Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Cringing Time

The most recent issue of the SCBWI (Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) Bulletin has an article by Joelle Anthony called "The NEW Red-Haired Best Friend: An Updated Look at the Most Overused Things in Young Adult and Middle-Grade Fiction." A few years ago, Joelle wrote her original list on her blog. The SCBWI Bulletin has her updated list; I think only members can access the link to it.

It's very hard for most writers, including me, to read the list without cringing. On her current list, I recognize several of the "overused things" in my own recent books:

#15 - stories of irresponsible parents with main characters who end up paying bills, cooking, cleaning, etc.
My newest middle-grade novel, One Square Inch

#3 - clumsy characters who can't dance or play sports to save their lives
My middle-grade novel Lizzie at Last

#1 - main characters who hate math
Every single book I've ever written EXCEPT for Lizzie at Last. In fact, Wilson's hating math is the very heart of 7 x 9 = Trouble! and Fractions = Trouble!

Joelle's earlier list has even more of the these cringe-generating items for me: parents who are professional writers, heroines who can't carry a tune, the diary as a device, main characters who want to be writers, and NUMBER ONE on her list: lists.

I know that so many writers gravitate toward these same story elements because so many of us tend to write about characters who were like our own younger selves, that is to say, people who grew up to be writers. Writers are often bad at sports and bad at math. Writers often keep diaries and like to make lists. Others of the items in Joelle's catalog come from the demand on us as writers to create a compelling story with high stakes for our main character - this is why we end up with main characters with absent, irresponsible, or dead parents. This is why Harry Potter is an orphan - oh, and I should note that he is also an orphan who has a best friend with red hair.

But I'm still cringing.


  1. Can I suggest a title for ending Wilson's trilogy? Algebra = Triumph!.

  2. I love the title, Scott, but Wilson does have a LONG way to go to get to a math triumph, and so would I!