Writing Tips

Writing Tips

Writing About Difficult Topics for Kids

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The Secret Life of Sam (HarperCollins) in paperback 4/5/22.

I’ve written four middle grade novels, and three of them are about grief. Once, after a book signing, I overheard an amazing bookseller “pitching” my book to a parent: It’s beautifully written, but just so you know, it has a really sad ending. I get this “but” a lot from well-meaning adult gatekeepers who want to protect kids from anything that might be considered difficult or sad. According to them, kids have it tough enough, and exposing them to books about tough topics will only make it worse.

Here’s the thing: Real life is hard, even for kids. And kids who are dealing with grief, or homelessness, or mental health issues do not have the resources, skills, or power to tackle those things the way adults do. A child can’t seek grief counseling without the help of an adult. They can’t use their vast life experience to decide how to react to adversity, or how not to react. They don’t have the ability to choose their environment or the people in it.

But they do have access to books through schools and public libraries. Books can help equip kids for life and build resiliency, regardless of whether we’re talking about a contemporary realistic novel or an epic fantasy. The best middle grade stories reflect the lives of real kids. The characters in these books are messy, flawed, and ultimately relatable. Yes, the purpose is primarily to entertain, but readers also experience the journey alongside the protagonist, learning with them as they overcome obstacles, win battles, solve mysteries, or move toward a place of hope and understanding.

Real life is scarier than fiction

Middle grade novels can tackle almost any difficult topic, but they have one rule: They always end in a place of hope. The protagonist may not get what they wanted–especially if what they wanted was to rescue their dad from the afterlife like in my novel The Secret Life of Sam–but they always learn something about themselves that leaves them better equipped to face the world. And since readers are going on this journey too, they also leave better equipped to face an uncertain future.

Real life doesn’t work that way. Not every kid learns how to outwit their bully. Not every loss, of a pet or grandparent, ends with a moment of understanding and hope. Sometimes terrible things happen for no reason without any opportunity to grow or build meaning.

Stories can give kids a window into other lives, from humorous graphic novels to serious realistic fiction. Readers can see how a fictional character deals with a bully, or a pair of monstrous underpants, or a death in the family, and they can learn from that example. Maybe the character in the book did it all wrong, and after reading their story, readers can figure out ways to handle it better. Or maybe reading about a fictional kid experiencing grief and anger after the loss of a loved one doesn’t teach them any concrete lesson; it simply makes them feel less alone.

None of my novels are meant to be manuals on how to live a better life. My characters are just dealing with what life throws at them–from invisible skeletons to magical laptops–in the best way they know how. But sometimes just seeing someone else tackle a monster–whether fantastical or real–can help prepare readers for the actual scary things in life. And just because a book deals with grief in some way doesn’t mean that’s the entire story, or that the book was only written for kids who have lived through similar experiences.

First and foremost, authors want to tell good stories. That’s why I write, and my point isn’t that all kids should read so-called difficult books right now or else. My point is that we should stop writing off books that happen to touch on difficult topics because we’re afraid kids can’t handle them. Not only can kids handle these books, but these stories can help kids feel more confident when facing curve balls in real life.

Naming a monster takes away its power

A few years ago, I was searching through a box of old stuff and found a book I’d written in sixth grade. The Wednesday Mourning Club tells the story of five people who each lose someone they love and start a club to process their feelings.

I never lost a family member as a child, but like most kids I had lost beloved pets. Still, I didn’t consciously write that story to turn this terrifying, uncontrollable thing we call death into something manageable and meaningful. But, in retrospect, I can see how writing it helped me do just that.

My first two middle grade novels, both addressing death in different ways, had just released with Scholastic Press when I found The Wednesday Mourning Club. I had no memory of ever writing it, and I was stunned to find that I had been grappling with death and loss all those years ago. For me, the lesson was clear: Storytelling gives readers and creators power over difficult topics, even when we’re not consciously aware of it.

It’s the same reason why people gathered around campfires for centuries telling scary stories. The goal was not to give the listener nightmares, but to take power away from the monsters by putting them into narratives that we control. To show stories of bravery and love, fear and tragic loss, so that listeners can live these epic journeys and come away stronger, or wiser, or more empathetic than when they started.

