Episode 20: Writing KidLit 101 with Guests Victoria J. Coe and Cheryl Lawton Malone
This episode, Christy and Sharon are joined by KidLit writers and co-authors of Writing KidLit 101: A Self-Guided Course Victoria J. Coe and Cheryl Lawton Malone for an in-depth discussion about learning to write good KidLit.
Victoria J. Coe is the author of numerous books for children, including the uber-popular Fenway and Hattie series from Putnam Young Readers. A sought-after workshop presenter on POV and perspective, she created and taught a highly-regarded writing course at the Cambridge Center in Harvard Square for three years, where she first became known for the practical “Tips and Tricks” that she now regularly shares on social media. Visit her at victoriajcoe.com or online @victoriajcoe.
Cheryl Lawton Malone earned her MFA in Creative Writing for Young People from Lesley University, and went on to author acclaimed picture books, including Dario and the Whale from Albert Whitman & Co. A former teacher of Writing for Children on the college and continuing education level, Cheryl is an in-demand manuscript consultant at Grub Street Boston. She and her husband live in Newton & Martha’s Vineyard, MA. Connect with her at cheryllawtonmalone.com or on twitter or Facebook @malonelawton.
Topics Covered Include:
1. “Unleashing the Power of Series: Writing for Continuity and Growth in KidLit”
2. “Paws and Pages: Exploring the Realistic Depiction of Dogs in Children’s Literature”
3. “Crafting KidLit Magic: Essential Elements for Engaging and Effective Stories”
4. “From Debut to Success: Navigating the Competitive World of Children’s Publishing”
5. “Finding Your Voice, Finding Your Story: Insights from a Journey in KidLit”
6. “Point of View and Perspective: Shaping Characters and Expanding Young Minds in KidLit”
7. “Unlocking the Mysterious World of First Person Perspective in Picture Books”
8. “From Corporate to Creative: A Writer’s Journey into the World of Children’s Books”
9. “Decoding Categories and Genres: A Map to Writing for the KidLit Marketplace”
10. “Reading with Purpose: The Importance of Mentor Texts in Crafting Compelling KidLit”
Writing Kidlit 101: A Self-Guided Course by Victoria J. Coe and Cheryl Malone
Fenway and Hattie (Series) by Victoria J. Coe
Dario and the Whale by Cheryl Lawton Malone
Elephants Walk Together by Cheryl Lawton Malone
Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems
Dogman by Dav Pilkey
Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
Anastasia (Series) by Lois Lowry
Coaching KidLit Transcript –
Writing KidLit 101 with Guests Victoria J. Coe and Cheryl Lawton Malone
[00:00:00] Sharon Skinner: Welcome to Coaching KidLit, a podcast about writing and publishing Good KidLit.
[00:00:07] Christy Yaros: We dig into various aspects of writing craft through a KidLit lens, and provide inspiration and clear actionable items to help writers like you move forward on their KidLit writing journeys.
[00:00:19] Sharon Skinner: I’m Sharon Skinner. Author Accelerator, certified book coach and author of Speculative Fiction and KidLit, including picture books, middle grade and young adult.
[00:00:31] Christy Yaros: And I’m Christy Yaros, author accelerator, certified book coach and story editor, focusing on KidLit, including middle grade and young adult.
[00:00:41] Sharon Skinner: Hey, Christy.
[00:00:41] Christy Yaros: Hey, Sharon, how are you?
[00:00:43] Sharon Skinner: I’m good. How are things going for you?
[00:00:46] Christy Yaros: Great. It’s another guest month.
[00:00:49] Sharon Skinner: Ooh, I’m excited.
[00:00:51] Christy Yaros: Who do we have today?
[00:00:53] Sharon Skinner: Today, we have a couple of KidLit writers who have also written a book about writing KidLit, which I think that’s very meta, don’t you?
[00:01:02] Christy Yaros: Yes.
[00:01:04] Sharon Skinner: So Cheryl Malone and Victoria J. Coe are the authors of Writing KidLit 101, but they’re also KidLit writers who have written quite a few books, and I’d love to hear a little bit more from each of them about their background and their writing journeys. So take it away, Victoria and Cheryl.
[00:01:26] Victoria J. Coe: Well, thank you for having us. I’m so excited, and I know Cheryl is excited too to be on your podcast and speaking to your listeners. I’m Victoria J. Coe. I am the author of nine. So far, chapter books and middle grade novels. I have been writing for a long time. My journey is a long one. I first got the bug to write books for kids when I was a mom, reading to my own children, and particularly when they got to be a little bit older, 8, 9, 10, 11 years old.
We would read books together and some of them were books that I had enjoyed at their age and I started to realize how much of those books were still in my heart. And I started to realize that kids’ books are not just books. That they actually, if it’s a book that you love, it actually becomes part of your life.
And I started to think, You know, what could be more important than writing books for children? And so I started my journey little did I know it would take 15 years before I got my first publishing contract. But , during that time I joined SCBWI, I became part of critique groups. I took classes, I went to conferences.
