Writing Good Children's Dialogue

Dialogue's one of those things that’s hard to get right, and easy to notice. Natural, flowing conversation is, in fact, pretty much a myth made up by playwrights. Listen to any group of people - any two people, even - and you notice that human speech is a big mess made up of cut-off sentences, contractions, terrible grammar, pointless asides, and interruptions. It's wonderful - true speech, real, living language being used and enjoyed. For writers, though, it can be a hurdle to overcome. You can't actually write speech verbatim; the fact it's being written and read, instead of heard, draws attention to those things we're accustomed to skipping over, and forces a reader to focus on the wrong things. A short example:

The man stepped down from the gleaming train. 
'Mr. Urge,' he said, and it wasn't a question.
'Yes,' said Urge.
'Good. Nice to meet you.'
Urge stuck out his hand. 'And you. An OK trip?'
'Not bad. A few complications when the carriage caught fire, but once the monkeys were taken care of there really wasn't any further bother until France.'
'Monkeys are often quite trying,’ said Urge.
The man nodded sadly. 'Yes. They didn't seem to like the snakes at all.'
'Well, it's understandable.'


The man stepped down from the gleaming train.
'Mr. Urge,' he said, and it wasn't a question.
'Oh, yes,' said Urge.
'Oh, good. Nice to meet you. Just -'
Urge stuck out his hand. 'I - oh, sorry. No, yes, and you. An OK ... OK trip?'
'Not bad. A few, y'know, a few complications when the carriage - the carriage caught on fire. Was OK once the monkeys were taken care of then there ... there wasn't any more bother after that, then.' Till France.'
'Monkeys are often quite trying,' said urge.
The man nodded sadly. 
'Sorry, you go.'
'No, I was just going to say, they didn't seem like - to like the snakes. Didn't seem to like them.'
'Ah, OK. Makes sense.'

They seem hesitant, unsure, and not at all brooding or fun - but that's how people talk, all cut up and confused. In conversation, with tone of voice to help us, it doesn't seem jumpy at all. In writing, it does - so we pretend that people always say what they mean and rarely get cut-off.

Writing children’s dialogue can pose an extra set of problems. Kids, for all their wonder and joy, are often terrible communicators. They get too wrapped up in the moment, or hold back too much out of sheer apathy. They have an entire way of speaking that adults just don't, one that goes way beyond slang and shows a whole way of relating to the world. Authors who write children's books need to remember that if you write for kids, as a kid, you have to learn to sound like a kid.

And here, Elmore Leonard comes to mind:

 If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

So what are some good ways to write children’s dialogue?

  1. Hesitate, ponder, and cut in. Remember the energy and passion that children never bother to hide. If they’re talking they’re talking at once.
  2. Don't use slang unless you know it lasts. I think it’s safe to say that ‘cool’ has proved its worth, and that ‘groovy’ has died a sad death.
  3. Watch out for names, and replace them when you can. Adults respect and use names, but children have a fantastic range of filler words – mate, dude, man, etc, etc.
  4. Contract. Constantly and wherever you can, make things shorter. Don’t, won’t, can’t, innit? 
  5. Relate to others as they are. Adults might treat others as equals, but children just don't. Strangers don’t get the same treatment as family, and adults aren't the same as friends. Show this.
  6. Don't notice boring things. And don't forget your senses. When children talk about something, do they describe it the same way as adults? Or do they see the better parts, the brighter colours?
  7. Break rules only if you need to. Making children speak in painfully ungrammatical sentences as a lazy way of showing that they’re - look! - children is a cheat that doesn't work. If it fits a character, go for it, but children’s dialogue doesn't just equal double negatives and saying ‘ain't’
  8. Be wary of sarcasm. The idea of a teenager dripping with disdain and sarcasm for every adult remark is flat, dull, and pointless. Adults are more sarcastic than children. Children are much more direct, even with their anger.
  9. Learn. Read other books by children’s authors and look at the way speech patterns work. Philip Pullman’s fantastic at this – His Dark Materials' Will and Lyra are natural, unforced, genuine characters.
  10. Ask. If you’re not sure, find a child and ask them. If you want honest criticism, there’s nothing better. Just be ready. Children can be SO MEAN.
And that's it, really, as far as my thoughts go. Spend time with children, see what they like, see what they read, and constantly remember that adults are uncool, silly, boring, and just don't get it. The most we can hope for are a few rare moments when we manage to say something real and true, that adults and kids - just people, really - enjoy.


