November 25, 2013

Attention Span and Word Count

You probably know that most children have short attention spans.  When I volunteer to read in the Children's Garden at The University of Kentucky Arboretum, this becomes amazingly apparent.  Kids fidget. They wiggle. They wander.  Though they usually stay tuned in to the first book, they start to lose interest by the second.  I try to engage them in the story by bringing the book physically closer to their faces and by becoming more animated in reading.  Regardless, some still become distracted.

We should think about attention span when we write for children.  That's why Kid's Imagination Train magazine has set a limit to 500 words for fiction and nonfiction. We want kids to stay interested.  We know that while young children love to hear stories, they must not be too long. 

But...some writers like to push the limit.  They submit pieces that go well beyond the word count.  Maybe they think an editor would not notice or would not mind a piece that runs a couple of hundred words longer. However, magazine editors do notice.  They care about the length of submissions.  Some editors can't publish longer pieces—they simply do not have the space.  While KIT has the room for longer stories or articles, a piece that goes over word count has to be exceptional.  Specifically, a longer piece has to be totally engaging and fast paced.

Most publications request that word count be listed on the first page of your manuscript. So why take the chance of submitting a piece that exceeds word count?  All an editor has to do is merely glance at the length of your story before reading it and cringe or worse, send a rejection. When she sees that you've stretched the word count, she may be thinking:  what other guidelines has this author failed to observe? 

In most cases, it is in your best interest to follow the suggested word count as specified in the guidelines. Since older children are capable of longer periods of attention, word count is usually longer.  But when you write for young children, stories and articles must be short.  And this can be challenging, but not impossible. You've got to be frugal with the words you use. You must treat them as a precious component. You must make each and every word count.  When you keep your word count to a minimum, the benefit is worth it. You will succeed in keeping a young audience engrossed and actively engaged.  

November 18, 2013

The Three Steps of Editing

I’ve touched on this subject before, but it bears repeating.  Before you submit work to an editor, it should be reviewed and then edited.  When I get fiction submissions for Kid's Imagination Train that lack conflict or have so much dialogue that the plot fails to move forward, I can guarantee that the writer did not edit her work. The same goes for poetry.  If a poem lacks perfect rhyme or the meter is off, I willing to bet the piece wasn't edited. 

There are three easy steps to editing:
The first step is to read your work aloud.  Come on.  No one is looking or listening.  Read what you’ve written.  How is the pace?  Does it drag in parts or does it move along like a flowing stream?  Have you chosen the perfect words or do you stumble on a few?  Is the rhythm of a poem consistent or is it choppy?   

The second step is to find someone you trust—a good friend, a spouse, an office mate, anyone who you feel would give you an honest opinion.  Listen to what they suggest.  You don’t have to follow all of their suggestions, but at least consider them.  Try them out in a revision to see if your story or article reads better. 

The third step is making the necessary changes to improve your work.  Getting an article, story, or poem right the first time is nearly impossible.  So consider putting the manuscript aside for a few days and reading it again with fresh eyes.  Then when you return to it, tweak it.  It may take multiple drafts to come up with a piece that is ready for submission.

Reading your work aloud, having someone else proof your work, and editing your work pays off.  You’ll end up with a better story or a fabulous poem.  Failure to do so will more than likely win you a rejection.  Editors have an uncanny sense of knowing if your work has been reviewed and revised.  Don’t even think you can submit without editing.  You can't fool them.  

So why take the chance of having an editor reject your work?  If you put the time to create and write for children, then take a little more time to make it the best it can be. 

November 11, 2013


Her envelopes came once a week, addressed to Jim and Randi Mrvos—our names beautifully crafted in cursive.  Hers was the kind of penmanship that would have earned an A+ in school. Though the envelopes contained bills for the services she had provided in the care of my mother-in-law, there was something special in seeing our names so beautifully written as if an artist had painted them with a brush. 

But now…there will be no more envelopes displaying that elegant flourish and flair.  Just like that, in a blink of an eye Becky is gone.  I didn’t know her well, only through business, but she ran a top-notch service that we still heavily rely upon.  Following a routine surgery, Becky passed away two days later after contracting a deadly infection. It’s so hard to believe.  Jim and I were speechless when we learned the news. 

Why do I share this?  First of all, I share because words are powerful and can touch others emotionally. Secondly, her untimely death is a reminder to never put off anything like telling people that you love them, reading a book you’ve always wanted to read or taking a class you’ve always wanted to take.  It means writing that story, that article, that novel you’ve always said you’d write—but haven’t.  It’s up to you how you plan to do the things in your life.  But remember, there are no certainties. Ever. 

Someone else will take over the business and Jim and I will still receive weekly envelopes stuffed with a bill.  But it will be different now.  The handwriting will change. Maybe the envelopes will even be typed.  Who knows?  What I do know is that the gorgeous handwriting is forever gone—a beautiful style that only Becky could create.  

November 2, 2013

Details, details...

Stories written for children are usually rich in details.  When writers add details to describe a thing or a person, they add them for a purpose.  For instance in one of my stories, the main character wears an amethyst ring on her finger.  Notice the specific detail:  not just a ring, an amethyst ring.  As the story unfolds, we learn that this ring has significance and meaning.  It totally impacts the story. The ring is more than a pretty birthstone. 

Throwing details into a story just for the heck of it is not recommended.  Once, I received a fiction submission in which a detail was added but never mentioned again.  The story was about a kid who went on a thrilling adventure.  Before the child began her journey, the author described where she lived.  In this case, the young child lived in a very odd-shaped building.  But further reference to this detail was never made. Though probably unintentional, the author had teased readers (and editors) and forgotten that his audience would want to know more about this weird house.

The point is, if you include a particular detail in a story, you must come back to it, refer to it, or use it in some way. As Anton Chekhov is quoted, "Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.  If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.”  Other variations of his statement include: "One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off. “  And, “It's wrong to make promises you don't mean to keep."  

When writers include a detail in a story, they need to return to that detail again.  Got a story with a loaded rifle?  An odd-shaped building?  An amethyst ring?  Then, something has to happen or revolve around those things.  If not, those facts must go.  In failing to return to details, you risk letting your audience down.  Dramatic principle requires that every element in a narrative be necessary and irreplaceable, and that everything else be removed.