I read I did everything that I possibly could do. And then after many years of, , submitting and getting lots of. Positive comments from agents and editors, but not breaking through to that next level. I decided to hire a mentor to work with me one-on-one. I had considered an MFA, but ultimately decided I really wanted the mentoring part.
So I worked one-on-one with Deborah Brody, who was the who is unfortunately no longer with us, but was the top editor at biking and founded Roaring Brook Press, but was on her own and mentoring at other M F A programs when I contacted her and she designed a program just for me based on samples of my writing that I sent her.
And we had a very intense year together. And that is what I felt made the difference. And after that I wrote my, what became my first book, Fenway and Hattie. And yeah, now nine books. Later here I am. I met Cheryl later in the 15 year journey. I would say I met her maybe year 13 or 14. But she will tell you her story too.
[00:03:45] Cheryl Malone: Yeah. Thanks so much guys for having us. We are. Thrilled to be here and thrilled to be talking to your listeners. We are very much hands-on bootstrap people in terms of where we come from. Neither one of us ha is, literary or, went to college to study literature or to write.
Although I, we’ve both been writing probably our whole lives. So I was a corporate attorney for 25 years along with raising kids. And, I have, like Victoria, I’ve always had a love for children’s books. But about at year 25 of my corporate attorney career, I kind of had, was on, on the burnout end of the career.
And I ended up taking a class, at Leslie University in Cambridge, with a professor, David Elliott, who’s a very well known, renowned picture, book author and middle grade author. And it changed everything for me. And so I did go the MFA route. I am here to tell you, you don’t need an MFA to do this. it does offer you certain benefits. It is expensive. , I was interested in getting, a fast track to. Getting to where I wanted to go, because I had already spent so much time in one career.
But, after doing the MFA at Leslie, I taught how to write children’s books at Leslie as at the college level. And, Vicky too is a teacher, at the, adult education level, of writing children’s literature. So I did that for four years. And, in the course of that, I found an agent.
I did finally get a publisher and, I have two picture books published and I have a third one coming out this year. So I’m more or less a picture book author, although I do write others. I even write adult, working on an adult murder mystery at the moment. But yeah, so we’re just, plow ahead, work hard, try, try, try again, and, we’re here to tell you try not to get discouraged.
Everyone gets discouraged, but, this is something you can do if you really want to.
[00:05:36] Sharon Skinner: I love that you said that because I have a lot of clients who do get a little discouraged, and so I have a thing that I tell them, which is patience and perseverance. Patience and perseverance. Those are your keys right now to moving forward and to getting where you wanna go. It’s the quitters who never get published.
[00:05:56] Cheryl Malone: Correct, and you just don’t know which book it’s gonna be. That’s gonna break through, that’s gonna grab an agent’s attention. Or an editor’s attention. And, that is why we wrote the book. That’s why Victoria and I came together and decided to start a company and to write a book.
We took all of our teaching experience and, after all those years, we realized, you know, there are some shortcuts. There are some ways to make the process a little easier, not that it isn’t hard, it’s hard for everybody. That is another thing to understand that even the most well-published authors have had dry spells and long periods before they get their first contract.
So, it’s just something to keep working at.
[00:06:31] Christy Yaros: So when you got together to write the book, how did you decide what to put in there?
[00:06:36] Victoria J. Coe: That’s a great question, Christy. As Cheryl mentioned, we both have taught adults at the collegiate and adult education level, separately. Even though we were, critique partners and friends for many years, we’ve actually been. Support partners and critique partners of each other for over 10 years.
And we really feel that we have similar mindsets. We both have lots of, points in common of, areas of craft that we’re very nerdy about and that we care a lot about. So this is one of the reasons we worked so well together. But neither of us is teaching at the moment. Both of us were teaching in-person classes for a number of years and.
We have all this material that we weren’t using, and last summer we talked about writing a book together. Really for all of those people that we used to see in our classes, every one of them was different, of course. But there were many different backgrounds and experiences that we kept seeing over and over again in our students.
And, we decided we wanted to teach people the craft elements that we wish that we had learned back in the beginning, and maybe our respective journeys might have been a little shorter if we had . But we also knew that the types of people who came to our classes, despite the fact that they made room in their lives to come to an in-person class, were very busy.
I mean, let’s face it, most. People who are writing KidLit have other jobs, and a lot of times have family commitments or social commitments or responsibilities. And so we wanted to, create something that was very, accessible but very practical. Something like a class that you could do at your own pace or maybe do it with a friend.
So that was how we decided to come together. Cheryl, do you wanna take it from there?
[00:08:25] Cheryl Malone: Yeah, and what we decided to put in the book is literally, based on the classes that we taught. So this idea that if you knew a few things ahead of time, you may not make quite as many mistakes, as you would if you’re just working on your own, in your own home. So. One thing that people need to understand is the marketplace, and if you’re just starting out, and you don’t have a handle on the marketplace, you’re going to spend time on stories that are just not gonna make it.
And they can be heartfelt and well-written, and you might have some disappointment. So understanding the categories, understanding the genres, understanding, not so much what’s selling, but what isn’t selling what you really shouldn’t write about today.
