What Makes Relatable Characters?

A New Yorker article that made the rounds a while back questioned the merit of relatable characters. “The Scourge of ‘Relatability’” by Rebecca Mead is a great think piece. It goes into a brief history of the word “relatable,” takes some pot shots at Ira Glass, and completely denounces the concept of relatability as the act of readers or viewers demanding “a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.” Whoa, whoa, whoa, The New Yorker. You look a little tense. Take a seat, loosen your tie. Would you like a drink? You seem a little … peaked.

relatable characters, relatability
Young readers want relatable characters who validate their own experiences; who hold up a mirror and say, “This weird thing you’re going through? Me, too.”

I Still Believe in Relatable Characters

I’ll be the first to admit that I talk a lot about the concept of relatability as it, ahem, relates to writing fiction, especially for picture book, middle grade, and young adult readers. And no, I did not have an epiphany reading this op-ed piece about how that’s stupid and “hopelessly reductive” to advocate. I still believe that relatability is very important when targeting younger readers, because one has to take their mindset into consideration. Today’s MG and YA readers, especially, thrive on connection and are going through a lot of stuff that they don’t have the facilities or life experience to process yet. Good stuff, and negative stuff. And a lot of the time, they run into problems when they feel alone. They are bullied, they are abused at home, they feel like they have no voice, something secret gets out about them and they feel like they have no control over it, etc. etc. etc. Readers in these age groups want to read to form relationship.

Weird is Relatable

And relatability is a natural extension of wanting to capture a readership that craves connection. Do we make each character an Everyman meant to emulate and capture the widest possible audience by having the most generic (more relatable?) traits possible? No, nobody said that. I would argue that even the more quirky or odd or unsympathetic characters in fiction are relatable by virtue of how weird they are. Because we all have, at one point or another, felt like a profound freak. And even if they’re not the same kind of profound freak, we find solace in their freakishness.

One of my favorite “weird” characters is Beatrice from Natalie Standiford’s How to Say Goodbye In Robot. I have a lot in common with Beatrice and a lot absolutely not in common with her. But something about her is so damn relatable that I can’t stand it. Why? I believe it’s because the character is so specific. She feels real. A lot of detail went into her creation. She is the very opposite of the wide net Everygirl trying to be all things to all people. And yet she’s one of the most relatable characters I’ve read.

Relatable Characters Aren’t Necessarily Bland

Rebecca Mead says that relatability is a pox because it somehow demands that a work to “be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader… (who) remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her.” Again, I disagree. Those works that pander to the audience and try to grasp the loose concept of relatability might fall to this flaw.

But when Natalie Standiford was writing Beatrice, I don’t think she was coming from a place of “I have to construct this girl to appeal to all.” Writing character development, for Standiford, meant creating a quirky and TRUE character. Now, what’s true about Beatrice to you might be very different from what’s true about Beatrice to me. And that’s okay. The fact remains that there’s just so much there to choose from about this rich and complex characterization.

Instead of producing a cookie-cutter character and a one-size-fits-all book to strive for Rebecca Mead’s portrayal of relatability, Natalie Standiford created a work where relatability was a natural byproduct of a lot of tough, honest, and incredibly specific characterization and plotting. Nobody cut any corners, in fact, I bet it was harder to write someone so nuanced.

Young Readers Need Connection

Long story short, I think that PB, MG, and YA readers are precious. And if they’re anything like I was in those age groups, they are searching. They crave connection. If the idea of relatability urges writers on to write even better characters and stories for readers who will very much flourish when relating to the work, I’d say it’s an amazing thing. Let The New Yorker see the glass as half-empty, I see it as half-full of great inspiration and potential for writers.

(Also, and not to ruffle any feathers with my off-the-cuff attempt at humor, I am a damn theatre major and I think that a lot of Shakespeare sucks. It’s a rigorous mental exercise, and a lot of fun to perform, and it revolutionized the English language, and all that is fine and good, but, as a modern woman, I’m happy to leave it at that without putting it on a pedestal. I’ve read the complete works once, when I was young and full of idealism. And you know what? Ain’t nobody got time for that!)