What Vices Should New Authors Watch Out For? David Almond, Patrick Ness, Neil Gaiman and Lemony Snicket Answer The Question

A mild disclaimer: None of these answers were given specifically to be published - by which I mean the authors didn't know what I was going to do with the info. They're mostly spur of the moment, off hand replies, and not official or binding or, necessarily, true. They were all given in public forums, though, so I have no problem collecting them here. And they were all given as answers to my question - they're not just ripped out of context from other interviews. So, do with them as you will.

Being an author seems to be a process - unlike being a writer. In general I would say that if you want to be a writer, you write things - and that's the only real qualification there is. Being an author does seem to be slightly more defined - an author writes books, gets them published, and people (hopefully) read them. It's a process. There's people who want-to-be-an-author-but-don't-know-how, or are too-scared-to-try, and then there's making-it-as-an-author, and even holy-heck-I-got-a-book-deal. And from there, soon to be published author, debut author, new author, etc.

All authors. All writers.

My first book, Eren, is coming out next year, and I'm thinking more and more about what it will be like to go through that. Scary, I think. Magical, too. Odd and fantastic and probably a tiny bit dream-like.

There might be things to watch out for, too. In the spirit of learning from your betters and those who've gone before, then, I asked four fantastically brilliant, fantastically successful children's authors one question, to see what they would say.

The question was this: What vices would you warn a new author about in their first year of publishing?

And here are the answers from David Almond, Lemony Snicket, Patrick Ness, and Neil Gaiman:

David Almond: Vices: moaning about obstacles, time, other authors; researching the market. Avoiding the simple task - sit, be brave, and write.

Patrick Ness: [Do] act like a pro, be generous to everybody, and write thank you notes. Seriously. [As for vices],  people's opinions of a book, good or bad, never change the book. It's always yours, forever ... so don't get the vice of living or dying by all the words on the web that will be about you. It's interesting but the book stays the book.

Neil Gaiman: Barratry on the high seas. You can find yourself swinging from the yardarm, and this never ends happily.

Lemony Snicket: Searching for one's self on the Internet, the 21st Century's least-interesting vice.

Good answers, right? A mixed bunch indeed. I had to look up barratry in the dictionary, which probably shows that Gaiman's doing his job well. Is there an overall theme? Probably that writers should keep writing, stop worrying, and be far less interested in the Internet than in their own words.

It's not the first time I've heard that.

And now, I'm going to take that advice, and finish this post up, and go write things down.


Are you a writer? What one piece of advice would you give to fellow scribes?


An Inspiring Evening with Neil Gaiman and The Ocean at the End of the Lane

A quick post today, while things are still fresh in my mind. Anyone who follows me on Twitter might have picked up on the few (several) small (huge) posts I made about going to see Neil Gaiman on publication day of his new book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I've been a fan of his for many years now, ever since my wife introduced me to his stuff. So, fittingly, I bought her tickets as a surprise and tagged along so she wouldn't be lonely.

The evening was a blast. Gaiman, who'd flown in from England that morning and, frankly, must have the constitution of a bull on acid, read from his book, answered questions, and introduced a surprise appearance of his wife and rock-star Amanda Palmer. He's a brilliant writer, of course, but more than that he's a brilliant thinker - the question and answer session showed that. From his awe-inspiringly well-rounded views on semi-colons to talking about his parent's support for, or lack of support for, storytelling, he seems to be an artist who's always thinking honestly and openly.

Being with more than 1000 other people who love books and stories and words and magic made the Brooklyn Academy of Music a spectacular place (and it's already a spectacular building).

The passages Neil read showed that TEATEOTL is a more under-stated 'realism but with dark magic' book than, say, The Graveyard Book - and by his own admission it's a personal, not-autobiographical-but-it-kind-of-is story about childhood and belief and the world as a whole. It's funny, too - 1000 people laughing at the same line funny - but I sense that it's also sad and serious. I will let you know when I read it.

I truly enjoyed going last night. Meeting authors should always be fun. My wife and I queued for (ahem) a few hours to get our books signed-  but being able to tell Gaiman that I had a book coming out, and that he was an inspiration, and then having him want to shake my hand for it and sign his book to a 'fellow author' made the waiting in line seem suddenly so, so worth it.

A great night, delving into what it's like to live your entire life making up stories. It's also inspired me to attempt more author events in the future. For now, though, real life goes on.

I just hope that one day real life and making up stories will be, for me, the very same thing.


