Please check out my most recent article, recently featured in NINK, the newsletter of Novelists Inc.

I can still remember a marketing debrief from my early days at Harlequin, when the folks on the ninth floor discovered to their surprise that a romance novel with a toddler pictured alongside the heroine and hero on the cover had outsold most of the other books offered that quarter. Babies, it turned out, helped sell books.

These days, it’s a given that certain genres in popular fiction can benefit enormously from the inclusion of child characters, as they offer wonderful opportunities for creating subtext, irony and humor, and, of course, can do much to help reveal the character of the protagonists. And that’s why it’s so important to get these young characters to come across the page as authentically as possible—as fully realized people, rather than the cutesy, over-the-top stereotypes I’ve sometimes encountered.

Many authors are lucky enough to have a natural ear for dialogue, including knowing instinctively how young children speak. But even though they may be parents, some writers rely on memory that may be faulty or, worse yet, assume they can just make up how toddlers acquire and express language. But with a speech-language pathologist daughter to whom I’ve turned to authenticate children’s dialogue many times during my editing career, I’ve learned that language development is not random, and in fact usually follows a very predictable pattern. Understanding that pattern can be a terrific help in generating children’s dialogue that sounds accurate and natural.

Sound and Vocabulary Development

Let’s say Jessica and Mark are taking 18-month-old Amy to the zoo. The dialogue might go something like this:

“Look, Amy! Can you see the monkey?” Mark pointed to a tree branch at the top corner of the enclosure.

“Up, dada! Up!”

Mark obligingly hoisted the toddler onto his shoulders for a better view.

“Montey!” she shouted. “OOO! AHH!”

“Yes, it’s a monkey! He’s saying, ‘OOO-OOO AHH-AHH!’”

Amy’s dialogue is consistent with developmental milestones for her age. Here are a few to keep in mind:

  • Toddlers can understand many more words than they can say. At 16 months, a toddler may understand 100-200 words but may say fewer than 50.
  • The first categories of words they will use are usually content words like nouns, verbs, and adjectives. And those nouns will be concrete, like dog, rather than abstract, like joy.
  • First words are usually not more than two syllables in length.
  • For sentences, a good rule of thumb is: two-word sentences for two-year-olds, three-word sentences for three-year-olds, four- or more word sentences for four-year-olds.

Amy is now about three and a half years old, and her dad, Mark, is totally stressed out because the babysitter didn’t show up. (Jessica is no longer on the scene, having disappeared under very mysterious circumstances!)

“Okay, kiddo, you’re going to stay with Grandma today,” Mark told his daughter as he bundled her awkwardly into her car seat.

“Daddy go to work?”

“Yup, Daddy’s going to work, and Daddy is late, and you’re going to Grandma’s.”

“No! I go to work too! I go with Daddy! No Grandma’s!”

Amy’s grammar and sentence structure has become a lot more sophisticated in a relatively short time frame. Some of this is due to a child’s ability to begin using auxiliary verbs, regular past tense forms, and some progressives and adverbs, which certainly makes writing dialogue a lot easier and more interesting.

Here are some grammar and sentence structure factors to keep in mind for a two- to three-year-old character:

  • Transitioning to longer word combinations may actually have some toddlers using three- and four-word combinations by twenty-four months: they may combine two two-word phrases, so that “baby eat” + “eat cookie” becomes “baby eat cookie,” or they will add information to shorter sentences that they already say, so they might add “big” to “eat cookie” to come up with “eat big cookie.”
  • They will also combine words to describe how objects or actions are located in space: “push me” at the playground or “doggie house” to describe where they stashed their baby sister’s blankie.
  • Because they are beginning to pretend in new ways, such as giving toys a voice, or acting out events they have heard of but never experienced (like being on a pirate ship), sentences become richer and more imaginative.
  • Irregular past tenses will continue to up the cuteness factor of toddlers’ speech sometimes all the way into their fifth or even sixth year: my four-year-old grandson told me proudly that he “writed with a cursor on the computer.” When his same-aged cousin was corrected for saying “I standed on the ladder,” he, still mixing up regular and irregular past tense, typical for children this age, altered his sentence to, “Okay. I stooded on the ladder.” This little guy understood his language needed to show something that had already happened, but despite this, children in preschool or even at early school age don’t have the same ability as adults to understand and describe time. Concrete markers, such as “two sleeps” or “one Paw Patrol” are much better understood and expressed than “three weeks ago,” “in the summer,” or “in half an hour.” Similarly, young children express time differently than adults. “Tomorrow’s tomorrow is more likely to be uttered by a child getting ready to start school than “two days from now.”