Working on character relatability? Hire me as your novel editor and we’ll make sure you’re creating fully realized fictional people on the page.

Rhyming Picture Books and Writing in Rhyme

In my career, I’ve worked a lot with rhyming picture books. Not on my agenting list, unfortunately, since the market for rhyming picture books was (and remains) tough. Of my dozen or so picture book author clients, most were author-illustrators who could bring a unique art voice and sense of balance between text and image, the rest were prose picture book writers, and only one was writing in rhyme exclusively. Tough odds. The rhyming one did get a book deal during our work together (the absolutely charming Goodnight, Ark by Laura Sassi, illustrated by Jane Chapman), but I heard over and over again from editors that rhyming texts were tough.

rhyming picture books, writing in rhyme, rhyming children's books, picture book writing
There’s more to rhyming picture books than end rhyme. Prepare to have a good time.

Rhyming Picture Books Need Rhythm, Too

Well, let’s leave rhyming out of it and talk about rhyming’s black sheep sister for a minute: rhythm. If you want to write rhyming picture books, I would actually argue that rhythm, not rhyme, is king of the genre. Most people get so caught up in finding the right rhyme that their rhythm is all over the place and completely sinks the manuscript, almost before it gets started. Are you writing in rhyme and failing to count your syllables? Start doing this now.

The biggest mistake people writing rhyming picture books make is letting rhyme dictate story. Why does the dog have fleas? Because it has to eat cheese in order for the rhyme to work? Wrong. You’ve written yourself into a prison and you’re going to keep sacrificing the integrity of the story just to hit your rhymes. That’s not great. (Picture book structure is also a top priority, but that’s for another post.)

The second biggest mistake, as you might be able to guess, is not paying attention to rhythm. If you aren’t yet familiar with syllable counts, iambs, trochees, and all the other trappings of verse, it may be worth your while to get a high school or college poetry textbook. That’s right. A textbook. Because there is stuff to learn about rhythm that was so intricate that you quickly repressed it in the 9th grade. People have been hammering away at poetry for centuries and centuries. Give their hard work at least a cursory nod and study the poetic form before you throw your hat in the ring. (Another great resource is Rules for the Dance by Mary Oliver.)

You could have the most beautiful rhyming picture books in the world but if the read-aloud factor isn’t there, and it’s pitted like a road after winter, with starts and stops, your rhyming picture book will go flat. And if you aren’t reading your work aloud as you compose or edit, especially for rhyming picture books, what, exactly, are you doing?! That is absolutely essential, because how it sounds in your head probably isn’t how it sounds out in the air.

Ideally you compose for content (story) and cadence (rhythm). Those two come first and foremost. Only when you master rhythm can you even think about writing in rhyme.

I work with hundreds of writers a year as a picture book editor. Rhyming texts are my specialty. Let’s make beautiful music together!

Building a Portfolio Website

If you are an illustrator, I highly recommend having a simple portfolio website that you can use to display your work. When you’re querying, instead of attaching images (most editors and agents don’t accept attachments anyway), you can just send a link to your collection. Add new things, change out images in your rotation, and keep it clean, simple, and maintained. That’s about it. And if you’re not tech savvy, you may be able to hire someone via Elance (a freelance marketplace I’ve used to find web designers, or contractors in any arena, in the past) or in your circle of friends to put your image files (scans or digital creations) online. Just make sure that if you use scans, they are of high quality and taken under good lighting that’s true to your intended color scheme.

Two sites that I see a lot of illustrators gravitating to are Wix and SquareSpace. They are built to be user friendly and easy on the wallet. You can use templates provided or get someone to customize your site. These options are modern, work well across multiple platforms, and are easy to link to your other online efforts. I haven’t used either but I’m coming up on a project in my personal life and seriously considering SquareSpace because I like the design and functionality of their sites. I’ve been on WordPress for years and years, so maybe it’s time to try something new, minimal, and graphics-focused!