The Oxford Comma Is As Cool As I Am.

Found this on my travels this morning, and thought I'd share it with you all.

Because I know you care.

I know you do.

I'm so cool.

The Oxford Comma
Courtesy of: OnlineSchools.com


The Power & Importance of Books, and Why Children's Books Aren't The Same as Lying

Last weekend I decided to go book buying - and, for reasons of my own that are probably not too hard to work out, I was determined to eschew Amazon.com. Independent bookstores are wonderful places but they're fast becoming few and far between. A little online research, though, soon led us to To Be Continued, a pretty snazzy store in Metuchen, NJ. It's only about 15 minutes away from me, and this is a Good Thing.

(The shop's actually in the exact location of a previous bookshop that closed down last year, which makes me quietly happy in a que sera sera, circle-of-life kind of way)

While browsing, my wife and I got into conversation with the owner, and among other things we got on to the matter of banned books.

'Do you know what the number one removal request was for libraries in the U.S. last year was?' he asked.
There were some obvious contenders. Fifty Shades? Twilight? Some things make parents very unhappy.

'It was Captain Underpants,' he said.


Now, I've not read the Captain Underpants books, and I have few issues with parents wanting to protect their own children from inappropriate material, but you have to wonder what was going on there.

And that, in turn, got me thinking. What are children's books all about, really, and what are they meant to "teach" kids? Should we be teaching things at all? Can't you just enjoy the ride?

Whether you see books as a tool to impart lessons or just a quick way to entertain, I think it's important to focus on one key aspect - things being made up doesn't make them not true, and things being impossible doesn't make them lies.

Children's books are often full of daring-do, stupidity, nonsense, horror, shock, humour, love, sadness, rivalry ... in fact, pretty much the average day of a young kid. Authors work, a lot of the time, to say things which are true by telling you about things which aren't. What are the overall themes of, say, Harry Potter, or Skellig, or Sheldon Silverstein? Loyalty, I'd say, and hope, and bravery and a willingness to try. After all ...

Listen to Mustn'ts, child, listen to the Don'ts.
Listen to the Shouldn'ts, the Impossibles, the Won'ts.
Listen to the Never Haves, then listen close to me.
Anything can happen, child, Anything can be. 
- Sheldon Allan Silverstein, 

There might be a tendency to think that stories are inherently childish, but I don't agree with that at all. Stories are, if anything, inherently complicated and difficult to get right, but the best ones can be enormous fun and still show kids things about the world they didn't know before.

So do we lie to children when we tell them that their wardrobe might lead to another world, or that trees can talk, or that there are reasons to be scared of the dark? No. Those are important things to know. How many adults have forgotten these lessons? And how many might be happier or better if they remembered, just for a moment, to look at goblin men or believe in fairies?

I supposed in all these jumbled thoughts is a belief that writing books for children is one of the best ways of telling them true things. I know certain books stayed with and helped to shape me. And to those authors, I'm thankful. And to those who are wary of silly books and impossible things, I'd just say - we live in a world of impossible things, and books are the best way to open, not close, your mind.


Thirteen Years, 150 Posts, and a Book Deal

I've been unusually quiet on this blog for a while. Writing happened, and life, and beaches, etc. I've also been holding off on writing this post. It's this blog's 150th, and I wanted it to be something special and awesome and something that could act as a big huzzah. Then, like a lot of things when you think about them and want them to be just right, nothing did seem right, so I kept waiting.

Well, now, a Good Thing has happened (perhaps even a Great Thing) and it is easily 150th post material.

I have signed the contract for the book deal with Constable & Robinson, and it is Official.

Look - here's a cheesy, cliched, but damned-if-I'm-not-going-to-capture-this-moment picture of me doing it.

It's an odd feeling and an odd few seconds, doing this. Other writers can certainly appreciate it. My friend Kelsey included a shot of her signing her contracts in a video she made about the news. It's a nice tactile, binding moment that follows several years of build up.

That - the years versus the moment - is an important thing to remember when you're involve in art. This weekend I went to help out a good friend at an art show. His photographs went down pretty well (and congratulations to him) and the overall quality of the artists was fantastic (I wrote about the same art show last year here, and wondered if writers could ever do the same). I was struck by some comments made by another artist. He was selling wood turnings - bowls, plates, beautiful objects made with skill and care - and we got on to the topic of whether you should tell people how long it takes to create things.

