Writing a Children’s Book

Originally posted to SuiteU, part of Suite101. SuiteU is being removed from the site. I wanted to save the ecourses so this resource would not disappear.

Writing a Children’s Book

By Sally Odgers

Introduction

 

Do you enjoy writing for children? Have you often read books to children and thought you would like to write one? Do you read some books for young people yourself, just for enjoyment? Have you kept up with the success stories and the controversies surrounding different juvenile titles over the past few years?

Do you often pop into the children’s section at book shops or the local library? Do you look at the books your kids bring home to find out what they’re reading? Have you recommended books to your children, or to any other young people?

Do you have an active mind? How about a good ear for dialogue? Can you quote two or three catchphrases kids use now? Do you enjoy the company of children and young people? Have you ever read stories to a child, or children, apart from your own? Can you remember the stories you enjoyed most when you were young?

Have you ever written a story, or stories, or poetry, especially for a young audience? Have you ever made up bedtime stories or car-trip stories to entertain children? Can you name five children’s authors born after 1950?

Have you begun to write a children’s book and then got stuck half way? Have you finished writing and sent it to a publisher, only to get a rejection slip with no feedback? Have you thought you’d like to write for kids, but not known where to start?

If you answered “Yes”, or “maybe” to several of these questions, then Writing a Children’s Book is the course for you. It is fun and informal, and the lessons mix theory and practical advice. There will be no formal essays.

Each lesson will consist of several sections. One section will be an overview of lesson content. One or more will cover specific parts of writing a children’s book. One will concentrate on the specifics of one particular kind of book. Finally, a designated part of each lesson will be tagged as W.I.P., and will be devoted to those who want to plan and write a manuscript right away. You may not be able to finish a whole book but you will be able to get a good start. The rest of the lesson content will be supporting information that gives you the know-how and information you need to reach your goal!

I highly recommend this course to anyone who wants to write for children and young adults. I’m sure I’ll be referring back to what I’ve learned and implementing it until it becomes a natural part of my writing process. Genia G. Butcher

 

Lesson 1: Writing for Children

The following lesson discusses things you should know about writing for children and how children’s books differ from fiction for adults. The W.I.P. (“Work In Progress”) Section will help you decide on the level and genre for your book.

In this lesson, the following topics will be covered.

What is a Children’s Book?

Writing for Today’s Young Readers.

Age Groups and Genres 1.

Age Groups and Genres 2.

Supplement – Definitions.

W.I.P. Section. Basic Plot/Genre.

This is what children’s books used to look like, fifty years ago.

 

What is a Children’s Book?

Definition of a children’s book.

There are two definitions of “a children’s book”. One is the popular definition, the other is the professional definition used by many people in the book industry, including most of the publishers I’ve dealt with over the years.

The Popular Definition is this:

A children’s book is a book intended for children of primary (or elementary) school age.

The Professional Definition is this:.

A children’s book is a book intended specifically for any readers below the age of eighteen.

The differences between the two definitions are far from cosmetic. In the first case, children’s books are seen as an extension of what we might call the “golden age of childhood”. A children’s book of this kind is seen as a happy, innocent and nurturing experience, teaching life lessons, perhaps, within the context of a story.

In the second case, a children’s book might be the kind of book described above, but it’s just as likely to be a much darker experience. It may deal with characters in their late teens, and may also include such themes as love, despair, sexual identity, death, loss, personal growth, destructions of hope, exploration of maturity, relationships, good and evil, murder, recuperation, acceptance, talent and mediocrity… I could go on, but I won’t. I’m sure you get the picture.

I shall add just this. In children’s books you will find every theme you will find in books for adults, with the exception of the overtly erotic. To the best of my knowledge no one has ever published an erotic novel for children. Yet.

It is the Professional definition that we will be using in this course. That doesn’t mean that all the subject matter will be dark and depressing. Far from it! Despite the plethora of depressing children’s books around, there are plenty of life-affirming ones as well. You just hear less about them, because they tend not to be controversial. What it does mean is that some of the things you will be learning might surprise you, especially if you signed up for this course expecting to write only for the so-called “chapter book” audience. If so, don’t worry. Books for this audience will be covered.

With such a broad definition of the term “Children’s Book” to use, it should be obvious that it’s next to impossible to describe “a typical children’s book”.

For this reason, this course will be dealing with the different kinds of children’s books in separate sections and/or separate lessons, and will be referring to them by separate names. These will include “Picture Books”, (PBs) “Junior Chapter Books” (JCBs) “Senior Chapter Books” (SCBs), “Young Adult Novels”, (YA Novels) and “Reading Scheme” (RS).

Much of the information given for writing one kind of children’s book will be equally pertinent for other levels or genres, so some of the later lessons will ask you to refer back to material studied at the beginning of the course.

 

Lesson 1: Writing for Children

Writing for Today’s Young Readers.

To write a successful children’s book, you should have a broad knowledge of the kinds of books that are being published in the 21st Century. Children’s books change enormously every few years, so books that were popular in your childhood will almost certainly be out of date today.

Here are some books from the 1960s and 1970s! See the difference?

Just as an example, let’s say you loved the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis or the stories of Enid Blyton when you were younger. You probably know that these books are still available in most children’s bookshops today. What you might not have considered is that if these books were offered as unknown manuscripts to a modern publisher, they would probably be rejected.

If this is the case, why are they still being reprinted and stocked in new editions? The answer to this is easy. These books are reprinted and sold because they already have a reputation.

In the same way, you could go to a shop and buy a modern DVD of a film first made in the 1930s. Such a film would not get an audience now, if it were shown at the cinema for the first time, but because it is known and loved, there will always be customers who will buy it for reasons of nostalgia.

There will also be those who will buy it for educational reasons. They will be studying the acting, production values, script, social attitudes and camera work rather than watching the film for simple entertainment.

You might argue that the people who buy such older movies are adults, whereas the people buying the reprints of older children’s books are children, but this isn’t quite the point. For one thing, many (if not most) pre-teen children (the ones for whom the “older” (SCB) books were usually intended) rely on adults to pay for their books. Often, adults choose the books as well as pay for them. If children do most of their reading from the school or public library, they will be choosing from a preselected list of books.

Adults buying books for children will be guided by several criteria.

(1). They may choose a book they enjoyed when they were young. (“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”.)

(2). They may choose a book they have heard of, and know to be “famous” or “well-known”. (“Anne of Green Gables”.)

(3). They may choose a book from a prominent display. (The latest “Harry Potter” or “Artemis Fowl” title.)

(4). They may look for a book whose subject matter or author they will know, or believe, that specific child will like. (A horse book, or a book by Lemony Snicket.)

(5). They may look for a book at a reasonable price. (Most older books or “classics” are cheaper, unless they are deluxe editions.)

(6). They may ask the advice of the shop owner or assistant. (The assistant will probably recommend something from one of the prominent displays.)

(7). They may choose a book they have seen reviewed, or heard discussed. (The latest “Harry Potter” or “Artemis Fowl” title.)

(8). They may choose a book from a genre the child favours. (The three set course books are examples of genre fiction. We will be looking at each of these in more detail soon.)

It is a combination of these guidelines that reinforces the demand at bookshop level for the reprinted older books and also for the already-popular books. However, when writing a children’s book you must look instead to the demand at publishing company level.

And here are books from the past decade. Now do you see the difference?

 

Lesson 1: Writing for Children

Age Groups and Genres 1.

As mentioned earlier, children’s books can be broken up into different levels according to what is appropriate for and popular with different age groups. It is important to know something about these levels, even if you intend to write for only one or two of them. Let’s look at the levels themselves, and then think about which level(s) are most appropriate for you.

The age group levels are set according to different criteria. Many of these blur and merge between the different levels, but here are some basic signposts.

Length

Age of Protagonists

Complexity of Plot

Maturity of Subject Matter.

Theme.

Complexity of Exposition.

Language and Vocabulary.

Writing Style

Ending.

The levels we will be focussing on in this course include Picture Books (PB), Junior Chapter Books (JCB), Senior Chapter Books (SCB), Young Adult Novels (YA), and Reading Scheme (RS).

Some children’s books span more than one of these age levels. Let’s look at the recommended texts.

The Orange Outlaw is specifically a junior Chapter Book in length and simplicity as well as in the age of the protagonists.

Alien Dawn is specifically an older chapter book. It has some elements of YA novel in that some of the characters are in their teens.

Trinity Street is specifically a YA novel. The protagonists are in their teens and the themes and plot elements are suited to older readers.

Genres

Children’s books include almost all the main genres and quite a few of the sub genres you will find in general novels, plus a few that are specific to children’s books. (By the way, children’s books are sometimes known as “juvenile fiction”, but for the purpose of this course I’ll stick with the older term.)

Here are some of the genres, with some points to help you identify them. Read them carefully, and then see if you can identify the genre(s) of the last three children’s books you’ve read.

Adventure appears at most of the age levels. In an adventure story, the protagonist(s) will be involved in unusual, exciting and possibly perilous events. If a major character is stranded, captured, lost, involved in a time-sensitive search, travelling by unusual means or in unusual company, the book is probably an adventure. This genre often appears blended with something else. Of the books assigned to this course, “Trinity Street” has strong adventure elements and so has “Alien Dawn”.

Thriller is more likely to appear in the SCB (senior chapter book) and (YA) Young Adult Novel. In a thriller, the main characters will be in considerable danger, and often must test themselves against the clock. They might face death or imprisonment. Thriller is often blended with adventure, fantasy or science fiction. “Trinity Street” has strong thriller elements, since Tell and Camena both face death.