If all of this is very scary to you, you can just start a free Flickr account and make a gallery of your images. This is the bare minimum, and allows you to host your image and a description (I would opt for one if you can). Send links to the entire gallery in your query so that visitors can click through the whole thing instead of landing on just one image.

Many people overthink this sort of stuff because sometimes computers can be scary and the demands of building a platform seem overwhelming. Don’t let that stop you from putting up a portfolio. Hosting one online has become quite necessary these days, and agents and editors except to see several examples of your work, with different composition, subject matter, tone, palette, etc. (if possible), before they can decide if they’re interested or not.

Preaching in Picture Books: Writing Child Characters With Their Own Wisdom

Nobody wants to admit they’re preaching in picture books, but… Most people also start out wanting to write picture books and their idea has a point to it. Their child characters have to learn something. It’s usually a lesson about living that they’re eager to pass on to impressionable young minds. But writing child characters is a bit more nuanced than that, if you want to do it right.

preaching in picture books, how to write child characters, child characters, how to write picture books, picture book moral, picture book didactic, didactic writing, moral of the story, theme
Preaching in picture books is not the way to electrify impressionable young readers. Now you’ve got me preaching, too!

Even if that lesson is zany and fun and uplifting, rather than moral or serious in nature, there’s still an element of “Let’s distill some life experience for these child characters.” Even if it’s not as conscious or overt as all that, teaching is still part of the urge that draws people to writing for the youngest readers.

How to Avoid Preaching in Picture Books

There’s definitely a way to act upon these instincts and get across to these impressionable readers. Absolutely! But it’s not to preach or state your “message” aloud. Today’s market, and discerning young readers, don’t much appreciate the, “And then we all learned to share” kumbaya moment at the end of the book where everyone lives happily ever after in peaceful coexistence. Writing child characters demands more nuance than that.

Not only is it a bit Picture Book 101 to tell this kind of moralizing story, but think of your audience. You want to avoid the situation of “wise older character comes and tells the young child characters all about how life works.” Kids get this all the time from parents, grandparents, teachers, older siblings, pastors, babysitters, etc. They receive a lot of the “should” type of education.

Incorporating Message and Theme in a Picture Book

This way of conveying your idea also doesn’t show your child audience the utmost respect. Why? It implies (even if you didn’t mean it to, and many writers don’t!) that the kid doesn’t know all that much about much, and that it takes a wiser (usually older) character to set them straight. This takes all the power away from the kid and gives it to an adult. Again. Just like what happens all over your average 3-7 year-old’s daily life. That’s not as sympathetic to their experience.

They come to stories for maybe another way of getting information. Maybe the “message” is buried in subtext, below the surface. It arises naturally from something the character might experience or realize as they journey through the story you’ve created. Writing child characters who come up with their own wisdom via life experience is key to creating a proactive protagonist.

I urge every aspiring picture book writer to try and stretch beyond this, maybe to the point where the character realizes some things, or better yet, comes up with the solution to the problem, all by themselves. Through seeing it experienced by a relatable character, kids will interpret your meaning on a deeper and more approachable level.

Do you want to make sure your picture book manuscript is compelling without being preachy? Hire me as your picture book editor and we can convey your message without moralizing.

Nonfiction Children’s Book vs. Article

A reader wrote in over the weekend to ask about a nonfiction children’s book vs. an article:

I wrote a nonfiction article for a kids’ magazine. I sent it recently, haven’t heard back yet. Because I’m completely fascinated with the subject I wrote about, I sat down and wrote a different story on the same subject that ideally would be a nonfiction children’s picture book. I’ve sent it to just one agent a few days ago. No here’s my dilemma: I know all the “first-time rights” and “all-rights” lingo, but I’m wondering that, 1. does it apply because the mag article is different than the picture book story, and 2) in the 1-in-billion chance that the agent wants to pursue my book, do I need to jump up and shout- wait!- a magazine might publish a different-but-same-topic article I wrote. I feel like this could be potentially sticky…and I’m just wondering if there’s any justifications for my worries.

nonfiction children's book, nonfiction article
If you’ve written a nonfiction children’s book and article on the same topic, pay close attention to the text and make sure that you’re not publishing a close replica.

