Launch Your Career with a Cartoon Novel

Are you drawn to Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries?  Do you enjoy reliving the angst of the middle school years? In recent years, writers for tweens have developed a new genre: the cartoon novel (which is usually written in diary form). Young readers feel like they’re reading a notebook or diary that is illustrated with cartoon sketches. So, have you ever considered writing a cartoon novel? Why not give it a try?  Here are a few tips:

1. Find an interesting premise. You’ll need an interesting idea to draw readers in.  Before you begin writing, think about the storyline.  What will your cartoon novel be about?  Why will it stand out in the crowd?

2. Find a compelling voice.  Cartoon novels are usually written in the first-person narration, and they are generally marketed to the 8-12 group.  When you read cartoon novels, you'll see why young readers fall in love with Greg Heffley from the very first lines, "First of all, let me get something straight.  This is a JOURNAL, not a diary."

3. Read the first lines of cartoon novels. The voices of main characters emerge quickly and boldly on the page. For instance, Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So-Popular Party Girl opens with the following line, “I can’t believe this is happening to me! I’m in the girls’ bathroom FREAKING OUT! There’s no way I’m going to survive middle school.” Young readers are immediately thrown into the angst and frustration of the character’s life; the author establishes the voice, setting, and situation in the first lines of the book. Can you draw readers in this quickly? Or should you appeal to readers with a less dramatic approach? Make a decision and start writing.

4. Try writing in your character's voice.  Whether you are describing the horrors of fifth grade or surviving high school as a zombie, you need to write with gripping, believable details.  Start writing a daily entry in this voice.  Can you pull it off?  Now, compare your journal entry to Dork Diaries and Big Nate: In a Class By Himself.  Does your voice compare?  Are you able to pull off this format?  Consider buying a diary and writing in it directly instead of typing the entries.  Remember, you want to feel like you’re in the character’s skin.

5. Invent a catchy, appealing title.  Cartoon novels usually have fun titles like Wonkenstein: The Creature from My Closet and Tales from a Sixth-Grade Muppet.  Don't make your title too long or complicated.  Experiment with a few possibilities, and consider how your book will be marketed to the general public.

6. Draw a few cartoons.  With a few diary entries under your belt, you need a nifty drawing style.  If you can only draw stick figures, you’re better off submitting the manuscript without illustrations.  Finding your inner artist isn't easy; the illustrations need to work with the tone and landscape of the story. Draw something funny!

7. Read cartoon novels.  Before trying your hand at this genre, read some of the books kids love.  My Life as a Book, Dork Diaries, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid are particularly popular.  Is your idea original enough to compete with these hits?  Consider whether it is essential to write your story as a cartoon novel.  Study these books carefully, and you'll see that humor and compelling characters are the backbone of a good cartoon novel.

7. Start writing your book.  Once you've developed a voice and premise, it's time to dive in.  Whether you are drawing readers in with a personal crisis (Dork Diaries), the day-to-day experiences of a wimpy kid (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), or an unconventional storyline (Wonkenstein: The Creature from My Closet), you need to get the ball rolling.  Create an authentic voice, and you'll win the hearts of young readers forever.

8. Ask young readers to look at your text.  Sometimes the toughest critic is a 10 year old, so ask kids if you've hit the mark – or missed entirely. Edit and revise.

Now continue writing. Have fun drawing pictures and writing text. Whether you are describing the antics of a fifth grade werewolf or the anxiety of a young vampire, have fun telling your story. If you are lucky enough to get your book published, you’ll be able to tell people (at the next cocktail party you attend) that you write cartoon novels for a living. What could be better?

Dr. Suzanna E. Henshon teaches full-time at Florida Gulf Coast University.  She is the author of several books for young adults, including Mildew on the Wall (2004) and Spiders on the Ceiling (2006).


Turn Your Rhyme into a Byline

Do you enjoy writing poetry?  Are you captivated by lyrical phrases, fresh imagery, and the challenge of telling a story in a few lines?  Children find poetry appealing, and there are several magazines where you can market your verse.  Writing poetry might be your best chance to earn a byline; an editor can respond more quickly to a four line verse than to a 2,000 word article. Why not give it a try?

Many people think poetry has to rhyme. But some of the most memorable poems in literature do not have a strict rhyming sequence. For a helpful overview of poetry and its appeal to children, read A Child’s Introduction to Poetry by Michael Driscoll. Within Driscoll’s book, you will find an overview of famous poets who have appealed to young readers – from Lewis Carroll to e.e. cummings.

You don't need an MFA to tackle a nursery rhyme. It's important to remember that you do not need to use alliteration or other complex poetic techniques when you write for children. And you don't have to be an expert on poetry; you just have to be willing to study the craft and try your hand at it. But never forget that writing poetry for children is a complex and challenging task.

Here are a few tips for turning your rhyme into a publication.

1. Read children's poetry.  Read poems by Karla Kuskin, e.e. cummings, Mary Ann Hoberman, Jack Prelutsky, and Shel Silverstein. It’s important to understand the landscape of children's poetry, so studying a modern anthology is helpful. You’ll soon realize there is a wide variation in this format, and that the topics range from humorous stories to sensitive observations of humanity.

2. Read magazines that publish children's poetry.  Realistically, you can't expect to be the next Shel Silverstein right off the bat. But you can start by honing your craft and understanding the reading taste of children’s editors at magazines like Highlights, Cricket, and Ladybug.  Do these magazines suit your poetic style?

3. Read a specific magazine regularly. Get a sense of the general readership and the poems that have been published in this context during the past year.  But don’t write just for publication.  Write from the heart, and allow your muse to take you to a creative place.

4. Start with a single line.  Think about where this line can go.  Let the poem develop organically. Sometimes it is most effective to start with a topic that young readers can relate to — something to do with school, nature, home, family, fairy tales, or friendship.

5. Write a few rhymes.  See if your poetic style is better suited to a rhyming format.  And consider whether your content is appropriate for young readers.  If a magazine has a particular seasonal theme, consider writing to that topic.  Allow yourself to create verses that might be imperfect. Gradually hone your writing skills to a more professional level.

6. Read your poem aloud.  How does it sound?  Sometimes funny poems are particularly captivating to young readers, but you might also try a serious approach.  Eventually you’ll get a sense of your poetic voice and bring your best lines to the page.

7. Share your poem with a young reader.  How does it sound to her? 

8. Edit your poem.  Be realistic; don't expect to write publishable quality on your first try.  But at the same time, it is important to pursue excellence in your work.  Read your poem aloud again and again, omitting unnecessary words and phrases until it is the best poem you can write at this moment in time. Cut, cut, cut!

9. Study the guidelines of the magazine where you plan on submitting your poem.  Write a cover letter and make sure your work appears professional.  Proofread one more time.  Then submit your work with a self-addressed, stamped envelope, or whatever requirements the magazine requests of writers.

10. Don't play the waiting game.  Writing is an apprenticeship, not a one-time experience.  Continue to read and write poetry, and enjoy the experience.  Writing poetry is about a journey through the imagination, and the satisfaction that comes with bringing a fresh image to the page. Keep living a poetical and observant life!

Dr. Suzanna E. Henshon teaches full-time at Florida Gulf Coast University.  She is the author of several books for young adults, including Mildew on the Wall (2004) and Spiders on the Ceiling (2006).

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