Sunday, April 15, 2007

Interview with Children's Writing Coach Suzanne Lieurance

Interview with Suzanne Lieurance
Founder, Director, and Coaching CoordinatorThe National Writing for Children Center

1. Children seem more mature at a younger age nowadays; do you find this affects the children’s books of today?

Yes, I think children's books today tackle much deeper problems than they ever did in the past - everything from Alzheimer's disease to child abuse and homosexuality are often subjects for today's books for children and/ or teens, yet each of these subjects is handled in a way that is age-appropriate for the intended reader.

2. The Disney Classics, the Secret Garden and Dr. Seuss stories still seem very popular as is the Trixie Beldon and Nancy Drew stories—but are there others that are destined to become classics for the new generation?

I think the Junie B. Jones books will be around for a long time. Junie B. is the ultimate kindergarten kid in the first books and the ultimate elementary school student in the newest books in the series.Children will continue to love the Harry Potter books, too, of course. And, the American Girl series books are already classics, of sorts. I love the American Girl novels and mysteries.
3. What do children’s book editors consider a provocative beginning for a children’s book. I’m sure age plays a part in that elementary students differ from a book designed for the Young adult set — but what kind of "hook" would you suggest?

I think most children's books need to start with a main character who has an age-appropriate problem that he (or she) can largely solve, or at least resolve, himself - without a lot of help from an adult or other well-meaning adult. For the very young child, problems like a lost pet, or a friend who is going to move away, are examples of good age-appropriate problems to start a story.

4. Does an interesting setting translate to a foreign country – or how would you define what constitutes an interesting setting? I notice you write about several different countries – did you visit them before you wrote the books?

I think any setting can be interesting as long as the writer uses a variety of sensory details to make the reader feel he is being transported to this place. Many stories for young children take place in ordinary places like classrooms, homes, and regular neighborhoods. It's the details that bring these places to life and make them interesting.

I traveled to parts of Mexico, including the Yucatan Peninsula, before I wrote the books about Mexico and the Ancient Maya. I also lived on Guam when I was a teenager, and many Filipinos lived there, so that helped when I was writing the book about the Philippines. But with television, movies, videos, and the Internet, today it isn't essential for a writer to actually travel to a setting he wishes to use as the background for a story.

It is very important to make sure the writer does thorough research on any setting he chooses to use, however. Here's an example of what I mean. One of my former students through the Institute of Children's Literature lived in Trinidad. She had never been to the United States, but she decided to write a story that took place in New England during a snowy winter. In one scene, the main character was capturing fireflies in his backyard. I had to inform this student that this wasn't possible because fireflies don't come out in the snowy wintertime. They are only seen in warm weather. She didn't know this because she had never lived, or traveled, to a snowy climate, and she didn't realize this was something she needed to check out before she wrote her story. You just need to be extremely careful if you're writing about someplace you have never visited yourself. It's so easy to make mistakes.

5. Another question I have about what I’ve read that children’s books need to have " interesting words" There are word books (I have a couple) that list words by age group appropriate designations. Can/should a writer select words from these lists and then build their stories?

Some publishers do require writers to use words from a word list at times. But, for the most part, I don't think writers worry about word lists too often when they're creating interesting stories. They simply try to use strong nouns and verbs, and few adverbs and adjectives (because too many of these bog down a story). But the most important thing for any writer to do is to create a compelling story - one that children can't wait to read.

Does it tend to stifle the writer’s creativity?

Not really. If anything, sticking to only the words on a word list means the writer needs to be more creative and more skillful, yet more disciplined.

How do you get around this if, in fact, it does make the writing stilted as the writer tries to use these words?
You practice, practice, practice, and try to think in more simple terms as you write.

6. Do you recommend first finding a market and then writing your story to that market, or how do you go about picking a story to write?

Write the story you want to write, then look for a market. But when you do decide to market your work, really study the various markets. Many times work is rejected simply because it has not been submitted to an appropriate market.I guess this is where do you get your ideas from, as every writer is asked this question I think anytime they have a group of wannabee writers asking questions. Ideas are everywhere but they don't usually show up in complete story form.