Nonfiction Article and Nonfiction Children’s Book: Are the Texts Close Replicas?

Rights to a book are pretty heavily connected to the text of a book. A lot of authors publish a nonfiction article in their subject area before writing a full-length book about it (and lots of people pitching nonfiction book proposals are told “This is more of an article” because there’s not enough meat in their topic/angle to support a full book).

In a nonfiction article and nonfiction children’s book scenario, you could wander into a bit of a gray area because I’m imagining that both texts will be shorter and will cover a lot of the same information–i.e.: both overview biographies or both simple explanations of a scientific principle, etc. This is where you will want to pay close attention to the text and make sure that you’re not publishing a close replica.

Strategize Your Approach

If your nonfiction article and nonfiction children’s book angles are very different, like one is an overview and one covers a much more specific area of the subject, you have nothing to worry about. But if the topics are close and lightning happens to strike twice in the form of a magazine acceptance AND a book publishing opportunity, there is nothing wrong with strategically delaying the article until you can share your concerns with an agent or editor (I cover some of this etiquette in my post about having more than one literary agent). As opposed to the book manuscript and publishing plan with your acquiring editor, the article will be a lot easier to edit in a way that still meets the magazine’s purposes.

Communicate Openly

A larger point deserves to be made here: If you have a magazine editor, agent, or book editor on the hook and they like your work or area or expertise (in the NF world especially), there is nothing wrong with communicating openly, asking thoughtful questions, or attempting to get that person to work with you if something like this should come up. Your nonfiction article editor might be perfectly willing to publish a slightly different piece or time the piece differently (delay it while negotiation is in process, run it closer to your nonfiction children’s book publication date to build momentum, etc.) in case you happen to get a book contract.

Potential Positive Career Step

The good thing about this potential scenario, of course, is that being published in various venues on a subject will help you leverage yourself as an expert on a certain topic. As you build your career, you’ll actually want to seek out these types of situations and get your name out there. I know some of these questions are stressful, but try and think of this as a potential positive, because it very easily could be!

Working on a nonfiction children’s book? Hire me as your creative nonfiction editor and I’ll help guide you through gray areas like this.

Having More Than One Literary Agent for Different Books

At conferences, I used to get frequent questions about having more than one literary agent. This version of that question comes from Wendy:

I am looking for an agent for my YA fantasy novel. While researching, I cross the names off my list of those agents who state that they are not looking for picture books. I do this because I also write smaller stories that would make great picture books. My question is: If and when I find an agent and he/she does not want to take on my other stories or does not believe in them as strongly as I do, do I find another agent for these works? Do authors usually have multiple agents?

having more than one literary agent, multiple literary agents
While it probably won’t come to fisticuffs, having multiple literary agents in children’s publishing could get real hairy, real fast.

It Depends on the Agency

A lot of agencies who represent you for the children’s market will want to represent ALL of your work in those categories. (Eternal point of clarification: “middle grade” is not a “genre,” it is an “audience” or “category,” same with “picture book” and “young adult.” “Fantasy” or “contemporary” are genres. This is a vital distinction to make.) When I worked at Andrea Brown, this was definitely our MO. Since we all specialized in ALL children’s categories, from picture book to young adult, we took on clients writing for multiple audiences with the full confidence that we would be able to pitch their picture books as well as their gritty YA (as long as all were done very well, of course, per this previous post about writing in different genres). When I worked at Movable Type, I also expected to be a writer’s only children’s agent because I was the only person at the agency doing children’s books.

