and draw their own conclusions. Leave the lessons in Sunday School, please.

Didactic books are so last century. Don’t go there.

3. Your writing style reveals you don’t have a clue about your audience.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started reading a so called “children’s book” with the voice of a misty eyed eighty year old.

Gee whiz, Gramps.

If your dialogue, phrasing and plot conjure the words  “heartwarming, old fashioned fun” or “Dick and Jane antics,” you don’t know Jack about what kids are reading.

If your story would make a great hallmark movie, it’s probably not a home run for today’s market. Or my library.

4. Your writing style reveals you don’t have a clue about format or genre.

A 30,ooo word picture book? A twenty page mystery for sixth graders? Fritz the Friendly Frog, a chapter book for shy tweens?

No. No. And heck No! Maybe you chose the wrong format. Maybe your picture book is really a middle grade novel. Maybe your middle grade chapter book with an eight year old protagonist is really an early childhood picture book. Maybe your voice is not a good fit for your target audience.

Maybe no kid of any age would touch your book with a ten foot Nerf bat. Just sayin’.

5. I’ve read books written by second graders better than yours.

After reading your typo filled book with the dayglo, grainy stock photo cover, I suspect you barely have opposable thumbs.

I don’t just reject these dreadful books, I exorcise them from my library. Get thee behind me, Lulu!

6. Your books scares me. And not in a good way.

Your anime style romp with sword wielding, brimstone breathing, scripture quoting heroes in spandex? Tis’ the mark of the beast.

Your middle grade chapter book infused with colorful pejoratives and racist overtones? No thank you, you are not, in fact, this century’s Mark Twain. Kindly respect the restraining order.

Okay, before you spray the comments section with hate scented air freshener, just know I’m exaggerating. A little.

Maybe.

What turns you off a book? I’d love to know.

Hungry for more? Try these Indoor S’mores, the easy to make snack my library kids love.

Yeah, I’m still wet behind the ears when it comes to writing, but here’s what I’ve figured out:

1. Grammar only gets you so far. There’s more to writing than clusters of mechanically perfect sentences. But you must master grammar, anyway. Why would an editor or agent take on your  “diamond in the rough” if you can’t even be bothered to take care of the basics of punctuation, etc? Especially when they have their pick of marketable projects without these issues.

2. Too much description has a tranquilizing effect on the reader. Purple prose is a hallmark of bad writing. And who gives a flying fig about the pattern on the china or the silken texture of the bathrobe, anyway? Only describe stuff that matters, stuff that the reader really needs to know.

Sadly, you probably won’t recognize you’re doing this on your own. (At least I didn’t.) Get thee a critique partner or workshop group.

3. Dialogue tags can make or break a scene. Not everything needs a tag. Or an adverb.

4. Gestures (he winked, his eyes widened, his lips curled, etc.) are often poor substitutes for true emotion. Are there real thoughts behind those cliches? If so, share the thoughts instead of the gestures.

5. Writing fiction is less about linear action and more about heart. A constant stream of “he did this, and then this happened, and then he did this…” makes for a cold, clinical briefing. If you want to write a  story with emotional power, break up the action with interior thought, characterization and backstory.

6. Voice is not a made-up hoodoo term. It’s the distinctive flavor the author injects into the story. Great authors have it in spades, and it makes their books unforgettable. Don’t ask me how it works? I don’t know. I just know a great voice when I read it.

7. I don’t really know that much. And maybe you don’t, either. So take all the good advice and critique you can, whenever you can. It really helps.

In fact, I’m very interested in what YOU have learned so far. Please tell me about it with in the comments below.

Hungry for more?

Try this recipe for Kitchen Sink Cookies. They are chock full of distinctive flavor.