Maybe a little less of that. So we picked the marketplace. We picked the elements of craft that we thought would help students progress the fastest. So character, voice. Scenes settings, antagonists. We also work in critique groups and I have a manuscript consulting business, and the single biggest thing that people forget is that you need not necessarily a bad guy, but you need something to go wrong in your story or it’s not going to be a story. That’s a concept that people really don’t understand, initially. So , the topics that are in the book are all those things that we felt students needed to know first.
[00:09:48] Sharon Skinner: I say it all the time. Plot is not just a walk in the park. Yeah. You said Just now something that really resonates I know with both Christy and I, is the difference between category and genre. Because we hear people use that in a way that doesn’t really work in, KidLit.
So would you like to talk a little bit about it? Because I sing this song all the time, but I’d love to hear someone else talk about the difference between genre and category.
[00:10:15] Victoria J. Coe: Exactly category has to do with the reader. So if the reader is, , a young child, the category will probably be a picture book and, in our book we cover picture, book, middle grade, and young adult. There are other categories, of course, early reader, chapter book.
Those lines are a little bit fuzzy from publisher to publisher, as well as adult, which is a category. We find in our classes a lot of people who want to write. For young adults don’t know the difference between the category YA and adult. That’s something that I think a lot of people who wanna write YA don’t know going into it.
So genre has to do with the type of story. So whether it’s historical fiction, it’s fantasy, it’s mystery, it’s romance, it’s humor, whatever. Those are genres.
[00:11:09] Cheryl Malone: And you can even have genres, in picture books. So it behooves you to know the difference. So your picture book can be funny, it can be a mystery, it can be, a concept book, like a counting book, an alphabet book. Those are all genres.
[00:11:24] Sharon Skinner: And you said that people don’t know between YA and adult, but I also get a lot of people who come to me, through SCBWI because I’m the Regional Advisor here in Arizona and I know, that Christy hears this kind of stuff a lot. I’m writing for teens and they don’t understand the difference between YA and middle grade.
[00:11:44] Cheryl Malone: Absolutely. One of the differences between middle grade and YA is, the age group as Vicky said, the age of the reader and what they’re interested in reading in.
[00:11:55] Sharon Skinner: To push on that a little bit I know you write middle grade but you also write chapter books and you skipped over talking too deeply about early reader and chapter books in your 1 0 1 you went picture book and you focused mainly on novels, middle grade and YA.
So could you talk a little bit about that choice?
[00:12:13] Victoria J. Coe: Yeah, well the honest reason is that’s what we covered in our classes that we taught. We only did picture book, middle grade, and YA. But for practical reasons, I feel that. Chapter books and the early reader categories are so fuzzy. As I said before, they really differ from publisher to publisher, what might be considered an early reader.
And believe it or not, my editor just told me a few months ago that they’re now starting to call the younger age of middle grade chapter books. So it’s really confusing, the way that we define it in the book, because we do mention it. Is that a chapter book is very similar to middle grade in terms of the writing, but in a chapter book, it’s a simpler story.
So typically there is one plot line without subplots, and if it’s a series, a lot of times you don’t have the same type of character arc as you would in a middle grade novel. Some have no character arc. My chapter books do have character arcs, but they’re not the same as a middle grade character arc because in a middle grade character, journey, you want the character to start out in one place and end at, a different place where they’re enlightened.
They’ve grown. They’ve transformed. In a chapter book. It’s more like they just learn something. So maybe they’ve learned, not to judge people or they’ve learned, to be more, open about something or whatever, to try harder. It’s something much more basic that a younger child who’s maybe in second grade could relate to as opposed to something more complex.
[00:13:59] Christy Yaros: So one of the things that you both mentioned about writing this book. Is about knowing the marketplace . And Victoria, you had said how even yourself you came to this with the nostalgia of books that we’ve read when we were children, and they sell, but they’re not being written and sold today. And, in the book, you have a lot of really great practical writing exercises, and a lot of them do focus on reading what’s currently out there. Do you wanna talk a little bit more about the use of mentor texts?
[00:14:29] Victoria J. Coe: Absolutely. And I also just wanna back up for one second because this is exactly what Cheryl and I saw in our students, even those who were in their twenties. Let alone people who were older, maybe even already grandparents, would come to us with knowledge of the books that they read as a child.
And so that could be a generation, it could be two generations ago. And let’s face it, the topics that are covered in KidLit today are much more diverse. And different than they would have been or that they were a generation or two ago. And also they aren’t so moralistic and in teaching.
Some people think of classic children’s books from, the 1950s or sixties, and they tend to all have these heavy handed more lessons, you’re not gonna get away with that today. So that was the first thing is that, you need to be reading books that were recently published, because you need to get the idea from those mentor texts, what’s gonna fly today?
And honestly, I think that is an eye-opening experience for a lot of people who are beginning their KidLit journey because, especially in middle grade and YA, it’s like, whoa, these are topics that I would not have read about when I was 10 years old. And now they’re interesting today’s kids, and of course with YA, literally anything goes.