Theory of Mind

Mark and Amy, now four and a half, are out shopping for a birthday present for her best friend.

“Okay, Amy, what should get Lily for her birthday?”

“Slime. When I was at her house, we played with slime, and Lily really loves it! But I thought it was gross. For my birthday, I want new paint.”

I’ve found that one of the essential areas of child development that trips up writers relates to what psychologists term “theory of mind.” This is simply defined as the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, and knowledge—to ourselves and others. And the above piece of Amy’s dialogue demonstrates that she can now do this.

In fact, as children move toward the age of four, they continue to develop a deeper understanding of what goes on in their and others’ minds. They come to understand that people talk and act on the basis of the way they think the world is, even when their thoughts do not reflect reality. As a result, at this age, your child characters can now begin to lie, trick and joke with others—all of which makes them better able to communicate about individual experiences and a lot more fun to write!

When you are writing young children’s dialogue, don’t be tempted to jump the gun and create conversations out of step with the child’s typical stage of development. Spend some time with a child the age you want to portray, or take yourself off to the playground, sit down on a bench, and just listen to how kids speak and interact. It will be a win-win for your adult characters…as well as your readers!

Handy References


At the recent Novelists’ Inc conference in St. Pete Beach, Florida, Mary Theresa Hussey and I offered a panel discussion on the role of freelance editors in the publishing process.  The notes below are an adaptation of the points made in our discussion.

Where Do Editors Come In?

NINC 2017

Mary-Theresa Hussey

Good Stories Well Told


Marsha Zinberg

The Write Touch


Types of Editors and Services:


Be aware that there is no one set definition for the terms listed below, and authors and editors can blend them together, particularly during the past few years, as traditional and independent publishers change duties, or cross borders and countries. Ask for clarification about the roles and make sure your expectations and your editor’s are similar.

Concept/Consulting Editor – works on early stages of proposal or series to work out potential flaws in editorial or marketing concerns.

Developmental/Content Editor – does a deep dive into the manuscript, looking at structure, language, plot, characterization.

Line Editor – focuses on grammar, language, sentence structure, repetition, etc.

Copy Editor – does a final polish with a grammatical eye.

Beta Reader – first reader. Can focus on one aspect, or overall feel or reader appeal.

Proofreading – final check of spelling/grammar/missing words and so on.

Manuscript Critique/Editorial Assessment – often a lighter developmental edit.

Bible Creation: Many editors have experience in creating bibles (detailed outlines of characters, plots, themes, arcs, setting, family ties), over 4/6/8/16 books. Depending on needs, it can be high level or detailed.

Additionally, editors can assist a group of authors to coordinate the bible. Sometimes an outside voice can help negotiations on the handling of continuing characters and plots and makes sure that the continuity works across the breadth of the series.

Editors can also work on post-bibles. Do you remember all your minor characters? What season the book is set in? Where your characters went overseas? An editor can help organize this for you.

Story Creation:

Are you working on an idea in a new world and need some early feedback? Can your duke actually inherit the title? Can your heroine work as a riveter in the 1940s? Will your family tree work? Was that a state at the time? After you’ve come up with the initial concept, bouncing an idea off an editor can help refine your themes, explore possibilities and give suggestions on how to make your “crazy” idea work!

Are you doing a cozy mystery series? What is unique about your idea? What will make your series stand out? What can you do to incorporate that information?

Marketing ideas:

Editors have varying experience in marketing, but most with a background in traditional publishing have developed some marketing expertise that you can tap into!

Marketing-related services include the writing of back cover copy, taglines, and title development.