Family Story appears at both JCB and SCB level, and can also crop up at PB (picture book) and RS (reading scheme). There are a few YA family stories, but they are rare. Family stories are very much character driven, and deal with family based activities and concerns. Friends and neighbours also play a large part in some family stories. “Alien Dawn” has a lot of the family story in it, especially in the shifting relationships between the two halves of the family. Friendship stories usually belong to the family group, which allows “The Orange Outlaw” to fit loosely in the category.

 

Lesson 1: Writing for Children

Age Groups and Genres 2.

Romance is always YA. A YA romance deals with love between young (usually teenaged) protagonists. YA romance departs from the general romance in that the goal is not usually permanent commitment, let alone marriage. The books that do deal with teen marriage are usually not romances.

YA romance has quite a lot in common with family stories, because the focus is usually on the attainment and maintenance of a steady relationship. In books for younger teens, the romantic element will be slighter and less physical, and the focus might be on what used to be known as girl-boy friendship.

Generally, the more realistically the relationship is depicted, the less likely the book is to be pure romance. “Trinity Street” has elements of YA romance in the relationship Tell suspects between Gerhardt and Camena, and in the relationship that does develop between Gerhardt and Tell.

Mystery can appear at any level, although it’s rare in PB. Mysteries deal with mysterious happenings that the protagonist(s) will eventually solve. There is some mystery in most adventure and much science fiction. Both “Trinity Street” and “Alien Dawn” have touches of mystery. “The Orange Outlaw” is definitely a mystery.

Fantasy occurs at all levels, and in most sub genres. PB and JCB fantasies are usually domestic fantasy, often with strong family story connections. Fantasy at SCB and YA level can include quest fantasy, fantasy romance, and virtually everything else you might find in general fantasy titles – except erotic fantasy.

Science Fiction appears at almost all levels, except perhaps PB. Pure sf is more common in SCB and YA, but domestic sf (i.e. alien friends, humorous robots) is quite common in JCB. Both “Trinity Street” and “Alien Dawn” are science fiction. “Trinity Street” has time travel, genetic engineering, and telepathy while “Alien Dawn” has aliens and telepathy.

Horror exists in SCB and YA, but not generally in the other levels. It almost never touches RS (reading scheme). Every kind of horror appears at the higher levels except erotic horror and the more extreme “slasher” horror.

Historical Novels used to be common in all levels, but are now quite rare. There is a bit of what’s known as Nostalgia Fiction in general fiction, but when this (or the true historical) does appear in children’s books it’s usually there to showcase some social injustice of the past.

Humorous historicals like the “Pagan” series by Catherine Jinks are about, and there are a few historical romances, but 1920s and Regency historical don’t seem to exist.

Issues Books used to be known as “Problem Novels” in the 1960s and ‘70s. The overtly issues-based book is probably a bit less common now than it was thirty years ago, but it certainly still exists. It tends to occur at the SCB and YA levels, but has been known to surface at JCB and PB. It even occurs in a mild form in RS.

Animal Stories are similar to family stories, but always involve an animal as a major character. The animal story exists in PB, ECB and OCB but very rarely at YA. “The Orange Outlaw” and “Alien Dawn”, despite the presence of the orang utan, the pony and the dolphins, don’t qualify.

 

Lesson 1: Writing for Children

Supplement – Definitions.

In every lesson of this course, there will be a supplementary section like this one. Most of the supplementaries will talk in depth about one of the levels, but this one will cover and define specific terms we will be using in the course, as well as a few terms you will probably hear from other writers and/or editors.

Antagonist. The element in a story that runs counter to the wishes of the protagonist. The antagonist is usually a character, but may be a circumstance. An antagonist is not necessarily an enemy, and is not necessarily negative. Antagonists sometimes become friends, and some of them are friends of the protagonist to start with.

Author/illustrator. A person who writes and illustrates books.

Camera ready. A manuscript or illustration ready for printing.

Carnegie Medal – a British children’s book award.

CBC – Children’s Book Council. A body of people that (among other things) judges the Australian Children’s Book of the Year. CBC Awards.

Chapter Book – Book that is broken up into chapters, usually for preteen readers.

Character. The characters in a story are the people or other living things that drive the plot. Custom demands that characters are sentient. A cereal box on legs could be a character, as long as it is self-aware.

Climax. The climax of a story is the most dramatic point. It usually comes close to the end.

Commissioning editor. An editor who has the power to commission work.

Conflict, external and internal. Conflict is the element that makes a book exciting. Conflict can occur between two characters or between a character and events, or between character and inanimate things such as weather or time. This is called external conflict. Sometimes conflict occurs within the protagonist, usually be cause s/he wants to do something and knows it’s wrong or impossible. This is called internal conflict. Moral conflict occurs when a character is doing something s/he knows is morally wrong, or sees someone else do it and is either unable to prevent it or fearful of the consequences of doing so.

Cumulative story. In a cumulative story, events happen more than once, with slight changes. The Great Big Enormous Turnip is a well-known cumulative story.

CV. This is your writing CV. If a publisher asks for it, they want to know your writing credits, including publications or contest places.

Drafts are the various stages of the complete manuscript. The first draft is the first complete writing of the manuscript. Most writers go through at least three drafts. These days, pure first or second drafts are rare. Many writers edit behind themselves as they go, so the first and second chapter might be second draft while the third is still at first draft and the fourth is unwritten.

Editing is improving a book or story by reading it through and making changes, Structural editing means improving the plot structure, while line editing and copy editing mean fixing small typos and other little errors. Style editing means smoothing out the stylistic problems.

Enemy. An enemy in a children’s book is usually the bad guy, but can also be someone with whom the protagonist has a personality clash.

Galley proof – the printed pages made from a manuscript and sent to the author for correction. Followed by (and occasionally replaced by) the page proof. Galleys and page proofs are sometimes electronic.

Greenaway Medal – children’s book award, named for Kate Greenaway.

Hard copy – a manuscript printed on paper.

High concept. (Also known as a “log line”.) The high concept is the story of your book distilled into a sentence of 25 words or fewer.

Illustration roughs, or roughs. Trial illustrations, sometimes sent to an author for approval.

JCB – Junior Chapter Book. A book that has chapters, and is intended for younger readers.

Kid lit, or kiddy lit. A colloquial term for children’s literature.

Manuscripts are unpublished books. Originally, the word “manuscript” meant “hand-written” (compare the word “manual”), but these days a manuscript can be computer generated. It can be a hard copy (printed on paper) or electronic file (existing on a floppy disk, hard drive or CD.) “Ms” is the usual abbreviation, and “mss” is the plural form.

Motivation. This is the reason why characters do things in a book. The character should always have a reason for behaving/acting as s/he does. Saying “s/he has to do it for the sake of the plot” won’t do.

Newbery Medal – An award given to American children’s books.

Pace. The speed with which story events follow one another in the book.

PB – Picture book or picture story book.

Plot. What happens in a book.

P.O.V. – Abbreviation for Point of View, otherwise known as “viewpoint”.

Precis. A précis is a short paragraph telling what kind of book you plan to write. A very short synopsis.

Proposal. If you’re asked for a proposal, you will probably be expected to write a document explaining to an editor why your potential book would be suited to his/her list. A proposal would contain a rationale, a synopsis, projected readership (such as…”would appeal to readers who enjoy Paul Jennings”) and perhaps a piece about themes and characters.

Protagonist. A protagonist is the main character in a story. Some people use the words hero and heroine, but these are tending to become specific to romances. A protagonist need not be heroic. A secondary protagonist is known as a “co-protagonist”.

Rationale. The rationale of a book proposal is the reasoning that explains why this book should be written or published. It is also the motivation behind some plot points.

Resolution. The resolution of a story is the end of the plot, showing how the main problem/conflict is solved.

RS – Reading Scheme Novel.

Sample and Synopsis. (also known colloquially as “Synopsis and Three”). This means a full synopsis of your novel, plus three sample chapters. These are always the first three. Occasionally only one sample chapter will be needed, in which case you should send the first.

SCB – Senior Chapter Book. A book that has chapters, and is intended for older readers.

Scene – Like a scene n a play. Something that happens to one or more characters in the same place and time.

Sim-sub – Simultaneus Submission. This means sending a manuscript to more than one publisher at a time. It is usually frowned on, but a few publishers allow it. The ones that do so insist that you should put the words “Simultaneus Submission” on the cover page of the ms.

SitNor – Situation Normal. The base state of your characters when the novel begins.

Story Events. The major events that happen in the book. The things that move the plot along.

Sub – Can mean to “sub-edit” but usually this is author-speak for “submission” of a manuscript. Can be used as a noun or verb.

Synopsis. A synopsis can be short or long, detailed or brief. It can be chapter-by-chapter or general. All synopses present the main plot and point of a book, including the major conflict and how it is resolved. Any synopsis must include the ending.

Theme. The non-concrete happenings in a book. The meaning of the book.

W.i.p. is the short form of “work in progress” which means a partially written novel or story.

YA – Young Adult. Teenaged readers.

 

Lesson 1: Writing for Children

W.I.P. Section. Basic Plot/Genre.

In every lesson in this course, I will include a W.I.P. Section like this one. This is a separate part of the lesson written especially for those students who want to start writing a children’s book immediately. Not all students will want to use this section yet, but I suggest you do read it through. It might come in useful later, and there will be some information and advice in the w.i.p. sections that might not be offered elsewhere in the course.

The first thing you need to do is to decide what you want to write about.

You may already have an idea, a storyline or one or more characters in mind.

You might have the children’s book manuscript you have started or written to first draft form already.

You might also have a manuscript you have completed, but which you have not yet been able to place, or about which you are not confident.