I mean, there is no topic that you cannot cover in YA and with picture books. The gamut of the different types of picture books that you can find in a bookstore today are so much more creative and imaginative and fresh and unusual and, all kinds of different things.
if you just think this is the kind of picture book I had read to me when I was, four years old. That’s not what’s being done today. And so we really, push the idea of mentor texts, throughout and we do this ourselves as readers, I’m constantly reading the new books that are coming out.
There’s always something you can take away if you read with that eye of I’m a lifelong learner. Oh, look at how this author, revealed backstory in a way that really worked, or how she brought the cast together at the end, to solve the problem in such a satisfying way.
So, there are all kinds of different things that you can learn from reading mentor texts.
[00:16:50] Cheryl Malone: And I would just add to that because it’s very hard to give up those old, lovable books that we grew up with. I would say that they still do have a purpose. Their storylines may not be, Contemporary enough for today’s, young reader in the category that you’re gonna be writing in, but usually the thing that’s made you remember that story is heart.
We call it heart. It’s the emotional core. There’s all kinds of names for it. And if you can read your favorites with a writer’s eye and tease out how your favorite author and your favorite book created something that you remember today, and that’s what you can apply to the story that you’re writing today.
[00:17:30] Christy Yaros: Absolutely. Same with our own memories, how we write about being children.
[00:17:35] Cheryl Malone: For that reason, all those oldies, but amazing stories are still very much a part of your library, but the actual plot lines, the actual characters, the actual endings are probably not what you’re gonna be writing about today.
[00:17:48] Christy Yaros: And, it might be painful for some of us to think about, but our readers were born in this century and we were not.
[00:17:56] Cheryl Malone: Yes, yes, it’s so true. If you just spend a few minutes with , any child who’s in the age group that you wanna write about, and if you could find out what they’re watching, what they’re listening to, what they’re dialogue sounds like you’re gonna find. Somebody very different than yourself.
And so why would that person necessarily wanna read what you read at that age?
[00:18:18] Christy Yaros: Yeah, and just to the earlier point about MFA, so I also have an MFA from Simmons. Sharon has an MA and Victoria, what you did, personal MFA, very heavy on reading. Widely. I mean, that was half of my education in my MFA was reading critically the books that were out there and a lot of current books at the time wouldn’t be considered current anymore since that was many years ago.
But, I absolutely, I love how you focused on that, and it kind of makes your book timeless too, because at any moment when someone picks that up, they can look at the most current books and still apply the exercises that you put in there.
[00:18:59] Cheryl Malone: Yeah, definitely.
[00:19:00] Sharon Skinner: And I love how you talk about the different paths because, MFA, MA, the personal mentoring, we as book coaches are trying to give that more intimate, relationship type of opportunity for people cuz what we do is part mentoring part editorial. There’s a lot going on in what we do. And we see that there are many paths to publishing for kids and writing for kids, and really, I say publishing for kids, I shouldn’t say it in that order, writing and publishing for kids because you gotta write it before you can get it published. Speaking of which, I know that Cheryl, you have a new book coming out, can you talk about that?
[00:19:39] Cheryl Malone: Sure. It’s a picture book. It’s title is Featherita. It’s about a little baby chick on the farm, the smallest chick on a farm. And needless to say, she gets into all kinds of trouble. There’s a lot of chicken puns in the book. She’s a plucky little chick, and she, gets into all kinds of trouble and I’m hoping the publisher will, be interested enough to make it a series, but you never know.
So we’ll start with one and see how it goes.
[00:20:03] Sharon Skinner: And Victoria, do you have any new books coming out?
[00:20:06] Victoria J. Coe: Yes, actually, I have a chapter book series that is, in progress. So, I have three books out in the series already. It’s called Make Way for Fenway. The first two books came out last year and the third book just came out, in April. It’s called Fenway and the Loud Mouth Bird, and the fourth book is coming out in October, and it’s called Fenway and the Great Escape.
Fenway is my character. From my middle grade series, as well as from the chapter book series, and he is a Jack Russell Terrier.
[00:20:36] Sharon Skinner: I want to jump off on that and have you talk a little bit about the difference between writing a singular book and writing series. You talked a little bit about the difference in having the character arc and things like that, but what other aspects are very different that you see?
[00:20:51] Victoria J. Coe: Yeah, so I’ve written two series, as I mentioned. So I have a four book, middle grade series and a four book chapter book series, and in my case, they star the same character. So there are a lot of things that are the same and that’s not always the way it is. So some series. The story will continue.
Like in Harry Potter for example, you’ll see there’s a large arc that continues over the seven books. And then there are series where each story stands alone, but they all feature the same characters, and we grew up with a lot of those series, right? Like Beverly, series and Anastasia, Lois Lowery series, and all of those books.
And those are still very popular today. Look at DogMan, right? Those are all standalone books, but they’re the same character. And that’s what I write, so each book can standalone and they don’t have to continue. But there’s a lot of things that are, great about writing a series.
And there’s also things that are very challenging about writing a series because you have a built-in audience after the first book, and so you need to hit all the same notes. In the other books because the reader is going to be expecting them, but. It has to be different because it can’t be the same story over and over.
