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

The term “out of print” is now practically extinct.

I recently returned from the Novelists, Inc.  annual conference in St. Pete Beach, Florida.  Though I, like most of the several hundred attendees at the conference, have long-established credentials in the publishing industry, the foundations of that industry are shifting as inevitably and swiftly as the sands beneath the weary conference-goers’ feet, and the organizers decided to theme this year’s discussions around the global opportunities available to authors plunging into the digital publishing landscape. We all had much to learn!

Journalist Porter Anderson, the moderator of the introductory all-day session, put the situation this way:  “The digital dynamic means–among many other things–that there’s no such thing as “out of print” anymore.  And while that sounds like happy news for a given book or its author, it also means that the marketplace is swamped.  Nothing cycles out of the way.  Ebooks are forever.  Print-on-Demand is becoming more viable.  Old titles don’t make way for new titles.  Some observers estimate (we have no hard numbers) that the U.S. alone is producing more than 600,000 self-published titles a year. Even digital shelves are groaning.  The logical direction to look is offshore:  to international markets.  Publishing, however, historically has been structured with territorial and distributional boundaries that aren’t easily understood in a new reality of electronic access.

Most of the attendees reported that their brains were on overload by the end of the very first day, so you can imagine how minds were churning (and creative juices were pumping!) by Sunday.

Some random gleanings from the conference speakers:

  • The English language is so powerful and fecund in its willingness to absorb words from other languages that over half of the words in English are derived from foreign words
  • English has become the lingua franca of the world (with over one million words in it); we are blessed with the desire of the rest of the world to participate in our language. One in five of the world’s population speaks English.
  • By 1990, there were more students of English in China than there were people in the United States of America (from Richard Nash)
  • Cellphones are igniting a reading revolution in other countries, according to UNESCO.  Particularly in China and Africa, cellphones are becoming the primary medium upon which people read books, or just about anything else
  • There are many opportunities for English-language books outside traditional English-speaking countries.
  • Germany, with a market size of approximately 5 billion Euros, is the second largest non-English market for books, and the third largest e-book market. (Mattias Matting)
  • China, with a population of 1.4 billion, is a mobile-driven culture, and mobile reading drives the entertainment industry, as the majority read on the larger style cell phones.  In China, schools begin teaching English to children at the age of five; the country adds twenty million new English speakers yearly.
  • Because of their high degree of English proficiency, Sweden and Finland are also very rich English-language markets
  • Spanish is the third highest used language of the Internet;  there are 470 million native Spanish speakers worldwide and 550 million use it as either a first or second language.
  • Though language may be acceptable in a foreign country, culture may prove a stumbling block with regard to subject matter.  ie Christian romance doesn’t play well in China
  • Trajectory is a Boston-based company featuring an ‘intelligent network.” They have developed over 300 algorithms that map a book, parsing plot, character, setting, key words, mood, language, time period, genre etc, so that they can make recommendations not on “customers who bought this book also bought…” but rather on what readers actually read and enjoyed. (Jim Bryant, Scott Beatty)
  • Eighty percent of Y.A. (young adult) fiction is read by adults, NOT young adults. (Jane Friedman)

To further boggle the mind, I was introduced to multiple platforms, services, and technologies that all assist  authors to self-publish, from networks of editors, designers and marketers, to print-on-demand publishers, and electronic distributors that take a book from draft to digital to global upload in a matter of days.  Heady times indeed for the publishing industry, and challenging, exciting…and scary times for established authors needing to learn a whole new lexicon of terminology and processes.

Bottom line: it was a joy to re-connect and become acquainted with such a concentrated number of intelligent, thoughtful and diverse women (mostly women, anyway)  and broaden my knowledge of the changing state of the publishing industry.  My heightened awareness of the global markets for digital books will assist in editing one product for multiple target audiences, and also opens the door to adapting a single book into different formats.

Oh, and that sunset shot with the swaying palms?  That’s about the only time we got to see and feel that gorgeous beach!