Whether you are at any of these stages, or have not yet reached any of them, you can adapt the following instructions and make them work for you.

Most writers who want to write a children’s book, have a pretty specific idea of what kind of book they prefer. It doesn’t matter where you start, although some levels and some genres are easier to sell than others.

For the purpose of this course, I’m going to provide instructions for writing a short novel. This novel will be made up of five chapters, and it can be at any level except picture book. Generally, books for the SCB and Y.A. levels tend to be much longer than those at the JCB and RS levels, but the structure of a novel remains surprisingly the same, no matter which level it occupies.

If you elect to write an JCB or RS for this exercise, it is possible that you might end up with a manuscript of publishable standard. If you choose one of the others, it would be difficult to market, because it will be shorter than most editors would expect. Don’t let this prevent you from choosing the level you prefer, because the object of this exercise to to learn how to structure and complete a children’s book.

Before you make your final choice of level, you should look at the idea, storyline or characters you hope to use, and make sure these are suited to the level you prefer. A well-known rule of thumb is the most young readers prefer to read about characters their age or a little older. Therefore, if you plan to write and JCB, with putative readers of seven or eight years old, you should probably make your major characters somewhere between seven and nine. Characters in a SCB should probably be 11, 12 or 13, or characters in a Y.A. can be anything from 13 to 19 or 20.

It is quite possible that be genre of your story is inherent in the idea. Some ideas, as we saw when looking at “Trinity Street”, can span two or more genres or some genres. Despite this, most children’s books fall mainly into one genre, and it is probably worth deciding which it is.

Once you have decided on your age level and genre, you should begin by writing a proposal. This proposal is not for sending to an editor. It is a writing tool for you. The great enemy of most writers is hazy thinking, or imperfectly formulated ideas. You need to have a very clear idea of what kind of book you’re writing before you start.

To write your proposal, follow this simple formula.

Begin with the words:

“This book is an (insert AGE LEVEL) novel in the (insert GENRE) genre.

It is about (insert CHARACTER, including name and age) who wants/doesn’t want/fears (insert CONFLICT or OBJECT) because (insert MOTIVATION).

To avoid/achieve (insert OBJECT or GOAL), s/he (insert ACTION), which results in (insert RESULT).

After this, s/he (insert ACTION) which results in (insert CLIMAX).

In the end, (insert END or RESOLUTION).”

 

 

Lesson 1: Writing for Children

Exercises and Bibliography.

 

Exercise

Read “The Orange Outlaw”, so you will be familiar with it for the next lesson.

Points to Consider

Which area of children’s book writing interests you most? Why?

Bibliography.

“The Orange Outlaw”, by Ron Roy. Publisher: Random House. ISBN 0375802703

“Alien Dawn”, by Maggie Pearson. Publisher: Hodder. ISBN: 0340680776

“Trinity Street”, by Sally Odgers, Publisher: HarperCollins ISBN: 0732258685

“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, by CS Lewis. 1950. Various editions.

“Anne of Green Gables”, by L. M. Montgomery. 1908. Various editions.

“Pagan” series by Catherine Jinks. Various publishers (available from Amazon).

 

Lesson 2: Planning Your Book.

In this lesson, we’ll be looking at the building blocks of books.

Themes and Ideas.

Characters.

How to Plan Your Book.

Specific Level – Picture Books.

Supplement: Anatomy of a Specific Picture Book.

W.I.P. Section. Planning Your Book.

Exercise and Bibliography.

 

Themes and Ideas.

When planning a children’s book of any age level, genre or length, there are several elements you will need to consider. It is difficult to look at each element in isolation, because each one affects and can be affected by each one of the others.

The major elements include:

Idea. Plot. Themes. Characters. Style or format.

Because all these elements need to be properly balanced, it is important to plan your manuscript in a reasonable amount of detail before you begin to write.

Writing a children’s book without planning at first makes about as much sense as cutting out a dress or a pair of trousers without using a paper pattern, or building a house without using architectural plans. You might end up with something readable, wearable, or liveable, but it’s just as likely the structure and the fit will be wrong.

When you are an experienced writer, you may be able to put a book together with less initial planning. After all, if you give an experienced cook eggs, flour, sugar and margarine, s/he will know “instinctively” how much of each should be added to make a cake. S/he may not bother to measure the ingredients. If the mixture looks too stiff, the cook will add milk, if it’s sloppy, the cook will add flour. It is quite likely s/he won’t bother to set the oven timer, but will still know when the cake is cooked.

If you analyse all this, you’ll discover that the cook is not really acting by instinct, but according to experience. S/he has baked cakes before, and so knows how the batter should look, how long to bake, and the way it will smell when it is done.

An inexperienced cook will not be able to do this with so much confidence.

Beginning a Plan.

Most authors begin their book plans with an idea.

An idea is the central point of the story, the seed that grows into the tree. Here are some ideas that became children’s books. Some are questions, and some are facts or theories. Some are speculations. Some are actual happenings. You will notice that more than one idea can contribute to each book. You can write a PB with one idea, but for longer narratives you usually need more.

Facts and Observations

The Bronte sisters and William Shakespeare have no direct descendants.

The higher a person’s educational and socio-economic standing, the fewer children s/he is likely to have.

Modern medicine preserves people who would have died in earlier generations.

Healthy foetuses are sometimes terminated while less fertile couples use extreme measures to bring a less healthy embryo to term.

Health and intelligence can be inherited from parents.

Theory and Speculation

Could these facts eventually lead to a slight fall in the average health and intelligence of the human race?

Idea for Story.

If so, what would happen if someone from the future decided to reverse the trend?

These were the ideas that eventually lead to the YA science-fiction/thriller “Trinity Street”.

Another Example

Real Event

A mother and daughter went to a commune. The mother was bitten by a python.

Theory and Speculation

Pythons aren’t poisonous, but they can give a nasty bite. What if a timid person had been bitten? What if it had been the child?

Idea for Story.

Timid child encounters python at a commune. She must try to be brave.

These were the ideas that eventually lead to the RS novel “Sweetwater Surprise”.

Themes are related to ideas, and can arrive in a book without conscious effort from the author. It is often easier to identify an existing theme than to choose and insert one.

In children’s books, themes generally become more complex as the age level rises. For example, the theme of “Sweetwater Surprise” is simple. “Sometimes you are braver than you think”. The themes of “Trinity Street” are rather more complicated. These have to do with trust, morality, personal responsibility, individual rights, changing attitudes, justice and acceptance.

 

Lesson 2: Planning Your Book.

Characters.

Once you have the basic idea for your story, you need to make some decisions about characters. If you’re writing a picture book, an RS novel, or a JCB, then you’re going to have to limit the number of characters you use. If you have too many characters, it is difficult to give them enough to do. It can be difficult for young readers to keep a large cast of characters straight, and there is a danger that you, as writer, might forget one or two of them for quite large chunks of the book.

It is usually sensible to have one or two major characters. Three or four is also possible, but this works best if the characters are grouped together in some way. In real life, children seem to fall naturally into two groups: some have one “best friend”, while others will be happier with a gaggle of less intense acquaintances. Both set-ups suggest inbuilt conflict, which can be useful for you as a writer.

Best friends (often two girls) provide foils for one another. Chalk/cheese partnerships are rewarding to write about, and quite common in real life. Children and teenagers often find in a best friend elements they think are missing from their own characters. There are two inherent forms of conflict present in a best friend partnership.

(1)If the friends are divided by internal or external circumstances (a quarrel, illness, relocation of one of the families) then both partners will suffer loneliness and unhappiness. More distant acquaintances can’t fill the gap, and will probably be unwilling to try.

(2) If one of the partners makes an additional friend or takes up an absorbing interest the other doesn’t (or can’t) share, then one will feel left out and abandoned, while the other will probably feel guilty and resentful.

Group friendships often involve four or more children and teenagers. There are obvious advantages in having more than one friend, because if one is unavailable or disagreeable, there are always others to fill the gap.

The disadvantages are equally obvious. The group dynamics will be complicated, as it is unlikely that every member of the group will be equally happy with the company of every other member.

There will probably be one or more natural leaders, and it is quite likely there will be one or more natural victims or butts.

It might be difficult to organise social occasions, and adding or subtracting one person from the group can upset the dynamics.

If a member of the group is in trouble, s/he might feel isolated because of the lack of close and specific friendship.

Traditionally, many children’s books had four main characters. These were often mixed sets of boys and girls, even in books at the SCB level where romantic pairing was unlikely. Mixed foursomes (almost always two boys, and two girls) occur in the following vintage series. Approximate decades of first publication are shown.

Four Pevensies in “Narnia” series by C.S. Lewis (1950s.)

Four Walkers in the “Swallows and Amazons” series by Arthur Ransome. 1940s.

Four siblings (plus a baby brother) in E. Nesbit’s “Five Children” series. (1910.)

Four Thorntons in Monica Edwards’ “Punchbowl Farm” series. 1940s-1960s.

Four Melendys in Elizabeth Enright’s “Melendy” series. (1940s.)

Four siblings in Edward Eager’s “Magic” series. (1960s).

Four children (2 siblings, 2 cousins plus a dog) in Enid Blyton’s “Famous Five” series. (1940s-1960s)

Four friends (two are cousins) in Monica Edwards’ “Romney Marsh” series (1940s-1960s)

Four teenagers (two are siblings) in Geoffrey Trease’s “Bannermere” series. (1940s-1950s)

It is easy to see why authors and readers favoured this kind of foursome. Siblings or not, a group of four children or teenagers offered a strong possibility for reader identification. They were usually strongly characterised, and included such character types as the “dreamy believer”, “natural leader”, “spoiled baby”, “practical quiet one”, “professor” or “eccentric”. Despite this, it was rare for all four to be equals. Usually, one or two were featured more than the others.