'If you tell them it took you half an hour, there's no way they'll pay $400,' he said, '$400 for half an hour's work? Why would they want to! But they don't understand - it's half an hour plus the twenty years it took to get there.'

The work we put in without any rewards is where it really matters. So, singing these contracts, finally "officially" being an author, knowing it will happen, I have to remember - it's a few seconds, 150 blog posts, and thirteen or so years of waiting to get there.

I AM SO EXCITED. I could fall back on more good ol' happy words - it's a dream, it's a joy, I'm over the moon - but what I actually want to say is this: don't confuse years of work with final failure. Things take time. Books take a lot of time. I'm suspicious of people who say they want to be a writer and have never written a book, or want to be an artist but spend more time talking about it than alone, not telling anyone what they're doing, actually making art.

Did I mention the EXCITED part?

Right now, it's celebratin' time. The contracts are done and EREN is coming.


Ian, Who Queried Agents, and Died in a Mudslide - A Cautionary Tale

Once upon a time there was a man who was partly mad, and so he became a writer.

Look at what fun he's having, children, with his pens and paper and all his ideas. Hooray for the writer! Hooray!

One day, not so long ago, the writer - who we can call Ian, if you like - decided it was time to write a Book. It was going to be a Very Good Book, and perhaps even a Great Book. He didn't write it just to make money, although if that happened, well then, he wasn't going to say no.

He might have been a little bit mad, but that's not the same as being silly.

So, Ian wrote a Book. It took a long time - forever and ever, it felt like to him. Sometimes his friends would come to his house.

'Come an play, Ian!' they said.

'No,' said Ian. 'I must write my Book, or the stories in my head will never let me sleep!'

'What a silly thing to say,' said Ian's friends, who were not really Book people, but were generally all right, nonetheless.

Sometimes Ian's family would try.

'Come here,' they said, or, 'Let's all do something.'

'No,' said Ian. 'I must write this Book.'

Ian got a bit of a Reputation, but to him, it didn't matter. He was a Writer. These things do happen.

Then, one day, Ian stopped writing. He had written, and waited, and edited, and written again, until all the coffee and the beer was gone - and he'd even kept writing after that, which earned him a certain admiration from other Writers.

'My Book is done,' said Ian. Isn't that good, children? Yay!

'Now I will find an agent,' said Ian.

Now, there are some good ways and some bad ways to do what Ian wanted to do, and as you grow up, my darlings, you will learn that even if you start out on a good path, it is sometimes very easy to slip, to put a foot wrong, and to find you have gone down a bad path.

It's like following a road at night that winds in and out of trees and pools. Sometimes you accidentally go splash.

Ian started out so well. 'I will Research!' he said. 'I will Query!'

And he did, and then he waited.

'Come and play,' said Ian's friends.

'No,' said Ian. 'I have to watch this agent's Twitter feed, in case she says something witty, and I can show her my own wit in reply.'

'Oh,' said his friends.

Oh, indeed. Poor Ian is getting a bit Odd.

Ian started to count days and months in a peculiar fashion. He started knowing a lot about numbers and What They Meant.

'This agent has had my book for 60 days,' he told a spider as he was cleaning. 'That is enough. And did you know that when you get a deal the average time to sale is 47.5 days?'

The spider didn't have much of a head for numbers, but this sounded very doubtful even to him.

'Oh, you're just a spider,' said Ian, and he squashed him.

Silly Ian.

'I need to know about royalty percentages!' said Ian to his family. 'And the time of day it's best to send a query!'

'The time of day?' they asked

'It matters,' said Ian.

'Oh,' they said, but they sounded very doubtful.

Ian couldn't squash them, though - people are much harder.

There was more to come. Oh, no! Ian started reading all about querying, instead of all about stories. He made spreadsheets and charts, and began to think rather a lot about the best time of year to contact agents, and how he might get past their 'silly assistants.'

'Please come outside,' said hie friends.

'No,' he said. 'I have to read this agent's blog. They might mention my book in code.'

'Please come outside,' said his family.

'No!' said Ian.'I need to know what percentage of books get a response in two weeks.'

'It's really quite important...' they say.

'Nothing is more important than figuring out the system!' said Ian.

'But -'


'Okay,' they said.

So he was still inside his house when it got flattened by the mudslide.

Now, what did we learn, kids?

Be nice to spiders. Listen to mud-splattered friends. And mostly - querying and writing aren't exercises in statistics.

Don't be like Ian.

Don't die in a mudslide.