So in some ways the world is already built. You already have your characters, you already have your voice. So there’s a lot of things that are, great about writing a series, but as I said, it’s challenging to not repeat yourself. So in my stories, my character is a dog and my stories are not fantastical. . I consider them realistic cuz the dog doesn’t understand, language and stuff. He doesn’t wear clothes or anything like that. He’s an actual dog. So, There’s a limit to how much I can have him, learn and grow.
But then again, he is a dog, so he does have a change in every story. So in the first story, not to spoil it, but he’s very attached to this girl Hattie. He goes from the need to protect, to the need to please. So that’s his character arc in the first book. And so in every book there’s something like that.
Then in the chapter book series, as I alluded to before, I couldn’t really do the exact same thing. But he has one goal also, Hattie has a whole storyline in all of the Fenway and Hattie books. It’s just that they’re told from his point of view and his perspective and not from hers. So her story has to be inferred.
And so in the chapter books, that’s not the case. It’s a simple story where Fenway has a goal, he wants to achieve the goal, and whether he does or he doesn’t, the story resolves. And that is the plot. And, he does learn something, but it’s not as much of a transformation and it’s not as complex as in my middle grade novels.
And in those stories, it’s the same kind of thing where each one stands alone, but they’re all the same type of story.
[00:23:47] Christy Yaros: So you just mentioned, perspective and point of view, and that is featured in your book and Sharon and I both liked the way that, the two of you talked about that in the book, and you wanna speak a little bit more about that.
[00:24:01] Victoria J. Coe: Cheryl probably has some things to say too, but I’m gonna have to jump back in because this is like my number one passion my whole life is point of view and perspective. I have been fascinated with perspective since I was a kid. And I got that through reading books and specifically reading books from animals’ perspectives because that was something I was very into.
And I didn’t think I would grow up to write a book from an animal’s perspective. It just, Came around that way, eventually, cuz honestly it is very hard to do. And so when I first started that 15 year journey, I thought, whoa, there’s no way I’m even gonna try that. but I think that it’s fascinating even for a young person to know that your own perspective isn’t the only one out there.
Let’s face it, that’s something all of us need to keep working on. And so I think reading books from other perspectives, whether it’s an animal or whether it’s a character or a person who lives in another time period than you or a different country or has a different background from you, are fascinating ways of exploring perspective.
Perspective is the way that the character or the person or the animal, experiences the world. It’s their viewpoint, it’s their way of understanding their attitudes, the way they communicate, the way they learn, the things that they notice, the things that are important to them. All of that is perspective, point of view is the way that the author chooses to tell the story, whether it’s in the first person, the second person, or the third person, right?
And then even within that, particularly in the third person, you can have. Distant, close subjective, and we cover all of those in the book. There are very nerdy differences into how you can tell a story, and that’s another thing by the way, that you can really hone in on from reading mentor texts. That’s how I learned the different types of third person perspective.
I write from the first person, point of view, which means that I’m telling the story from Fenway’s. Perspective, but I’m also telling it from his first person point of view as if I am in his head experiencing the story. All of his thoughts, his feelings, everything that he is experiencing. I the author am channeling right into that character.
A cheat sheet that, I don’t remember if we exactly said this in the book or not, Cheryl, but people can use the terms point of view and perspective interchangeably sometimes. But other times, they’re actually very distinct and the way that you can tell the difference if you wanna do a little, cheat, is if you can substitute the word opinion for what you’re trying to say, you mean perspective.
You don’t mean point of view, so I can’t say, from my point of view, children’s books are the hardest to write. No, that’s not correct. It would be, from my perspective, children’s books are the hardest to write.
[00:26:58] Sharon Skinner: That’s awesome.
[00:26:59] Cheryl Malone: Literally point of view is who is telling the story is it from inside the character’s head, close to the character or an alternative second person . Or the character talking to the audience.
And then everything else to me is perspective and viewpoint.
[00:27:13] Christy Yaros: And how does that work for you, especially with picture books? What is the difference there between that and in novels?
[00:27:19] Cheryl Malone: Picture books. I would’ve said, maybe a year or two ago, overwhelmingly, are third person close, there’s a, he, she, they. They’re typically in the past tense, was, played all that kind of stuff. There are more and more first person picture books today.
Featherita is in the first person, and I love it. I think it brings even the youngest readers closer to the story. But it does have its, limitations. So picture books typically are in third person. There’s a whole group of picture books, that are in the second person.
Mo Willems, all the wonderful pigeon don’t drive the bus. And a lot of the meta fiction picture books are in the second person where the, author. And or the character are talking to the audience directly asking them to participate in the story. So everything goes is what is in picture books as well as middle grade, as well as novels.
[00:28:18] Christy Yaros: And with Elephants Walk Together what is that?
[00:28:20] Cheryl Malone: Yeah. So that’s actually a little unique. And so the. Same with Dario and the Whale, which is my first picture book. I actually used, omnipresent, which is like unheard of, nobody uses it anymore. Charles Dickens was probably the last person to write in that, point of view, but because I have multiple characters and I have their points of view in the story, I have to go back one step further. So in Elephants Walk Together, there’s two best friend elephants and their journeys, start out together in the story, and then they separate. And so the reader has to be able to see what’s happening to Precious and what’s happening to Bubba as the years go by. So I had to step back. So it’s me, God. Telling the story, which is not common in picture books. Usually it’s a close third. You’re much closer to the one character, even if you’re using he and she and they and all that.