Using the foursome still works today, but it is probably better in SCB and YA than in JCB. It is more difficult to use the four-sibling arrangement, because few modern families produce four children close enough in age.

Four-handed boy/girl friendships are rare in SCB territory, although they might easily occur among younger children. One way of producing a viable foursome is to include one pair of siblings and a complementary pair of unrelated friends

What about books with one protagonist rather than a pair or a group? These can work well, because the focus of the story isn’t diluted. However, there is a danger that the balance between narrative and dialogue can come unstuck if the protagonist spends too much time alone. It is possible to have one or two protagonists from a book with a larger family, such as “Alien Dawn”. Famous single protagonist books from the past include L.M. Montgomery’s “Anne” and “Emily” series.

Other character patterns and some tips on character development will be covered later in the course.

 

Lesson 2: Planning Your Book.

How to Plan Your Book.

There are several ways of planning a book, but the one I’m going to show you in this section is one of the most straightforward.

We have already seen how questions and facts can be turned into a story idea. The next step is to test the idea and see whether it is strong enough to be turned into a viable children’s book.

You will be hearing the word strong a lot in this course. Lack of strength is a major cause for rejection of children’s book manuscripts.

It is easier to understand the planning process if you look at a story as a mathematical equation. A good idea is very important, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Here is the equation, reduced to its simple form.

Idea + How/Why Reason = Situation. Situation + Result +Action + Result = Story.

Here is an actual simple plan that resulted in a published book.

Idea – What if someone had a pet unicorn?

How/Why Reason – Q. How could you have a unicorn without attracting attention? A. It’s a pocket-sized one. It came from the pet shop.

Situation – A boy buys a pocket unicorn from a pet shop.

Result – He has a rare pet with a rare sense of its own importance.

Action – He has to work out how to handle its demands.

Result – He gains the upper hand by refusing to be bullied.

Here is the storyline rendered as a brief synopsis.

A lonely child buys a pocket unicorn as a pet, but because it will eat only rose petals and drink only spring water, it’s a problem! Then it demands a silk pavilion and silver chalice for its food… Of course, the pet-shop it came from denies ever stocking unicorns, and our hero knows he can’t just let pets loose… somehow he must learn to handle the pocket unicorn and win its respect.

Characters. The characters had to match the type and length of the projected book. As this is a RS novel, it was short, and aimed at readers of eight or so. Therefore, the protagonist was a boy of about that age. Other characters in the story included the pet shop owner, the boy’s elder brother, the boy’s dad, a neighbour and the unicorn itself.

The brother was older and was always reading. This allowed him to accompany the protagonist to the pet shop, but made him vague enough not to notice what his brother bought.

Themes One theme is wants Vs needs.

The unicorn wants things the child can’t provide. It doesn’t need them.

A second theme is reasonable obligation. How much obligation does the child have to a demanding pet?

There is also a somewhat sneaky “hidden” theme. Adults reading between the lines will spot it, but children may not. This doesn’t matter. Just because child readers fail to see parallels between Perren’s problems when his unicorn demands things he can’t give it and their own parents’ problems when they do likewise, doesn’t mean the theme has failed. It’s always better for a book to work on more than one level.

To plan your own book, look at your idea. Ask yourself how or why this idea can be turned into a Situation.

X does Y, therefore Z happens.

Once you have your Situation, look at it hard and critically. Ask yourself a question.

Why is this important? or Does this matter?

If the situation isn’t important to the protagonist, and if the situation can be solved or left unsolved without it mattering, then your idea is weak. Don’t ever write a book with a weak idea.

Let’s look at Perren and his pet. Does it matter if the pet demands things it can’t have?

Yes, because it ruins the owner/pet relationship.

Is it important for Perren to solve the problem?

Yes, because if he doesn’t, he’ll have to abandon the pet or return it (and feel a failure) or else suffer being bullied.

Look at the central idea/situation of “The Orange Outlaw”.

Does it matter if the painting is never found?

Yes, because stealing is wrong and thieves shouldn’t profit from wrongdoing. Uncle Warren will feel an obligation to his friend. The children don’t want to see Uncle Warren discomforted. Other people in the block will be under suspicion.

If your idea/situation is important, then look at the central problem or goal and ask yourself this;

What does the Protagonist do about it?

You may come up with several answers to this. You should always pick the most interesting one.

Next question: What happens next?

The answer to this depends partly on the level of the book. If it is a short JCB or RS novel, then the protagonist will make between one and three attempts to solve the problem/achieve the goal. For example, in “The Pocket Unicorn”, Perren first tries to comply with the unicorn’s demands, and then tries (and fails) to return it to the shop. In a longer book, more complex solutions will be tried.

Depending on the length of the book, you might ask the “What happens next?” question five or more times.

Next, you decide how the protagonist solves the problem. Note that the solution should come from the protagonist. The problem shouldn’t be solved by someone else.

Finally, you decide how the story should end.

When all these questions and responses are written down in order, you have a skeleton plan.

 

Lesson 2: Planning Your Book.

Specific Level – Picture Books.

In this, the first of the sections devoted specifically to each age level, we focus on children’s picture books, also known as picture story books.

In some ways, a picture book looks like a tempting first project. Unfortunately, it is one of the most difficult levels to sell. This is partly because of the expense of producing them, and partly because many writers, even experienced ones, fail to realise how picture books are constructed and what they actually are.

Picture books, as their name implies, are always illustrated. Illustrations are almost always in colour, and almost always much more extensive than the text. The pictures serve a different purpose from those in other illustrated books.

In an illustrated novel, pictures break up and interpret the story.

In a picture book, pictures are part of the story. They are so important that they can sometimes make the text mean something else. Here’s an example.

In a JCB (such as “The Orange Outlaw”) you might read a line like this.

“Tom was frightened of heights. That meant he was very careful on the monkey bars. Mum said he was very brave.”

The same scene in a PB might read like this.

“Tom climbed the monkey bars. ‘How brave of you!’ said Mum.”

It is left to the illustration to depict Tom’s white-knuckled grip on the bars, and the look of terror on his face. Mum’s words are positive, but her pose would betray that she’s ready to catch and rescue if necessary.

It takes time for some writers to understand that picture books are not just shorter novels.

A picture book must have a theme. It must have a strong idea. It must have a point. It cannot be about a child having a nice time. Something important has to happen.

The plot might be structured like the plot you saw being developed in the section on planning, or it might have a cumulative structure in which the same scene repeats with variations. It might be told in rhyme, or part rhyme, and it might have a refrain. You will read about the anatomy of a specific picture book in the supplement section of this lesson.

Modern picture books usually have between 400 and 700 words. A few are longer, but these are usually written by well-established authors who are allowed to break the rules.

Some picture books are written and illustrated by the same person, or by established teams. Most publishers I have dealt with prefer authors to submit the unillustrated text. If an editor chooses it for publication, then s/he will organise an illustrator. Unless acting as author/illustrator, authors typically have no choice and no responsibility for the artwork.

Picture books have 32 pages. The story usually begins with a single page (P3). Typically, the story will begin with an introductory sentence that sets the character(s) and scene and situation. 14 double spreads follow, and the story will develop on these spreads, which may have one large picture or separate ones. The story ends with a single page (P.32). Because the pictures dominate the form, you need to avoid writing a story that shows the same character(s) repeatedly in the same scene(s).

Because picture books are so short, they must be finely crafted. Every word counts. This is expecially true if writing a rhyming picture book. Every line must carry the story forward. No line must ever be there just to make up the rhyme.

 

Lesson 2: Planning Your Book.

Supplement: Anatomy of a Specific Picture Book.

In this section, we are going to look at a specific picture book and see how it is constructed. I am using one of my own books because I own the copyright and thus am able to quote from it freely without paying permissions. “I’m Big Enough” was published in 2002. It represents the “cosy” picture book genre, and is usually read to children rather than by them. Its sub genre is “animal story”. The illustrations and cover picture were done by Lloyd Foye.

P.1. has the title, author and illustrator names and publishing imprint.

P.2. is the imprint page, with dedications, publishing details and copyright notice.

P.3. shows a picture of a wallaby joey hopping after his mother. The text begins.

“Joey was hopping along with his mother.”

(This sets the situation. Mother Wallaby looks placid, in the picture, while Joey looks lively and a bit anxious. He’s trying to keep up.)

Pp 4/5. Picture spread, showing Joey and Mother facing one another, conversing happily.

Text on P 4 has Joey asking his mother if he may hop alone to Wallaby Grove. Mum offers a lift, but Joey insists he wants to hop himself.

P.5. text has Mother asking if he knows the way. Joey details the route “Past Pretty Creek, Big Rock, Great Gum, Wattle Knob and then it’s Wallaby Grove.” (This sets up a rhythm and partial refrain.)

Pp 6/7. Spread shows Joey and Mother bidding affectionate farewell with a kiss. No text on P.6.

P.7. text has Mother giving Joey permission and reiterates his destination.

Pp 8/9. Picture on P.8. shows Joey eating grass. Text states that he is eating, but things seem too quiet… so he decides to start hopping.

P.9. has a small continuation of picture, showing ground and a tree. The text tells how Joey goes “Hoppity-hoppity-hop”. (This is another rhythm and refrain.)

Pp 10/11. Big spread picture, showing Joey on the bank of a creek, conversing with Platytpus, who is in the creek.

Text on P.10. has Platypus ask where Joey is going, and has Joey’s proud answer.

