Thursday, August 14, 2008

A to the Q: Talking Animals as Main Characters

A to the Q is an ongoing series of posts in which I answer questions I've received from blog readers, workshop students, and others about writing and navigating the waters of children's publishing. My aim is to share what I know and spark your search for even more information.

Q: I want to write a series featuring talking animals. How can I determine if it's worth the time or if, for example, talking animals are considered old hat?

A: No matter what you're thinking of writing, it's always good to (1) keep an eye on what's getting published and (2) track the trends ebbing and flowing in children's literature.

That said, I firmly believe that a strong desire to write a particular story means that you should write it. Write it first and see whether it works out the way you hope. Finish it. Then think about finding a home for it. There are no sparkly new plots, themes, or character types to be discovered. But good story is good story. Good writing is good writing. If you are excited about a story, your excitement will translate to your writing, making the effort "worth it" and helping the book you write stand out.

Make no mistake, though — it will need to stand out. Over the years I have seen many (MANY) writers' guidelines that specify "No talking animals." Anthropomorphism (the attribution of human characteristics to non-human entities, such as animals, dolls, teacups, and so on) is a popular literary device in children's literature. To be frank, it's probably the most frequently used element I've seen in the hundreds of manuscript submissions and writing contest entries I've evaluated. So I understand why some publishers (particularly small ones that publish a limited number of titles) want to nix it from the get-go.

But, the device is popular for a reason. Talking animals are cute and fun. Or scary and fun. Or insert-your-take here and fun. Kids like them, grown-ups like them, and some of the greatest children's works of all time have used them. No reason to shy away. Human-like critters will continue to crop up in children's books forever, as will wizards, ghosts, geeks, pirates, bullies, and best friends.

Quick extra note: Since you're talking series, it may be useful to keep in mind that few publishers want to see series proposals from a new writer. Your best bet is to write your first story and work on getting the manuscript accepted somewhere before trying to sell the series idea to your editor or agent.

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