And same with Dario and the Whale. It’s a two character story. It’s a boy and a whale and how they ultimately interact. And so they have their own journeys. Their journeys start apart and then they come together. So it was a little different.
[00:29:27] Christy Yaros: That’s so interesting because if you had been writing that as a novel, you would’ve had more options because you could have then told it from first person with alternating chapters.
[00:29:36] Cheryl Malone: Absolutely. And I think that is something that is, such an interesting comment because, I’m a corporate attorney. Why on earth would I ever write picture books? How did I ever end up being a picture book author? And yet the stories that appeared to me came to me as picture books.
And so, that’s apparently who I am inside. It’s really, super cool to find that out, to find out what your voice is and what genre you should be writing for. Where does the real truth come out when you write? Is it in books for very little people?
Is it for, kids who are just starting to explore the world? Or is it for kids who are just about to jump into adulthood? It’s a super fun journey to find that out. What’s inside you?
[00:30:16] Sharon Skinner: You talk in your book about scenes and there’s this question and an answer box where it says, how many scenes do you need in a whole novel? And it reminds me of that, movie Amadeus where he says, there were too many notes in the concert and he says, there were just as many notes as I needed.
And your answer is, of course there is as many or as few as you need to tell the story. So one of the things that we see a lot is that writers don’t really grasp scene right off the bat, it takes time for them to do that. So you wanna talk a little bit about how you approach that?
[00:30:55] Cheryl Malone: Sure. So, there is an MFA-ish definition to what a scene is, although it’s not that complete. I don’t think it answers the question completely, but it does give you a good starting point, and that is, if a character enters a scene, that’s the beginning of a scene. And then another character joins in. That’s a second scene. When somebody leaves, that’s a third scene. And so each one of those is a little mini story, a little tiny act, that has a beginning and a middle and an end.
It has a goal. There’s a main character. There’s voice, there’s dialogue, there’s all the components that you would put into a novel. And it’s in your little scene. And if you think of it that way, you end up with, a ladder, a trail, that then becomes your story. And you, you put these little scenes together, you put these little story pieces together, and then all of a sudden you have a bigger piece and a bigger story.
So that’s how I would start the description. There can be multiple scenes in a chapter. One scene can stretch for multiple chapters. It starts when somebody enters somewhere. They have a goal. It doesn’t end until they’ve achieved or haven’t achieved their goal.
And typically there’s a nice big zinger at the end of that too, which is what makes people turn pages.
[00:32:12] Victoria J. Coe: And at the end of the scene, something has to have changed. If nothing changes, it’s not a scene or you don’t need it in your story. And that’s something that we have seen over and over again when we were teaching because we would always have a workshop component of our classes where our students would submit their work.
And it was the number one most common thing that we would see is that it wouldn’t be a scene, like the character doesn’t have a goal. The character’s just kind of like going through life and it’s like the reader doesn’t know what to root for. And so that’s one of the biggest tips that we give in the book when we talk about scenes is that you need to set it up so the reader needs to know where are we, what’s going on, who is there? And most importantly, what does the main character want? Because if we don’t know, As I said, the reader doesn’t know what to root for, so you want the reader to be invested and engaged and the reader is gonna be rooting for something to happen or not happen in that scene.
And then of course, you’re always gonna have surprises. Things are gonna go wrong, it’s gonna be unexpected. You’re gonna have a twist. There’s always gonna be conflict. But then at the end of the scene, something will have changed, and that change will then drive the next scene forward, or at least part of the story forward.
[00:33:35] Sharon Skinner: And I love how you point out that picture books have scenes. We talk a lot about picture books in the structure and the page turns and how important all the elements are, but I love that you point out that picture books also, if they have a character arc , maybe not concept books so much, but picture books with an arc have scenes and I think we don’t think in terms of that typically.
So I love how you bring that out because I think that’s really important.
[00:34:03] Cheryl Malone: I would say one of the major things we used to hear in our classes was, readers need downtime. I’ve just had an action scene and so my character’s going to get in the car. They’re gonna drive to their friend’s house, they’re gonna get out of the car and walk up the, walk and say hello and then have a cup of tea. But that’s not a scene, that’s just a waste of time because if the next important thing that happens is two characters are having a cup of tea and there’s gonna be a major point made in the dialogue, you can put your character directly in the house and just say, Hey, it took me 10 minutes to get here. But the idea that you need quiet scenes is not wrong. It’s just that you need a goal in the quiet scene.
The main character in that scene they’re playing basketball. I think we even put that in as an example. They just need to blow off some steam because something unbelievable has just happened to them. But their goal is to get the ball in the hoop. Their goal is to, take five breaths without getting, into trouble or whatever it is.
They still need a goal. You can have a quiet goal and a quiet scene, but you still need a goal.
[00:35:03] Victoria J. Coe: Or they just have to process what just happened.