Some editors can also perform brand evaluations– looking at reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, B&N to pull out key and consistent phrases; looking at Amazon for metadata and presentation; offering feedback on website appearance, themes, colors; determining if there’s consistent presentation across website and covers and books; and helping to work out the unified vision of your brand;

Your editor may also be able to offer marketing advice–discussing career goals, competitive authors, talking through the benefits of traditional vs. self-publishing; advising on release schedules, and offering feedback on art and logos.

Do Your Homework:


  • Find the editor who works well with your goals and style
  • Check experience, references, recommendations
  • Ask for a sample edit of a couple of pages (most are willing to do this)
  • Many editors have a contract you can use to clarify responsibilities
  • Are there opportunities to talk/before after the edit?
  • Are the time frame, costs and expectations clear?

The Actual Edit:


  • Indicate areas you want specific feedback on
  • Ensure you are agreed on the end result
  • Some editors will question, some will fix—make sure you know what you’re getting (this can also shift according to the stage of the edit)
  • Agree on the process: will you get the marked-up manuscript, a revision letter, a memo, notes, a conversation, or a combination of these?


Recommendations from agents and fellow authors

Check out dedications/acknowledgements/Amazon info in books by favorite authors

Social Media: Twitter/Conferences/Websites

Some websites: (not in any particular order)

EFA –Editorial Freelancers Association

Publishers Marketplace –


Independent Editors Group

Association of Freelance Editors, Proofreaders, Indexers –


Society for Editors and Proofreaders –

New York Book Editors –


Recommended Resources

Undoubtedly there are ancient cave drawings that try to make sense out of love. Folks have been trying to fathom the unfathomable, to explain it, to define it, to embrace or reject it, since the dawn of time, and it has become variously the subject, the theme, the conflict, the climax or the resolution of literature’s greatest stories down through the ages.

Because love is so subjective, individuals respond to epigrams and advice about love with varying degrees of acceptance. (Personally, I’ve never thought that “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” made any sense whatsoever!)

Here are a curated collection of literary aphorisms that speak to me; perhaps you’ll enjoy them for Valentine’s day as well.


You don’t love because: you love despite; not for the virtues, but despite the

faults. William Faulkner

It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like, so long as somebody loves you.—Roald Dahl, The Witches

The desire to get married is a basic and primal instinct in women. It’s followed by another basic and primal instinct: the desire to be single again.Nora Ephron

I have learned not to worry about love; but to honor its coming with all my heart. Alice Walker

I was about half in love with her by the time we sat down. That’s the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty…you fall half in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are. — J. D. Salinger

Love is like the wind; you can’t see it but you can feel it. Nicholas Sparks

To get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with. — Mark Twain

Who, being loved, is poor? — Oscar Wilde

You can’t blame gravity for falling in love. —Albert Einstein

The best thing to hold on to in life is each other. —Audrey Hepburn

Keep love in our heart. Life without it is like a sunless garden where the flowers are dead. —Oscar Wilde Love is an irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired. —Oscar Wilde

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage. —Lau Tzu

Love doesn’t make the world go round. Love is what makes the ride worthwhile Franklin Jones

All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt. Charles Schultz

Love is but the discovery of ourselves in others, and the delight in the recognition.

Alexander Smith

It is better to love wisely, no doubt: but to love foolishly is better than not to be able to love at all. William Makepeace Thackeray

We’re all a little weird, and life’s a little weird. And when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall in mutual weirdness and call it love. Dr. Seuss

The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference.  Elie Wiesel

Love is of all passions the strongest, for it attacks simultaneously the head, the heart, and the senses. Lao Tzu


There is no remedy for love but to love more. Henry David Thoreau

Love is a serious mental disease.  Plato

Love is like a friendship caught on fire. In the beginning a flame, very pretty, often hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering. As love grows older, our hearts mature and our love becomes as coals, deep-burning and unquenchable.  Bruce Lee

Love is the greatest refreshment in life.  Pablo Picasso

Love is not measured by how many times you touch each other, but by how many times you reach each other. Unknown