It Boils Down to Ownership

Suppose you have multiple literary agents for a picture book, a chapter book, and a middle grade book. (This is a pie in the sky scenario that assumes you write well in all three categories, used only as an example, and extremely unlikely.) What if you are working on a picture book property with an agent and they’ve invested a lot of revision and time. You go out on submission. All the editors say, “Wow, this is great, but it should really be longer and a chapter book.” Or you’ve written a middle grade and worked on it with your MG agent, and all the editors say, “Gee, this rocks, but your voice is a bit young. Can you age it down and make it a chapter book? We’d love to see it again!” This is when having more than one literary agent can get hairy.

Who Gets Compensated?

Your picture book or middle grade agent did a lot of work on the project and therefore they have a lot invested in selling the property and earning commission on it. But if you also have a chapter book agent, they would be the agreed-upon choice for selling the chapter book side of your portfolio. Again, this is a silly example, but you can see how easily you’d slip into a gray area and pit your multiple literary agents against one another if you had separate representatives for each category.

If you write for multiple audiences, rather than having more than one literary agent, you need to seek a representative who is confident in their abilities to submit to editors in all your desired categories, and, most importantly, who LOVES YOUR WORK in each category. If they are crazy about the YA and not the PBs, but you have your heart set on writing both, it might be very difficult to walk away but it might save you some heartbreak down the line (them saying, “I just took you on for this YA and, really, I don’t know if these PBs will go anywhere.”) They might be totally correct in their assessment, but you had your heart set on being a PB author as well as a YA author, so that might leave you in a tight spot.

Having More Than One Literary Agent is Okay When…

For example, you also write adult (and you can have an adult book agent either at the same agency or a different one) or screenplays (another agent or manager there). Those divisions are much clearer than the divisions between kidlit categories. As long as all agents know about one another and each agency contract is written in such a way that permits having more than one literary agent, I don’t see that being a problem. But within children’s books–a very tiny world where all the editors usually acquire for multiple audiences and everyone knows one another–it could get really hairy, fast.

Are you ready to submit your work to agents? Hire me as your query letter editor and I’ll help you develop a strong pitch.

Picture Book Titles to Avoid

Just a quick post for my picture book readers: PB titles are an art and should be considered carefully. Of course, most book titles change on the path to publication, so what you pick may or may not be set in stone. However, there are a few things I often see in slush that you’d do best to avoid.

The first is, giving away the ending in the title. A title like Josie Finds Her Cat is not great because I’m guessing that the main action of the plot is that Josie loses her cat and looks for it. While that’s a relatable conflict for a picture book and might keep reader attention, the ending is revealed in the title–she finds the cat!–and the manuscript loses all power because the reader never feels the tension of the conflict. Imagine a movie where someone has spoiled the ending–how much do you really care about all the stakes rising throughout if you know they’re going to be overcome? Sure, as adults, we can suspend our disbelief and follow a story, even if we know how it turns out, but picture book-age kids are a little less skillful at this.

The second is, giving away the lesson. A title like Josie Learns to Share is poisonous on two counts. First, it suffers from the malaise I discussed above. The lesson is usually learned at the end, so this kind of title is a variation on a theme. Second, it makes me think that your picture book is going to be didactic and preachy. As we know, that’s one of the biggest no-nos for today’s writers. If the entire point of your book is to bludgeon a kid over the head with the message that THEY MUST SHARE, then you don’t have a picture book for today’s market. If the story and the message are so entwined together that removing one kills the other, your idea is a nonstarter. A good picture book must be a wonderful story with a message carefully and subtly imparted as a result of the character’s growth. There cannot be a wise adult swooping in to deliver a last-page message, or a kid staring at the reader and saying, hollowly, like a Sunday school manners robot, “And so I learned that sharing is caring!” Picture books have evolved past that. If I get a sense that your book is going to be didactic from the title, I will be that much less excited to read it, and so will your audience.