[00:35:06] Cheryl Malone: Yeah. Yeah. We love scenes. We’re all about scenes.
[00:35:10] Christy Yaros: In the workshops that I’ve taught and the clients that I’ve worked with, we read books as readers. We see chapters, and that’s how people tend to think about it, beginner writers. But the concept that a scene is an inherent thing that just is, and a chapter is a construct that the author chooses to form the narrative Is something that’s a little bit more advanced and when we can break it down and think in terms of scenes, we can see where we came in too soon. We left too late. This is why our story is 50,000 words too long because we have these things that just don’t go when we look at it breaking down like that.
[00:35:46] Cheryl Malone: Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s really well said.
[00:35:49] Sharon Skinner: So you both have had these amazing journeys and you’re both writing these wonderful kids’ books and doing, other work as far as teaching and everything.
What brought you together to write this book Writing KidLit 101?
[00:36:04] Cheryl Malone: Okay, so Victoria, Vicky, my dear friend, ten-year colleague. More than 10 years now, we have been more than critique partners. We’ve been support partners in our writing journeys. And she called me up last summer and said, Hey, I know you’re working on this and I’m working on that, but you know, we’ve got all this material from all those years of teaching and wouldn’t it be fun to write a book for people who are too busy to go to classes,. Cuz there, there are tons of classes out there and conferences and, we ourselves have been in that situation. You just can barely carve out 15 minutes to write. So let’s take some of our material and see if we can put together a book.
And that’s what we started doing, we started working on it, blocking it out, figuring out the content and exchanging drafts. And then it dawned on us that we needed, some support. So you can’t just launch a book. You need, a company.
So we decided to form a company. Because we thought that there’s probably more books we could write and more things we can do to kind of pay it forward. So that was Vicky’s first idea was let’s pay it forward. We’ve had some success. Let’s see what we can do for other people.
[00:37:13] Victoria J. Coe: Yeah, and it was so fun writing back and forth because we feed off of each other and we, we’ve been doing this with our own books back and forth for years, and it was so much fun to come together and , it was interesting cuz we had to have a voice, right? We couldn’t have Cheryl’s voice and my voice, so we had to have a voice.
And I love the voice that we settled on because it’s very conversational, it’s very casual and it’s very, we like to call it user-friendly, fun, full of personality. And it’s very easy to read and easy to understand.
[00:37:42] Sharon Skinner: And I like the way that you present it. Here it is, it’s Writing KidLit 101, and then you have these exercises and then you have extra credit. That made me smile.
[00:37:51] Christy Yaros: That made Nerd Sharon smile.
[00:37:53] Sharon Skinner: it did.
[00:37:53] Victoria J. Coe: Well, and I hope that, nerd, both of you, like the cover of the book because it is reminiscent of a composition notebook, yet it’s very whimsical and full of personality. It was designed by our friend, Wallace West, who is an incredible illustrator and, author illustrator of picture books himself.
But it’s that playfulness and color. It’s not black, it’s blue. And I think it says KidLit without saying this is a KidLit composition notebook.
[00:38:21] Cheryl Malone: We tried to keep it as simple as possible. Some of the concepts are hard. Scenes are not easy to understand initially. The whole three act structure, which we talk a little bit about, is not easy. But there’s blocks where you can just read the succinct version of what we just said. And then all, the different extra credit and calls to action. We wanted KidLit to be fun. It should be fun. That’s the whole point of KidLit. You’re not writing KidLit to bring anybody down. It’s to make a contribution. So that’s what we hope the vibe from the book is.
[00:38:51] Victoria J. Coe: The exercises are designed to not be about, Your story. I’m writing my story. I have a story in my heart. This is the story I wanna write. We want you to learn the concepts and the craft and the skills. And so we’ve used hypothetical examples, in our exercises because we just want you to learn whatever aspect of craft we’ve just been learning about. So whether it’s voice, whether it’s dialogue, whether it’s stakes or motivation or whatever, we want you to get it, and I think that with our own stories, especially when we’re beginning, we’re so tied to this is what I had in mind, this is what I wanna do. I’m not willing to think outside of that.
And we just want you to learn.
[00:39:34] Christy Yaros: Speaking of the voice that you use, I just have to call out one line because it really cracked me up. “Accept the cold, hard truth. You wanna write backstory and flashbacks more than your readers wanna read them. Sorry, not sorry.”
[00:39:46] Victoria J. Coe: So true. We all have been there.
[00:39:49] Cheryl Malone: So true.
It’s amazing that you can write three chapters of backstory and then start your book on chapter four.
[00:39:57] Sharon Skinner: But it’s so common. So, this has been fabulous and we could talk to you all day long. We really could. But we do try to keep our podcasts down to a listenable size. And we need to wrap up. But before we go, we’re gonna do, what we always do, we’re gonna ask you for some actionable items for our listeners.
[00:40:19] Cheryl Malone: Well first I would say, humbly buy our book, I think it will help if you’re starting your journey. If you’ve already started your journey and you’ve hit a snag. Buy the book. It’s on Amazon, it’s on Ingram, and, just, read and enjoy. And then I guess that would be the other thing is to read as many mentor texts in your category, that have been published in the last three years.