Text on P.11. has Platypus opine that Joey is too little to be alone, and set him a test of maturity. He is to catch a worm.

Pp 12/13. Spread shows Joey failing and Platypus succeeding.

Text on P.12 has Joey explaining he can’t do it, while Platypus says he will accompany Joey. No text on P.13.

Pp 14/15. Spread shows Joey and Platypus meeting Wombat by a big rock.

Text on P.14. has Joey and Platypus travelling, and meeting Wombat. Wombat asks where Joey is going, Platypus responds. Wombat says he’s too little. Joey tries to intervene and say he’s big enough. (The “adults” are taking away Joey’s independence, and his attempt to win it back doesn’t succeed.)

Text on P.15. has Wombat set a test of maturity. Joey must dig a burrow.

Pp 16/17. Spread shows Joey scratching the soil while Wombat digs an impressive burrow.

Text on P.16 tells of Joey’s failure.

Text on P.17. has Wombat show how it’s done, and announce she’s coming with him.

Pp 18/19. Spread shows Joey hopping towards a big tree, while the others discuss him and follow.

Text on P.18. says that Joey hops while Platypus runs and Wombat trundles. They agree it’s a long way – too far for Joey.

Text on P.19 finds Joey remembering his failure and doubting his own readiness.

Pp 20/21 shows Joey, Platypus and Wombat peering up at Possum in the tree.

Text on P.20. has Possum asking where they’re going while the others explain. Joey says he thought he was big enough… but admits his failures.

Text on P.21. has Possum setting his test for maturity. Joey must hang by his tail.

Pp 22/23. Spread shows a big tree in the centre, with Possum on the right and Joey on the left. Joey is examining his tail with startled attention.

Text on P.22. has Joey saying he can’t hang by his tail because “my tail doesn’t bend enough!” (This is the beginning of Joey’s rebellion.)

Text on P.23. has Possum seeing his test failed, and the “adults” agree that they’ll look after Joey.

Pp 24/25. Picture on P. 24 shows Joey, Platypus, Wombat and Possum travelling. The “adults” look smug, Joey annoyed.

Picture on P.25. shows Kookaburra flying towards them.

Text on P.24. has the “hoppity hop” refrain, and the “Platypus ran, Wombat trundled and Possum scurried beside him” refrain as well. Kookaburra greets them and asks Joey where he’s going “with such a mob?” Joey tells his destination and the others break in and tell how he failed their tests.

Text on P.25. has Kookaburra mockingly setting her maturity test. “Let’s see him fly! That will prove he’s not too little.”

Pp 26/27. Picture on P.26 shows consternation on the faces. Picture on P.27 shows Kookaburra waiting.

Text on P.26. has the three “adults” saying “But- how could he do that?”

Text on P.27. has Kookaburra reiterate her challenge.

Pp. 29/30. Picture on P.29. shows Joey looking exasperated. Picture on P. 30. shows Kookaburra again.

Text on P.29. has Joey expostulate that he hasn’t got any wings. Kookaburra agrees. The others agree, and say they never thought of that…but “all the same, he’s only little.”

Text of P.30. has Kookaburra asking Joey what he can do to prove his maturity. Joey says “I can hop along. That’s what wallabies do when they’re getting big.” Kookaburra tells him to “hop along”, and Joey does so.

Pp 31/32. Big spread shows Joey happily meeting Mother Hopalong at Wallaby Grove.

Text on P.31 has Joey telling Mother that wallabies can’t catch worms, dig burrows, hang by their tails or fly. Mum agrees, then ask why they’d want to. (This underlines Kookaburra’s point, and shows that Mother is a much better judge of Joey’s capabilities than the other “adults”.)

P.32. Vignette picture of Joey and Mum greeting one another with a kiss as they parted on Pp 6/7.

Text says “Beats me,” said Joey, and kissed his mother’s nose.

This is a simple little story with around 700 words. The theme is yardsticks for maturity, and the foolishness of expecting others to use your own yardsticks… or yourself to use theirs. The “happy” pictures echo the generally positive tone of the story. There are no tricks in the pictures, but a few little jokes, such as the spotty lizard that appears in most pictures but never in the text.

The book was originally titled “Joey Hopalong” and the animals all had names, but the editor preferred to use “Wombat”, “Possum” etc and chose a thematic title.

 

Lesson 2: Planning Your Book.

W.I.P. Section. Planning Your Book.

If you are following the W.I.P. sections, you will know that you should have chosen the level and genre for your project. You may also remember that this particular book, no matter what age level it is pitched to, is to be planned in five short chapters. If you have an idea to build on, write it up now in the format you learned in the Lesson 2 section on Planning.

1.First, write down the idea, and turn it into a Situation.

X does /wants/ dreads Y, therefore Z happens.

Example – (19th Century. A thief comes to the house while two girls (servant Dolphin and owner’s daughter Cathie) are alone. Dolphin fights back.)

2.Next, make sure your Situation is strong enough. Why is this important? or Does this matter?

3. If the answer is “yes”, continue. If not, try to strengthen the Situation by raising the stakes for your protagonist(s).

4. Decide, and write down, your protagonist’s first reaction to the Situation. What is his or her first move?

Example –. Dolphin is frightened. A former convict, she knows the thief. Cathie is afraid she’ll lose her new brooch.

5.What happens next? Does the protagonist partially solve the problem? Does his or her action make the problem worse, or set off a new problem?

Example –. Dolphin hides Cathie and valuables. She pretends to play along with thief. Cathie is bewildered.

6.Decide and write down, what the protagonist does to solve the current situation.

Example –. Dolphin tries to distract thief.

7.The protagonist decides on and carries out a course of action that either solves the situation wholly or partially, or precipitates a house of cards disaster. This is the climax.

Example –. Dolphin manages to persuade thief there’s nothing of value. She feeds him, and slips syrup of figs in the food. Cathie’s parents return.

8. Decide, and write down, what happens in the end.

Example –. Dolphin is rewarded and Cathie has gained respect for her.

Now you have this step-by-step plan, write it down in synopsis form. This should be a running narrative, like this. It will give an idea of the shape of the finished story, and fill in background.

Sample Synopsis. 12 year old Dolphin is a convict, convicted of stealing a horse and now indentured servant of the Casey family. She also minds the children, one of whom (Cathie) tells the story. Mrs Casey goes to visit a neighbour, leaving Cathie with Dolphin. (Cathie has been ill.) Dolphin is in the kitchen when a bushranger arrives. Recognising him, she drops the family’s savings and Cathie’s new brooch in the slops pail and offers the man some food. Cathie realises something is wrong, but Dolphin (who is usually kind) forces her to stay hidden. She then helps the man search the house before leaving. It looks as if Dolphin is helping the bushranger, but Cathie decides to trust her. In the end, Dolphin has not only saved the valuables but has also given the bushranger syrup of figs with his meal. A grown-up Cathie reveals that Dolphin received her ticket of leave and became a businesswoman with her own fleet of ships.

Now that you have a connected story, break it into five chapters.

Ch. 1. Sets up the story, introduces the main character(s) and the situation. Situation may get suddenly worse (as when bushranger arrives)

Ch. 2. tells of character(s) first action attempt, and result.

Ch. 3. Character(s) make new or further efforts. Problem continues or worsens.

Ch. 4. Character(s) make new effort, which succeeds (or fails spectacularly).

Ch. 5. Story ends. Characters’ new situation shown.

Please note, the story need not have a happy ending, but the ending should be believable and suitable for the age level you have chosen.

“Dolphin” is a story at the SCB level. The characters are 12 and 10, but the book’s length and complexity are low because it’s a RS title. Because it’s SCB, there can be some detail about convict times, the threat of violence, and genuine fear and suspense for Cathie and Dolphin.

 

Lesson 2: Planning Your Book.

Exercises and Bibliography

 

Exercise

Go to a book shop or library, or raid your own shelves, and find an original picture book (i.e. not a TV or film tie-in or spin off) that was first published (not just reprinted) in the past five years.

Study this book. Look at the way it is constructed, whether it uses rhyme, rhythm or refrains. Look at the language. See how the pictures support or add to the text. Now, see what kind of picture book it is. Is it “cosy”, like “I’m Big Enough”? Is it an “issues” book? i.e. does it deal with subjects such as death, divorce or jealousy or aging? Is it a happy romp, with no discernable message? Is it mysterious? Is it meant to be read aloud, or self-read? What age group would like it?

When you’ve done this, write down your findings. If you intend to write picture books yourself, you should study as many modern examples as you can find.

Bibliography.

“Narnia” series by C.S. Lewis. Usually known as “The Chronicles of Narnia”. 7 titles. Various editions.

“Swallows and Amazons” series by Arthur Ransome. 1940s. 12 titles. Various editions.

E. Nesbit’s “Five Children” series. 3 titles. Various editions.

Monica Edwards’ “Punchbowl Farm” series. 11 titles. Various editions.

Elizabeth Enright’s “Melendy” series. 5 titles. Various editions.

Edward Eager’s “Magic” series. 4 titles. Various editions.

Enid Blyton’s “Famous Five” series. Various editions.

Monica Edwards’ “Romney Marsh” series. 15 titles. Various editions.

Geoffrey Trease’s “Bannermere” series. 5 titles. Various editions.

L.M. Montgomery’s “Anne” and “Emily” series, beginning with “Anne of Green Gables” and “Emily of New Moon”. Various editions.

Maggie Pearson

“Alien Dawn”.

Sally Odgers –

“The Pocket Unicorn”, Barrie Publishing. “I’m Big Enough”, Koala Books, 2002. “Sweetwater Surprise”, Barrie Publishing. “Trinity Street”, HarperCollins, 1997.