Let’s try leaving out the “but”

The urge to shield kids from the worst parts of life is understandable, but restricting access to so-called difficult books isn’t the way to do it. Instead, let kids read widely and choose what stories interest them. If a book isn’t right for a young reader, they’ll put it down and try another one. Reading stories can help kids discover who they want to be in the world. They can live a day in another child’s shoes, gaining knowledge and insight from each obstacle the character faces.

Putting the “but” before books that touch on difficult topics is only limiting the insight young readers can gain. This isn’t about requiring certain books, but about allowing kids to choose which stories speak to them by presenting books without “buts” or caveats. I had never experienced a traumatic loss as a sixth grader, but I still needed better ways to understand death. Since I couldn’t find a story written for my age group way back in the Nineties, I wrote one.

Good stories are good stories, and kids deserve the opportunity to grow and broaden their minds within the safe space of a book. Let’s give them that opportunity and try leaving out the “but.”

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KIM VENTRELLA is the author of The Secret Life of Sam (HarperCollins), Hello, Future MeBone Hollow and  Skeleton Tree (Scholastic). Her works explore difficult topics with big doses of humor, whimsy and hope. The Secret Life of Sam was named one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2020. Bone Hollow was chosen as a Best Book for Kids 2019 by New York Public Library, and Skeleton Tree was nominated for the 2019 Carnegie Medal in the UK. For the latest updates, follow Kim on Twitter and Instagram.

(Featured image by Johnny McClung from Unsplash)

Writing Tips

Never “Waste” a Query Letter with These Three Tips

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A great query letter can help you make a lasting impression with literary agents and move closer to achieving your publishing dreams. You’ve put months or even years into revising your novel, so make sure you put the same care and research into the querying process.

As a freelance editor, I often hear clients lamenting about “wasting” queries. Before doing their research, they throw together a quick query and send it off to their dream agent, only to get rejected. Now they’ve lost the chance to land that particular agent. Now, in reality, there are a million reasons why the agent might have passed. Maybe the book wasn’t a good fit for their interests, or they simply didn’t love the concept enough to request more pages. But now this client will always wonder: What if I had worked harder to craft a query letter that truly represented my work?

To help you avoid querying remorse, I’ve put together three tips for crafting a stronger query. You’ve poured so much time into your novel, you owe it to yourself to present the best query letter possible.

Tell your story. Don’t tell us about your story.

The goal of the query letter is simple, to entice agents to read your full manuscript. The opening, hook, comparative titles, and author bio are all dedicated to achieving this goal. Agents want to know: Why this story? Why now? Why are you the best person to tell this story?

So it might seem natural to launch directly into selling mode with dramatic claims about your book.

My Amazing Novel tackles the theme of modern consumerism with a quirky cast and humor so dry you’ll think you’ve spent an afternoon trekking across the Sahara.

Avoid the urge to wax poetic about your work. Leave this type of analysis to future critics who get paid to dissect your deeper themes and comment oh-so-poetically on your writing style and prose. Remember, you want to tell your story, rather than telling agents about your story.

You can get away with a lot when you’re eighty-seven and the spitting image of Betty White—waltzing through Saks Fifth Avenue in a stolen pair of Jimmy Choos, canoodling with every pool boy on the block—but Vangie Jacobs draws the line at murder. At least she did, until her high school rival and Blanche Devereaux impersonator, Lucille Clifton, sweeps into town, threatening to take everything Vangie has worked so hard to steal.

(By the way, I 100% want to write this book now!)

Imagine these two examples are describing the same book. The first is so vague it could be talking about almost anything. The second introduces a delightfully devious main character, a compelling story problem, a hint at more drama to come, and it does it all by telling us the story, rather than telling us about the story. We see the humor and quirky characters in action, and this serves as proof that we can deliver the book we’re pitching to agents.

As authors, we are both creatives and business people, even if we choose to go the traditional publishing route. The query letter is the perfect combination of these two sides of our author personality. We need to think strategically and be professional, but we want to employ our core talent, our creativity, when pitching the book. Stories sell, not vague claims of greatness, so put those storytelling skills to work.