[00:40:42] Victoria J. Coe: And in the book we specifically say this is that we really recommend following debut authors. Nowadays there are debut author groups. Seems like they’re sometimes multiple debut author groups for each year, for last year, this year, next year.
Google, the current year and debut author groups for your category. They have websites, they have blogs, they have social media. Check out their books. See if there’s something you’d like to read. Register on net galley. See if you can get an advanced reader copy of a book that might be interesting to you.
Read their interviews that they’re doing. They’re all doing promotion. See what you can learn from them. And the reason we suggest debut authors is. Those are the people who’ve broken through the competition in today’s marketplace. They are usually not celebrities.
They didn’t have platforms. They’re not already award-winning authors. And they did exactly what you want to do. So see what you can learn from them. And then the other action item that I would say, because I really also love the motivation side. Of teaching. It’s not just about learning skills, but also about, let’s face it, we all get in our own way sometimes.
We all have doubts, we all have frustrations. And so, I would suggest writing a letter to yourself, I’ve actually done this. Just be really honest. Why do you wanna write KidLit? What’s important to you? Why do you wanna do this? And then also your strengths. What do you feel you’re good at?
Remind yourself of your positives. Then be honest about what some of your weaknesses are. Maybe there are some skills that you just really need to work on. You’ve heard it over and over again in feedback. Or maybe you lack support. Maybe you really just need a good support system.
Or maybe you are your own antagonist, your self-doubt is getting in the way, or maybe you’re putting up obstacles. Brainstorm how you could get over that weakness. What could you do to change that? And then set a goal for yourself to do it. Maybe think of a reward you could give yourself at the end for doing that, and be kind to yourself.
I think that that emotional part of a writer’s journey is equally as important as putting in all of the work and practice and learning into writing your book.
[00:42:56] Sharon Skinner: I love that you said that, and I know Christy’s gonna know what’s coming up. I love knowing your why. It’s such an important aspect of what I feel in the world knowing our why, and we asked that question of all of our clients, why you? Why now? Why this book? We ask why a lot.
So I love that you started with that, but I also like that you talked about the strengths and weaknesses. For my actionable item, what I would like, and I’m gonna shamelessly steal this out of your book, it’s one of the exercises that you have in your book, and it is taking a current newer published book and an older published book.
And I think in the example that I saw, you were mostly talking about picture books. But you could do this with chapter books. You could do this with middle grade, and you put them side by side and you look at them and you look at what the differences are, the older versus newer, and maybe try and suss out why an older book might not get published today.
And I think I took two of your exercises and kind of squished them together, but I think it’s such a great way to look at what’s going on in the publishing industry and where we might want to set our targets.
[00:44:19] Christy Yaros: I love that. When I was in my MFA program, Anita Silvey, was one of my professors, and that was our project for the semester was to take an older book that had been published and write an editorial letter to the author. Explaining what they need to do to bring their book up to date for today’s marketplace.
And I chose Lloyd Alexander and, it was pretty fun telling him some of his, phrases were outdated and the way that he wrote things, but I think that’s a great exercise. So for my action item, since we have such wonderful guests here with lovely books, is an easy way for any of us to support our authors is to leave reviews.
So I will go and leave a review for Writing KidLit 101: A Self-guided Course after this because I appreciated this and even though it’s called 101, I definitely think there are things in there that all of us can learn from. So thank you so much for sharing this wonderful book with us and for coming and talking to us because our why is showing people how KidLit is different from adult books and why it’s such a fabulous industry to be in.
[00:45:26] Sharon Skinner: It’s been great having you here. You’ve shared so much great information with our listeners. It’s been fabulous. Where can our listeners find you?
[00:45:35] Victoria J. Coe: I’m at victoriajco.com. My last name is spelled c o e. I’m on Instagram and Twitter at VictoriajCoe. Cheryl and I have a website for our business, which is called Write on Production. It’s W R I T E on productions.com and Write On Productions is also on Instagram at Write on Productions.
[00:45:58] Cheryl Malone: And I’m at cheryllawtonmalone.com and on Instagram at Cheryl.LawtonMalone. And Twitter. At MaloneLawton. It’s a little confusing, but you can always reach me through my website.
[00:46:11] Sharon Skinner: And we will have those, in the show notes as well as a link to where they can get your book. And thank you again for being here. It’s been a pleasure.
[00:46:22] Victoria J. Coe: Thank you for having us. We’re both so grateful to connect with both of you and to have this chance to have this wonderful conversation.
[00:46:30] Cheryl Malone: Definitely. Thank you very much.
[00:46:32] Christy Yaros: Thank you and thank you everybody for listening.
[00:46:34] Sharon Skinner: Bye.
[00:46:35] Christy Yaros: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Coaching KidLit, a writing and book coaching podcast for writers who want to level up their KidLit writing game.
[00:46:42] Sharon Skinner: For more about us and to discover what a book coach could do for you, check out CoachingKidLit.Com and follow us on social media.
Follow us on Instagram and Twitter: @CoachingKidLit