Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Altitude and Attitude – Adult or Child?

kid & cannonI’ve had writing students set at the wrong “altitude” in relationship to their main character. They’ve talked about “little arm,” “tiny mouth,” “short body,” and more. That’s adult-size looking down to see child-size. When we are in a child’s viewpoint, arms, mouths or bodies of kids are viewed as the right size unless part of plot/character issues. In that case the main character likely views his shortness, skinniness or cuteness as a flaw, not a simple description of who he is.
So this got me thinking. We’re so used to seeing the world at the adult height that it is easy to forget what it looks like from kid height. I experienced a direct example when my then six-year-old grandson looked up at me and said, “You have hairs in your nose.” After struggling with that brief moment of being offended, I said, “yes.” Then I told him everyone did. I explained the purpose of those hairs. Of course, later I checked the mirror to see if, gasp, I needed to trim my nose hairs.
These both have reminded me that I need to think about what my young main character is seeing from her altitude. I may have to walk around on my knees a while to see what the world looks like from that height. I need to dig back and remember when I had to look up at every adult. I need to remember how I had to use a chair to reach the upper cabinets in the kitchen, and sometimes even climbed up on the countertop. I need to pay more attention to kids who are the age of my main character and see the things they have to deal with in an adult sized world and convey that in my writing.
I also sometimes see students write with the wrong “attitude.” As an adult we think it is funny or cute when kids do certain things. Unless they are trying to be funny, often what they are doing is very serious business. The two-year-old pretending to go to work on his ride-upon car is practicing what he’s seen a parent do. The four-year-old ballerina believes she dances beautifully. At that age anything is possible. The six-year-old asking about nose hairs was not trying to offend, he was being honest and talking about what he saw. The kid in this picture is exploring the cannon by sticking his head inside. Let’s not taint those experiences with adult reality and attitude in our writing.
My adult daughter let me read her sixth grade diary. She wrote about boys, boys, boys, her friends, and her older sister. She wrote about stuff that happened at school. We, her parents, were only mentioned once. That was when her fish died and she said we laughed. I can’t remember laughing. I don’t know why we would have laughed. Whether we did or not isn’t the point. She felt we didn’t care or didn’t care enough. To her that little fish dying was important. Callous parent me, I’m not even positive what kind of fish it was. In my defense, I do remember her winning it at a Vacation Bible School and remember what she named it. But to that sixth grade girl the life and death of her fish was an important event.
I need to convey the same child attitude in my writing. I need to share child concerns, questions and experiences as honestly as I can to make my stories more believable to my child audience.
I plan to be checking my altitude and attitude often as I write. How about you?
picture courtesy of seneca77 on

Posted in Craft, Guest Post, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

4 Ways to Make Your Characters “Talk Different”

Guest post by the wonderful Bruce Hale!
aka The Writer Guy

Have you ever read a manuscript where everybody talks alike, and you can’t tell the characters apart without a constant “said Jack”? I have. This problem crops up again and again in unpublished manuscripts I’ve critiqued, and it’s one of the things keeping those authors from getting published.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

If you want to make your characters stand out and be unique (i.e.: see the light of day in a published book), first try running your dialog through the clich√© detector. Figures of speech can be so common you don’t even notice them – phrases like, “we’re not out of the woods yet,” or “don’t count your chickens before they hatch” tend to slip right past our radar. Don’t let them.
Make your dialog better than that, more original. In your dialog revision, take the time to establish a voice, even a lexicon for each of your main characters. It’ll make them stand out from each other, and more, it’ll make them jump off the page. Here are four ways to make your characters “talk different.”

Is your character defensive, combative, a know-it-all, a joker? Make sure that her dialog consistently reflects this.
Let your character’s attitude inform every utterance. As an example, take Deborah Wiles’ EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS. The obnoxious little boy, Peach, could have just said, “Good morning, Comfort,” when he came into her room. Instead he says, “It’s morning and I’ve come to see you!”
That little tweak shows us his quirky personality, as well as his attitude. Is he excited to see Comfort? Oh, yes. (Is she excited to see him? Not so much — and her dialog reflects this.)


Your characters’ level of education determines so much of their speech, from word choice to sentence length and complexity. Make sure that you take this into consideration and use it to set characters apart from each other.
Have the smart characters use bigger words than the rest; have the not-as-smart-as-they-think-they-are characters MISuse bigger words. In my book, FAREWELL, MY LUNCHBAG, janitor Maureen DeBree aspires to a more sophisticated means of expression than her education allows. That’s why she says things like “Don’t cast nasturtiums” instead of “Don’t cast aspersions,” and advises the detectives to use their powers of “reduction,” instead of “deduction.”

What does your character obsess over? What kind of background did he come from? What kind of world does she live in? These considerations will inform what your characters say and how they say it.
For example, in EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS, Comfort’s older brother, Tidings, is obsessed with all things military. When he greets her, he says, “Easy, Private!” When asked where the visitors are, he says, “The troops are reconnoitered in the back parking lot.” It’s never a challenge to know when Tidings is speaking, and his dialog reveals a lot about who he is and what his aspirations are.


What kind of character would say, “Criminently”? What character would say, “Eeww, gross”? (Hint: probably not the same character.) Exclamations are a small touch, but if you use them right, they can help the reader zero in on the personality of whoever is speaking in a heartbeat.
For example, in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, the hero, Harry Dresden, is a wizard/private investigator. He uses phrases like “Hell’s bells” and “Stars and stones” as exclamations, giving him a uniquely wizardly way of expressing himself. If he just said “damn” and “holy moley,” it wouldn’t have the same effect.
Take these four considerations into account, the next time you’re taking a closer look at dialog. And I guarantee, to paraphrase David Sedaris, that your characters will “talk pretty one day.”

bruce_hale.jpgEdgar-nominated author-illustrator Bruce Hale is passionate about inspiring reluctant readers to open books (and read them). He has written or illustrated more than 25 seriously funny books for children, including the award-winning Chet Gecko Mysteries series, Snoring Beauty (one of Oprah’s Recommended Reads for Kids), and the comics-novel hybrid, Underwhere. Read more about the books on Bruce’s website.
An actor and Fulbright Scholar in Storytelling, Bruce is in demand as a speaker, having presented at conferences, universities, and schools all across North America.
Plus, he’s one nice guy.