Writing SF For Kids
Is writing science fiction or fantasy for younger markets really different
than writing for adults?
Yes and No.
It's true that children's lit, especially for early readers, can follow
a simpler format than mainstream fiction.
Everything you know about writing, all the rules, guidelines and advice
you've been given before still applies. You have to establish a convincing
background, filled with characters the reader cares about, facing difficult
challenges, and rising to the occasion to resolve the plot.
And you have to do it all in less than two thousand words!
That's seven or eight pages. If you're dealing with middle grade or
YA magazines. Write for a market younger than this and expect word-counts
lower than 1000 words. Some even demand the story be complete in 300 words.
On the plus side of the equation, once you have the story firmly in
your mind, you can easily turn out a finished story in one or two writing
sessions. And the kids magazines pay very well, generally more per word
than comparable adult markets. Selling to a major children's magazine can
bring the author between 150.00 to 300.00 dollars, and some pay far in
excess of that. So, if you think you have what it takes to write for kids,
here are a few pointers.
You may be writing for kids, but you're selling to adults.
Kid's editors are every bit as savvy and professional as the editors
of any other major publication. They suffer the same strains and time constraints
as anyone else who has ever donned an editor's hat.
What does this mean? For one thing, if you are targeting ten year old
boys, your protagonist better be at least twelve. Kids won't read about
somebody younger than themselves. It also means that you should never
talk down to your audience. Don't intentionally simplify your style.
Younger readers need to be challenged just as much as older ones. More
than once I've written stories with teenagers in mind, only to have them
printed in magazines for middle graders. The point is, kids are usually
a lot smarter than we sometimes realize.
Know your market
There are hundreds of children's magazines out there, but only a few
that will be interested in any particular story. Know the niche you are
writing for. Read the guidelines. Better yet, read the magazines. Go to
the Children's Library. (Or next time you're in a doctor's office, go through
the stacks of kids mags scattered about.) Ignore the strange glances. You're
a writer. People already suspect you're insane.
Write what you know.
All right, we've all heard this one before. But with children's lit
it takes on a new perspective. Reach back into your childhood. Try to remember
how it felt to be a kid at five years old, at eleven, and again
as a teenager. Pick out specific times and instances that stand the most
clear in your memory, and try to put those same emotions into your characters.
Dead grandmother stories. Talking animals. Scary witches who turn out to
be kindly old ladies. Editors have seen them all. Try to be original.
Kids have to solve their own problems.
Just as an adult protagonist has to overcome, or be defeated by, their
own actions, so does the hero of your middle-grade adventure story. You
can still have adult characters in the piece, but your protagonist needs
to win or lose on her own merit. Period.
Don't preach. If there is a moral to the story, hide it! Kids don't
like being hit over the head with the point of your story. Neither do editors.
If you do have a point to make, be certain it fits the story, helps resolve
the crises, and is woven into the character's words and deeds. If ever
there is a place for "Show, don't tell," it's in kid's lit.
If you have only fifteen hundred words to play with, every
word has to pull it's own weight. Cut wasted dialog and unneeded descriptions.
Use strong action verbs in short, punchy sentences. (Think Hemingway, not
Dick and Jane.) Another hint: Don't waste a lot of time describing your
viewpoint character. The reader should place himself squarely in the POV's
shoes if you've done your job properly. Keep physical descriptions of them
to a minimum.
If you are writing science fiction, check your science.
You are writing for an impressionable audience, one that trusts what
they see in print. Be careful not to misinform. Besides, editors do
check the numbers.
Can kid's enjoy hard SF?
Of course they can, as long as you can hold their interest. If the
science in our fiction loses our crowd, it's our fault as writers, not
theirs. Same holds true for fantasy.
Things to avoid.
Think back to the stories and books, even the movies, that shaped your
life. Now think about the lives you may be shaping. Give kids your very
best. They deserve it.
Above all else, remember who you are writing for.