I usually get ideas for a character or a situation from something that happens in my life, but then I have to shape this "real" information into a story that is pure fiction.

7. Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process?

I write fiction and nonfiction differently. When I'm working on nonfiction, I usually develop a title and "hook" for the article or chapter I'm working on and then create subtopics and some sort of conclusion for the article, or for each chapter, and then start filling in all the other information.With fiction, I usually start with a character, then find out as much as I can about him or her to figure out what kind of problem he has. Then I try to develop the story line or plot.

Do you have a set routine?

I like to write fiction in the early morning because that is when I'm the most creative. But I can write nonfiction any time. If I'm working on a novel or short story, I'll get up extra early to work on it before I switch to nonfiction for the afternoon.

Do you play certain music to inspire your writing?

No, I don't like to listen to music when I write. It's distracting. I might listen to music BEFORE I start writing, for inspiration or ideas, but when I write I like to have peace and quiet.
Do you write everyday?
Yes, I write every day. I don't work on fiction every day, but I do work on nonfiction every single day.
Now for some questions from our group members that are of particular interest to them. Brenda asks:
Brenda Kleager – Author Jewelry Artist

How much consideration should be given to the reading abilities of children when writing, especially for books targeted to upper elementary to middle school interest levels?Rather than worry about the reading abilities of children you're writing for, concentrate on creating a strong "voice" and a strong main character the same age as the reader you are writing for.

If you make sure the dialogue and the narrative ring true for the character(s), then readers of the same age will probably be able to read the story. Unless, of course, you are writing hi-low books (high interest, low reading ability), which are somewhat different. Also, follow the publisher's guidelines. If the publisher requires a story to be written at a specific reading level then do it.

Janet wants to add a comment and ask you a couple questions too.
Janet Elaine Smith Author of My Dear Phebe
Since I do have an interview with Linda Della Donna on your blog, how can I beg, plead, bribe you to put a link up to my young adult book, My Dear Phebe? (You don't have to take my word that it's a good book. Check out Billie's awesome review on

Sure. I'll put up the link. If you send me a copy of the book I'll review it for the National Writing for Children Center too. Email me at for my mailing address.

In writing for middle-school levels, or young teens, how much time lapse do you recommend can take place during the course of the book or a series? I have heard a lot of kids who have been upset because Harry Potter grew up too fast.

I think that depends on how many books you intend to have in the series. Your character can stay a child for a long time if each book in the series is a stand-alone type story - by that I mean, it just covers a single big incident in that character's life. Each Harry Potter book covers an entire year or so in Harry's life, and each book isn't so much a separate story as a part of the overall story. That's why Harry grew up too fast for many readers.

But think of Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. They didn't change much through the years because each book wasn't a part of a larger overall story like each Harry Potter book was.

Do you have any recommendations on how to get young adult/children' s books brought to the attention of home schoolers without having to pay a fortune to have them included in their catalogs?

Check out various websites and listservs for home schoolers and parents who home school their children. Offer review copies of some of your books to people you meet through these sites and listservs and have them write reviews for their sites and other publications for home schooling. One of the best ways to get the word out about your books is to have your peers and your intended audience review them for online sites.

Gayle has a question:
J Gayle Kretschmer author of Water Melon Patch
I guess I need to know formats for illustrated children's books, (that you don't illustrate yourself), and maybe suggestions for young adult agents. Best ones to try. Oh, that's two. Well, whatever is all right ... thanks!

If you are not a professional illustrator, don't worry about special formatting for picture books or other stories with illustrations. Just submit your manuscript as you would any printed text.

Sounds like you're writing picture books and YA novels. I would suggest you stick to one or the other when you're searching for an agent. If your first book sells well, your readers (and your agent) will want another one in that same genre. Take your time to establish yourself as a writer in a single genre first, then branch out into other genres.

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