Browse some of the picture books being published today to see what kind of titles are on shelves, then think outside the box of what you remember picture book titles being when you were growing up.

ZOE Takes NYC!

A few days ago, I posted about the amazing ZOE GETS READY by Bethanie Deeney Murguia, out now from the Arthur A. Levine imprint of Scholastic. Well, in some very exciting news, Scholastic has chosen Zoe to decorate the window of the Scholastic headquarters flagship store in SoHo for the next month, right on Broadway in New York City.

This was something that Bethanie Murguia simply had to see for herself, so we got together to take some pictures yesterday. She also signed stock at Books of Wonder on W 18th Street, and at the Scholastic Store itself, so if you are in the area and want a signed copy of ZOE, head on down before they’re gone. We were joined for a delightful series of meetings and for dinner by Cheryl Klein, ZOE’s editor. Scholastic even made stickers that let kids dress and redress Zoe in various outfits! Those have been sent to booksellers, so I hope you see some in the wild.

The first picture is Bethanie and me in front of the window, the second is all three of us proudly showing off a copy of ZOE. What an amazing opportunity! I’m very grateful for the support of the Scholastic team, and so happy that Bethanie was able to see her work displayed with such style. A fun bit of trivia: Zoe’s closet in the window features real clothes from Stella McCartney Kids!

Happy Release: ZOE GETS READY and Bethanie Murguia!

How completely inappropriate…I am late in announcing the release day for the amazing picture book ZOE GETS READY by Bethanie Deeney Murguia, out on May 1st from Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic. It’s the story of a girl with big hopes for a day when she gets to choose her own outfit. But how can she make up her mind with so many possibilities in her closet? And just what kind of day will it be?

You can also watch the YouTube trailer for the book here:

I’m going to bring you another super cool picture of the team behind ZOE this week, but for now, get on over to your local independent bookstore and pick up your copy! If you are an online shopper, find it on Amazon or Indiebound. You can check out Bethanie’s website here. And don’t worry about falling in love with this spunky heroine and being left hanging…Scholastic will publish a follow-up ZOE book next year!

Juicing Your Story Turning Point

The story turning point for your main character is one of the most important elements in your fiction. If you can create that on your page, your audience’s involvement and investment cements forever. A lot of the time, climactic plot moments should rub up against these instances of deep personal change. When your character’s heart hardens, or softens. When one of their core defining values is broken down, or reinforced. When they make the most difficult decision of their lives. These instances are what great storytelling is made of.

story turning point, the turning point of a story
From the smallest changes of heart to the most important, I need to be able to point to the very instant on the page where your character turns a corner.

Exploit Your Story Turning Point

Sometimes, though, a change of heart just happens to a character. They don’t like someone and then, well, they wake up one day and feel differently and then the writer continues the plot from that new perspective. The only problem is, any story turning point is an Event-with-an-E. Or it deserves to be, because it has great power potential with readers. Just like you should put great care into approaching how to start a book, the turning point of a story is a hot spot that you absolutely must exploit.

The Turning Point Of A Story Should Be An Intentional Moment

From the smallest changes of heart to the most important, I need to be able to point to the very instant on the page where your character turns a corner. It will usually happen in reaction to something in your plot and be expressed mostly in Interiority (your character’s thoughts, feelings, reactions). After that, their new attitude or feeling about a person or situation will filter down and express itself in how they behave in scene and during the plot. But that moment when they see something differently has to be present.

I talk a lot more about the turning point of a story in my book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit. For now, though, do go back and examine your character’s story turning point and make sure that you’re juicing every last bit of resonance from that moment. This goes double for picture books, where you have a lot less text to work with. Sure, real kids change their minds all the time, but fictional ones need to be very strongly motivated in order for their emotional logic to make sense to the youngest readers.

Hire my developmental editing services and I’ll help you make sure that those emotional turning points are present and intentional throughout your story.