Anna Mario

“Dolphin”. Barrie Publishing 2002. Illustrated by Lisa Coutts.

 

Lesson 3: Casting Your Book.

In this lesson, we’ll be talking about characters, and focussing on Junior Chapter Books.

About the Cast of Your Book.

More about the Cast of Your Book

Putting Depth in Characters.

Specific Level – Junior Chapter Books.

Supplement – Anatomy of a Specific JCB.

W.I.P. Section. Creating your Cast.

Exercises and Bibliography

About the Cast of Your Book.

Protagonists in children’s books are usually children or teenagers. Many readers resist books about children much younger than they are, so a rule of thumb often used is that the protagonist of a book should be one or two years older than the expected readership. Therefore, if you were writing a book for readers of 8-10, you would write about a character of 9-11 or so. If writing for younger teenagers of 13 or 14, you might make your major characters 15-16.

You can always fill out the cast with younger or older friends, siblings or neighbours. If you are writing about a group of protagonists the age range can be spread out more.

Adult Protagonists in Children’s Books.

JCBs and PBs sometimes use protagonists who are adults. There’s a well-established precedent for this, as characters in fairytales and folktales are usually teenagers or adults. Children of eight or so who enjoy stories about Robin Hood, Superman and Snow White aren’t going to object that the protagonists are all too old to be interesting. However, it can be dangerous to make assumptions on the grounds that traditional stories set a precedent, just as it is dangerous to assume that writing like your favourite childhood authors is the way to get into print today.

Adult protagonists in modern children’s books are often eccentric or unusual. They might be very elderly or childlike. Some picture books with elderly protagonists deal with themes of loss, lack of independence, or friendship, or pets, which are all matters that can also concern children. A retired adult, like a child, might have few social responsibilities, but instead of parents saying “you can’t have a pet” or “come down off that, you’ll fall!”, you might find adult children or Society itself.

Animal Protagonists

Animal protagonists are common, and can be very interesting. There are several ways of using them.

(1)A natural animal, which acts just as a real one would.

(2)A natural animal, but one that understands human speech.

(3)A natural animal that talks to one or more humans. This will bring you into the realm of fantasy.

(4)A humanised animal, that wears clothes, goes to school, rides a bike etc. If taking this option, stop to ask yourself why the character should be an animal if it’s going to act just like a human!

Of course, an animal can be a major character in a book even if it isn’t the protagonist. Many animals play the roles of friends to book characters, and many others provide “conversation characters” (someone for the human protagonist to talk with to break up long stretches of narrative) or goals. For example, a story in which child character longs for/rescues/seeks a dog/cat/pony is one in which the animal character is important. The animal can be a natural animal, or one that only the protagonist realises is “special”.

If you are writing about a natural animal as a protagonist or major character, you should make sure you know about such an animal’s habits and capabilities.

Supernatural or Fantasy Protagonists

Some children’s books have protagonists or main characters that are supernatural. This isn’t difficult to handle if you follow the lead of writers such as Annie Dalton. Her “Angels Unlimited” series (beginning with “Winging It”) shows how Melanie Beebe, a very new angel, learns the ropes and rules of her new existence. Mel might be an angel but she’s still, in essence, a modern thirteen-year-old girl and she talks and acts like one. She loves shopping, gets crushes and clashes with her teachers now and again.

Similarly, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is a wizard, but he is also a boy. He remains essentially human in attitudes and behaviour.

If your protagonist is a supernatural being that has never been, or considered itself, human, you need to do a lot of hard thinking about how this character is. If it lives in our reality, how does it interact with humans? Does it fear them? Despise them? Avoid them? Envy them? Does it seek to blend in? If it doesn’t live in our reality, then you need to build an entire worldview for your character(s) to inhabit.

 

Lesson 3: Casting Your Book.

More about the Cast of Your Book

Child and Teenage Characters

If you are writing about ordinary, or fairly ordinary, human children or teenagers, you still need to know the attributes and capabilities of children at different stages. Chronological age is only part of it; we have all known “teenaged” ten-year-olds and fifteen-year-olds whose attitudes are quite childlike.

The natural naivety of children fades earlier these days. Just as an example; in my childhood, girls of fifteen were still wearing lipstick only for special occasions, and with parental consent, whereas now you see this happening up to three years earlier. Children are less innocent, and more likely to know about the subjects that worry adults. They can’t avoid it, if the News is showing while they’re eating dinner.

Find out what ten year-olds or fifteen-year-olds are doing now, and never rely on recreating what they did when you were young. On the other hand, it pays to remember that a lot of kids are dependent for longer periods these days. They’re still at school at an age when their grandparents were wage earners, and many of the “traditional” ways for children to earn extra money have disappeared. Therefore, we have the oddity of earlier maturity and extended childhood all in one package.

Parents and other Adults

Parents and other adults are treated more realistically in books now than they were thirty years ago. The best writers for children show adults as characters rather than caricatures, and allow them to have feelings and personality. Scenes from parental or teacher viewpoint shouldn’t be allowed to be too pervasive in JCB, but in SCB and YA the adults can be fully rounded.

In “The Orange Outlaw” Dink’s Uncle Warren plays quite a large role. He is seen to be upset when the painting is stolen, and he helps the kids in their investigation. He provides the microscope for comparing clues, and later helps organise the trap for the thief. In some ways, Uncle Warren is the driving force of the plot. He is the reason the children are at the block in the first place; he is the one who is storing the painting. He discovers the theft, provides the children with information, and liaises with the police. The three children put the clues together, but Uncle Warren is there for support. He is not a protagonist, but he is a major and essential character in this book.

Jed’s dad in “Alien Dawn” is not supportive. He depends heavily on Jed to a degree that isn’t healthy for either of them. He is not powerful, despite his formidable intelligence, but his problems and actions form a strong strand of the plot. He is definitely a character, and not a cipher or generic “bad parent”. Again, he is not a protagonist, but his role is important because of the effect it has on Jed.

In “Trinity Street”, adults play varied roles. Tell’s mother Maureen is a “good” mother, while her father, David, is cold and distant, and never appears. Camena’s adopted sister is too immature to deal with her strange charge, and the immaturity isn’t all a matter of age. Mr Blenning arranges the disastrous trip to the marina, but he is functioning as a teacher rather than an active character. The four most active adults in the story are all from the 27th Century. Sib and Moss are highly intelligent but their amorality makes them act like selfish children. It is their activities that have brought Gerhardt, Tell and Camena to this stage. Jens plays a smaller part, but his influence on the young Gerhardt casts a long shadow. Pris is a fanatic: a terrifying true believer.

Generally, adults play more complex roles in books for older children and teenagers. Sometimes an eccentric adult (usually not a parent) will function as a friend/companion. This technique is useful if you need a way for your younger character(s) to travel. Children’s options for getting about are limited in much contemporary fiction. They can’t drive, long bike rides are too dangerous, and few would have the money for long-distance train or bus tickets.

Creating Rounded Younger Characters

The age of the characters you create will always play a part in their personalities. It seems perfectly logical that Ruth Rose will go about with Josh and Dink in “The Orange Outlaw”, because they are around eight years old. Josh is always eating, and not as keen to help as the other two, while Ruth Rose is quick thinking and cheerful. Dink is quieter. “The Orange Outlaw” is part of a series about the same characters, and according to the character biography on the author’s website, Dink is an enthusiastic reader. This attribute isn’t evident in this particular title.

From observation of real life, it seems less likely that preteen boys and girls like Karen and Jed would hang about together as they do in “Alien Dawn”, but the author shows that both are used to unusual social groupings. They are about the same age, but Jed seems older. He has no siblings, while Karen has three older half-sibs, all flamboyant and precocious, and one younger brother. Jed’s method of dealing with problems is to try to push them out of mind, which makes Karen, who is more direct, annoyed. In some ways their ages and sexes are not very relevant; these two are people whom it would be easy to imagine as toddlers or adults.

Tell and Camena (“Trinity Street”) are both fifteen, and neither is an average teenager. Camena is highly intelligent and socially retarded, and tends to withdraw from normal social life. She depends on Tell to interpret the world for her. Tell is also intelligent and talented, but has been used to comparing herself with brilliant Camena, so she undervalues herself. She is used to defending her friend, and, since seeing her parents’ break up, tends to cynicism.

Gerhardt Watchman is even less average, but he is a very good actor. He is an eighteen-year-old genetic construct from the 27th Century pretending to be the same age and of the same background as the girls. He is a young adult rather than a teenager. The relationship between the three is quite complex. Camena depends on Tell, while Tell defines herself by looking out for Camena. Tell is jealous and suspicious when Gerhardt attaches himself to Camena, and afraid when she finds herself attracted to him.

You should always try to make your major characters rounded, with understandable motives, likes and dislikes. With the minor characters you don’t have the room (or word count) to show their personalities, but you can still colour them by a specific item of clothing, catchphrase or feature.

 

Lesson 3: Casting Your Book.

Putting Depth in Characters.

The depth you put into a protagonist or major character depends partly on the length and complexity of the book. “The Orange Outlaw” is between 8,000 and 9,000 words, and has a mystery plot. Too much character development spread over three protagonists would unbalance such a short book, and it is likely the three won’t change much from book to book.

“Alien Dawn”, much longer and much more complex, needs strongly drawn central characters because Jed and Karen have to stand out against a supporting cast of eccentrics.