Answer these key questions in your hook.

Your hook, also known as the book description or pitch, is the core of any query letter. This is where you convince agents that your novel is worth reading. But it’s not easy. How can you boil down an entire book into a compelling pitch that clocks in around 300 words? If you want to avoid confusion and unnecessary details, use a combination of these questions as your guide:

  • What does my main character want and why?
  • What are they willing to do to get it?
  • What will happen if they fail (the stakes)?
  • What tough choices will they make along the way?

If you can answer these questions while infusing your unique voice, even better. Essentially, agents need to know who your story is about, what happens, and why they should care.

Identify your “why.”

This question of “why” comes up a lot when crafting queries. There’s the specific question of why an agent should invest in your characters and plot, and the broader question: Okay, but why this story? Why now? That “why” may center around a unique perspective, an unexpected plot twist, a compelling character journey, or any factor that makes your story feel fresh. This isn’t your time to turn marketing expert and start spouting numbers about why your book will sell. Instead, focus on one unique thing, whether big or small, that makes your story stand out.

It may be something as simple as an unusual setting that hasn’t been seen before in your genre. If so, bring that setting to life in the query. This was the case for my friend Ginny Myers Sain when she was pitching her debut YA thriller, Dark and Shallow Lies.

Even though La Cachette, Louisiana, is the “Psychic Capital of the World,” nobody there has a clue what happened to Elora Pellerin.

Notice how she introduces the main story hook along with a nod at the unusual setting, something she went back to touch on again later in the query. This twist on the typical YA thriller is part of what made her book stand out to agents.

Maybe your story happens in a normal setting, but it has rarely or never been told from your chosen point of view. If so, highlight why this perspective matters and why you’re the best person to write it.

Your “why” doesn’t need to be huge or groundbreaking. As mentioned, it can be an unexpected plot twist, an especially strong character journey, or a story that hasn’t been told for your audience before. In pitching her middle grade novel, Oddity, author Sarah Cannon described it as Welcome to Night Vale for middle grade. In the same way, your “why” might focus on marrying two concepts that have never been paired before.

No Query Ever Wasted

In my opinion, no query letter is ever really wasted. We are all doing our best to succeed in this creative journey using the knowledge we have at the time. But when we know better, we do better. So if you’ve lamented over “wasted” queries in the past, give yourself permission to stop fretting. You may not have landed your dream agent on the first round, but there are always more opportunities.

Move forward using these three tips and try again. And again. We’ve heard it before, but it’s so true: Professional writers aren’t the ones who never fail. They’re the ones who fail and never stop trying.

If you need additional help on your querying journey, check out my new course, Writing a Successful Query Letter.

As a freelance editor, I love helping fellow writers achieve their publishing dreams. I offer a variety of editorial services, including query letter critiques, full development edits, in-depth mentoring, and custom orders. As an author, I write middle grade novels that blur the lines between genre and literary. My most recent book, The Secret Life of Sam, was a 2021 Oklahoma Book Award winner and one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2020.

Writing Tips

Small Group Writing Classes for Kids on Outschool

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Do you have students who might be interested in more specialized writing classes, outside of the classroom? Would they like to learn from an award-winning, traditionally published author? I’m now offering small group writing classes for ages 9-18 through Outschool. My current offerings include:

  • Weekly Writers Club (critique group for ages 10-14)
  • Writing Spooky Stories (ages 9-12)
  • How to Publish a Book (ages vary)
  • Novel Writing Bootcamp (ages 14-18)

Parents can follow me on Outschool to be notified when new classes and sections become available. In addition, parents have the option to suggest their own dates and times. Learn more: https://outschool.com/teachers/kim-ventrella

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KIM VENTRELLA is the award-winning author of four middle grade novels, including HELLO, FUTURE ME and THE SECRET LIFE OF SAM (HarperCollins), a 2021 Oklahoma Book Award winner and one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2020. Her novel BONE HOLLOW (Scholastic) was chosen as a 2019 Best Book for Kids by the New York Public Library, and SKELETON TREE was nominated for the 2019 Carnegie Medal in the UK. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthology DON’T TURN OUT THE LIGHTS