“Trinity Street”, at 84,000 words, has plenty of room for character development. The three main characters don’t change in essence, but their reactions do change according to their circumstances. Tell is suspicious of Gerhardt at the outset, because she doesn’t know much about him and fears his intentions. She is even more suspicious after the Recovery. Later, when she finds out he is telling the truth, she trusts him, and when Gerhardt learns that everything he has stood for is a lie, she is able to help him to trust himself again.

Characters like Tell and Gerhardt have strong personalities to begin with, but it is also possible to begin with a shallow seeming character and let the depths develop and emerge as circumstances put him (or her) against the wall.

Character is often partly hidden in reality, and you can use this to your advantage in a book. Strong characters might have hidden weaknesses, or might break when faced with dramatic reversals because they are inflexible. Seemingly pliable people sometimes develop an unexpected strength when faced with something that really matters to them for the first time. It is always good to have tiny hints to the hidden characteristic before it reveals itself in full. That way, readers can believe it was there all along, and just needed the right circumstance to bring it out into the open and into focus.

Show Don’t Tell

One of the maxims of writing fiction is that you should “show, not tell”. Like most maxims, this is true up to a point, but in a short children’s book, especially a JCB, you don’t have time or room to let each character display the same characteristic two or three times. And the characteristic must be displayed more than once to count as “showing”. If it is displayed only once, how can the reader know the character isn’t acting unusually or out of character? With this lack of room, sometimes you have to take a short cut and tell your reader that “Jodi was short-tempered” rather than arranging for Jodi to explode over minor problems three times before the major explosion to which you are working.

Balancing Characters

When creating a core group of characters for your book, you need to ensure two things.

(1)That the personalities are not carbon copies of one another. (2)That characters in one family are recognisably related and that friends are recognisably complementary.

You can create chalk/cheese siblings by indicating that one takes after one parent and the other after the other. Chalk/cheese friendships often work well in books as well as in life, but you must show traits that draw the characters together. Conversely, if you have characters that dislike one another, you need to show the character traits that create the antipathy. Dislike is based on several things; unfamiliarity, fear, irritation, envy, jealousy, rivalry and disgust. It is quite possible for two “good” characters to dislike one another, so one need not be the bad guy.

If you have unlikely companions, look for reasons to draw them together. In “The Orange Outlaw”, Dink and Ruth Rose are neighbours, and Josh is a friend of Dink’s. They are together because they like one another and because Dink’s uncle has invited them to visit him in the city. Children of up to nine or so are often friends because they happen to be neighbours, or because their parents are friends. It is assumed by everyone (including themselves) that they are friends, but the assumption often wears off the children before anyone else notices.

Jed and Karen associate in “Alien Dawn” partly because of shared experience, and also partly because of their less-than-ordinary homelives. There’s nothing odd about living in a stepfamily, but Karen’s elder half-siblings are decidedly hard acts with which to compete. Jed and Karen complement one another, and make a good team.

Tell and Camena associate because Camena needs a friend/minder to interpret life for her. Tell’s need (to help) is less obvious at first. Gerhardt’s association with Camena is purely business, and Tell is simply part of the package, at first. Later, he begins to see her as a personality, and his feelings shift through irritation to obligation to a kind of love.

Always think about why your characters are together. Once you know why they like, dislike, love, fear and associate with one another, you’ll have a much better chance of creating rounded, breathing personalities.

 

Lesson 3: Casting Your Book.

Specific Level – Junior Chapter Books.

Junior Chapter Books can be just about any length from 1000 words up to around 20,000 words. The length is elastic, which means there are several sub-levels. As you might expect, the shorter books are usually the simplest, in plot, theme, character and vocabulary.

It is very difficult to write a chapter book at the lower end of the scale. The book needs a plot, characters, and theme and yet gives very little space to develop any of them. A picture book is even shorter, but it has two often-overlooked advantages over the JCB. The pictures carry much of the burden of the story (as detailed in the Specific level section in Lesson 2), and most picture books are designed to be read to a child rather than by a child. For this reason, the vocabulary and sentence structure in a lower-level JCB will probably be much simpler than in a PB.

Look at these two brief passages. (A) is from a rhyming picture book. (B) is from a simple JCB.

(A)“David pulled the tails of all the cats, tabby, black and white. He galloped through the puddles, with shrieks of bad delight. He waited till his mother was talking to the phone, clambered out the window, and wandered off alone.”

(B)“The water was cold. I tripped and fell. Through the bubbles, I saw a tunnel in the bank.

‘Help!’ I screamed, but the water carried me through the tunnel and into a cave.”

The language in the PB is more complex and more sophisticated.

It is possible to create memorable images using simple vocabulary, but it is much more difficult when you have to avoid stylistic fun and games. Most early readers can sound out or work out longer words such as “screamed” and “bubbles”, but combinations such as “shrieks of bad delight” would defeat them. It makes sense, but it isn’t the construction very young readers expect.

Mostly, when reviewers or readers refer to a book as “predictable”, they are criticising it. In the case of a JCB, the book needs to be predictable in some ways. This doesn’t mean using clichés and tired plot ideas, but it does mean using straightforward constructions and simple syntax. It helps very young readers if they can “predict” the end of a sentence. Using the same structure more than once in a page is helpful, too. Here’s an example.

“I pulled my pockets inside out. Out fell a chocolate frog and some string. Out fell a paper clip.”

When writing a very simple JCB, you need to be aware of syntax all the time, but as the stories go up in length and complexity, vocabulary and syntax can follow.

JCBs of up to 10,000 words or so have room for a single plot, but the longer ones can have subplots added. Characters are usually older in the higher levels, and fantasy becomes more complex and more common.

Fantasy and science fiction at the lower levels must be very simple in structure, which is why it is usually of the simple “domestic” kind. The reason for this is obvious when you think about it. Younger readers have good imaginations but little general knowledge of fantasy “givens”. A talking cat in a garden is easy to imagine, because they are familiar with cats and gardens and so are accepting just one extra element. The concepts of different worlds, alien societies and mythical animals need to be learned gradually.

There is little moral ambiguity in JCBs. Protagonists are usually “good”. They might be mischievous, and they can certainly make mistakes, but they shouldn’t be amoral. Grey areas are difficult to present to less sophisticated readers. If a protagonist does something wrong, like stealing, the reason for the theft has to be clear. Seven-year-old readers will accept a child hero stealing food because he is hungry, but not one who steals for a complex reason such as getting someone else, whose popularity he envies, into trouble. They might do that themselves, but would mostly see it in fiction as the province of a villain.

Events can be dramatic in a JCB, but should not be nightmarish. In “The Orange Outlaw” the thief isn’t violent, and when Ruth Rose confronts him she does so in a prearranged trap and in the reassuring company of two police officers and Uncle Warren.

Subjects such as family strife and bullying, school problems and fear of animals or swimming, are suitable subjects, but should not be left unresolved. For clever takes on stories about bullying, look at “Lady Longlegs” by Jan Mark and an older book called “The Angel of Nitshill Road” by Anne Fine. Both present believable situations, and both show characters taking control of the situation. In “Lady Longlegs” a friendly teacher lends some assistance in negotiation with the bullied and the victim, while in “Angel of Nitshill Road” a newcomer to the school helps other people to take responsibility and to change the atmosphere that lets bullies flourish. Not every JCB has to have an unqualified happy ending, but this is not the level to set up a problem and then not offer any kind of solution or strategy.

JCBs are good vehicles for humour. Funny stories about clever children who outwit blundering villains, or about clumsy dragons or smelly dogs or burned cakes flourish at this level. You could say with some justice that the JCB is less susceptible to changes in fashion than any of the other levels.

 

Lesson 3: Casting Your Book.

Supplement – Anatomy of a Specific JCB.

“The Orange Outlaw” by Ron Roy is part of the “A to Z Mysteries” series. It has around 80 pages, and several “series” additions, including a plan of the setting and a map to show part of New York City. At the back is a friendly letter from the author, offering contact information and talking about the series. The back cover shows portraits of the three protagonists, and advertises the next book in the series.

The book is illustrated in black and white by John Steven Gurney, with chapter heads, occasional small details and some full-page pictures and spreads. There are eleven chapters.

Chapter 1 introduces Dink, Josh and Ruth Rose in the first line. By the end of the page, we know the children are in New York, standing on Uncle Warren’s balcony, that it is getting dark, that Uncle Warren is friendly and that Dink is imaginative. By Page 5, we know the children are there to attend a block party, that the party is to raise money for the zoo, that Uncle Warren is looking after a Monet painting for a friend and that there is a bowl of oranges in the kitchen. By the end of the chapter, on P 9, we have met two future suspects, heard about security arrangements, learned what a building manager and doorman do, and seen the party begin. We have learned that Josh is always eating. The chapter finishes with Josh saying he’s just seen a flying watermelon.

That’s a lot of information for 700-800 words, and yet the direct simplicity of the telling means young readers won’t feel overwhelmed.

In Chapter 2, we see a fruit juggler and his son, and then an animal handler with a pony and a dressed-up orangutan. Two pages describe a ventriloquist act with a dummy, and then Uncle Warren offers the children some pizza. They eat, and enjoy the party, which is winding down. On the last page, P.17, Uncle Warren announces the painting has been stolen.

This chapter has some “fill” in the ventriloquist act, but introduces more suspects and announces the crime.

In Chapter 3, Uncle Warren calls the police, while the children find peels and orange juice all over the table. More orange peel on the balcony leads them to suspect the thief might have climbed in that way. However, they are 10 storeys up. The police arrive, and the children decide to go and talk to the doorman, who reports that a neighbour saw someone on the balcony. Maybe that was the thief!

This chapter shows clues, introduces the police, and sends the children investigating.

Chapter 4 begins on Page 26. The children investigate some more, and encounter the building manager, who comments that she could have climbed to the balcony when she was young. This sets her up as a suspect. She says the alley was block off during the party by a trailer. This is a clue. On page 30, we learn that Dink’s real name is Donald.

By the end of Chapter 5, the children are going to visit the witness who saw someone on the balcony. She is said to have poor eyesight, which sets her up as a possible confederate of the thief.

In Chapter 6, the children spend three pages discussing the case while they clean up the kitchen. Josh finds a red hair, and they go to visit the witness. They tell her about the theft, and learn how she was able to see despite her poor eyesight. This removes her from suspicion. She has written down a description of the thief, which includes the two words “orange hair”, and mentions bad posture and baggy clothes. More clues.

In Chapter 7, Uncle Warren helps the children investigate the hair with a microscope. He passes on the neighbour’s evidence to the police. They are planning to try to get a sample of the building manager’s hair, when they find a photograph of the stolen painting out in the alley.

In Chapter 8, they decide the picture must’ve dropped when the thief climbed the balcony, and think about fingerprints. In some road sweepings, they find orange peels. The sweeper tells them the animal handler had a trailer, and that his orangutan ate a lot of oranges. The orange hair, posture and oranges hang together and by Page 58, the children have decided the trainer must be the villain.

In Chapter 9, Uncle Warren reports his friend is coming for his painting soon, which cranks up the urgency, and the children explain their theories. Dink finds a flyer that gives the trainer’s name and address. The evidence, especially the hair from the kitchen, is enough to take to the police.

In Chapter 10, a “sting” is set up with the help of the police. Ruth Rose poses as a child wanting to hire the pony and orangutan for a party. Everything is going well until Josh makes a mistake.

In Chapter 11, the trainer and his wife recognise Dink and Uncle Warren, but the police spring the trap. The thief challenges them to find proof, which is supplied. Josh finds the painting under the false floor in the trailer. The owner of the painting returns. In the last two pages, Uncle Warren explains that the orangutan will be sent back to Borneo to be rehabilitated, but that the ten-year-old pony is a problem. Ruth Rose offers the pony at home, but explains that it has to be kept at Josh’s farm.

In keeping with the young readership, this is a cosy mystery. The police are helpful, Uncle Warren supports the children in their investigations, and the thief, when challenged, fails to offer any violence. His wife seems quite friendly. The scam with Ruth Rose may be unlikely, but it fulfils the criterion that the protagonists should be active in the final solution of the problem.

 

Lesson 3: Casting Your Book.

W.I.P. Section. Creating your Cast.

You now have the skeleton of your plan, and know more or less what major events will take place in each of your five chapters. You have almost certainly chosen some characters, but perhaps they are still “a child”, “a dog”, or “three friends”. In the initial planning stages, these non-specific characters can be used almost as if they were chessmen, but by the time you have finished your plan, you will probably have an idea of the personalities your characters will have.

List Your Characters

Make a list of the characters you think you will need for your W.I.P. Put the protagonist(s) first, add the major characters, and then the minor ones. Now, consider what personalities these characters have, or need.

If the plot calls for a child character to confront a threat, then the child must have kind of personality that makes it possible, or even likely, that s/he would take this action. Your characters must always have a good and sufficient reason for acting as they do.

You might say the character confronts the threat because this makes the story more exciting, but that is not enough. The key to the characters’ actions must lie in (1) their personalities, or else (2) in their circumstances.

(1)Some people (even children) are confrontationist by nature. They will almost always choose to argue or to fight instead of backing down or turning away. Some people will do this even though they must be aware that they are wrong.

If your nine-year-old girl character is going to display a confrontationist attitude in chapter 4, you should make sure she shows traces of this is personality quirk earlier in the book.

An example of this character trait: the dog at Number 6 Rue Lane always snaps at Lucy. Lucy could easily go home via Tibbs Lane, but she prefers Rue Lane. Therefore, she confronts the dog with a large stick.

(2)If your character is not confrontationist by nature, circumstance must be the driving force. To put it simply, you must set up a circumstance that makes it more difficult for your character to back down than to confront the problem.

An example of this character trait: the dog at Number 6 Rue Lane always snaps at Lucy. Lucy would rather go home via Tibbs Lane, but that’s where the school bully lives. Lucy confronts the dog because this is marginally easier than confronting the bully.

As well as setting up the correct personalities for your characters, you need to work out their relationships, their numbers, and their sexes. Having too many characters in a group can weaken the story, especially if it is a short one. There isn’t enough room to develop so many characters into individuals.

When casting your book, it is helpful to pretend you are casting a movie. Just as each actor has to be justified in terms of fees, so you should justify the inclusion of each character. Is the role necessary? What does it add? Does the heroine really need three friends? Are you aware that your four unrelated protagonists are going to add a possible eight parents to the mix? Or even more, if some of them have stepparents?

If you want a large cast of children, but don’t want to include (or unconvincingly dispose of) their accompanying adults, you have several options. You could set most of your scenes at school (and use a couple of teachers instead of twenty parents), or in the park, or the mall.

You could put several children in the care of one grandparent, aunt or uncle or elder sibling. It’s trickier to dispose of older characters altogether, because in most societies children don’t live in an adult-free zone.

Very young protagonists (the under-sevens) usually need an older mentor/carer character, because it is through the offices of an older person that small children travel, play, acquire pets or toys or visit friends.

Older children (10+) and teenagers have more freedom. They are more able to come and go, and have more chance to select friends and activities rather than accepting those imposed on them by their carers.

If You Have Trouble with Separating Personalities.

When creating a group of characters for your book, don’t overlook the different permutations. Here are some advantages and disadvantages and ways to make things interesting.

Like-minded friends. Realistic, but there’s a danger they’ll be carbon copies. What if one of them changes?

Chalk/Cheese friends. Realistic, but make sure they have some common traits. If not, why do they like one another?

Neighbours, or children whose parents are friends. These might be casual acquaintances, and are likely to know one another well. May become friends through convenience. What if one suddenly realises s/he doesn’t actually like the other(s)?

Schoolmates. Might like one another, or might not. Anything from tolerance to close friendship to hearty dislike or fear is possible.

Fellow inmates in an after-school care facility. As above.

Siblings and their separate friends. The friends mightn’t like one another. Maybe one sibling feels left out.

Friends whose parents disapprove. There can be all sorts of reasons, and such children would try to meet away from the houses.

Friends apart in age. Gaps in maturity. One might be in high school and leave the other behind. Other people might find this suspicious.

Nearly all these scenarios can work with teen romances instead of friendship. You can add physical attraction, which is sometimes quite independent of liking.

 

Lesson 3: Casting Your Book.

Exercises and Bibliography

 

Exercise

Find and read at least two or three JCBs published within the past five years. Pay particular attention to the way the plots are presented, the plot elements and the characters and style. Make notes if necessary.

“Winging It”, by Annie Dalton. “Angels Unlimited” series.

“Harry Potter” books, by J.K. Rowling.

“The Orange Outlaw”, by Ron Roy

“Alien Dawn” by Maggie Pearson.

“Lady Longlegs”, Jan Mark

“The Angel of Nitshill Road”, Anne Fine.

Sally Odgers.

“Dreadful David”. Omnibus Books.

“Hero”, Koala Books.

“Trinity Street”, Harper Collins.

 

Lesson 4: Shaping and Pacing.

In this lesson, we’ll be looking at the shape of book plans, and checking out books for older children.

How to shape your plan.

Shaping Plans for Longer Books

Unwritten Rules about Subjects.

Specific level – Senior Chapter Books.

Supplement. Anatomy of a specific SCB.

W.I.P. Section. Troubleshooting Your Plan.

Exercises and Bibliography

How to Shape Your Plan

Your plan is made and your characters are chosen, and soon you’ll be ready to begin writing the book. It is important at this point to make sure your plan is the right shape. Generally speaking, the lower age level books (RS and JCB) are easier to plan, because they have a single plot and a few clearly-defined characters. Things can still go wrong, but they’re easier to identify and easier to fix.

The longer and more complex your book, the more subplots and the more themes it is likely to have. This need not be a problem, but it does offer difficulties for the inexperienced writer.

Imagine you are sitting in a pony trap or carriage and driving a pony. Even if you’re not an experienced driver you will have a pretty good idea of how to do it. You will click your tongue, maybe flap the reins and say “Walk on” or “Get up there!” to the pony. You may touch it with a driving whip. The pony will set off at a walk or trot.

To go faster, you repeat your “Go” instructions with more vigour.

To stop, you will increase the feel on the reins and probably say “Whoa!”

To turn left, you will increase the feel on the left rein, and may touch the pony’s right side with the whip. To turn right, you will do the opposite.

You will have two reins and possibly a whip to control, and one pony to direct.

Now, suppose your carriage is harnessed to four horses, two by two. You will have two leaders and two wheelers to control. The reins will be more complex, and you’ll have to use the whip on four separate horses to direct them. If one horse doesn’t like the others, it might kick out. How do you discipline it without alarming the other three? If your left leader goes too fast, you will have to steady it without the other three slowing down as well. When you turn left, the left leader and left wheeler will need to turn more sharply than the right hand pair.

No doubt experienced drivers control four horses without conscious effort, but someone who has only ever driven a single pony will be at a serious disadvantage. Getting the balance right is essential, and so is getting the balance right in a longer novel.

In a five chapter JCB, the shape is pretty obvious.

In Chapter 1, the situation and characters are introduced. A problem or goal appears, or an event changes the status quo. The story is off to a start. It may proceed directly from the original situation, or it might take a left or right turn if the change is a big one.

In Chapter 2, the effects of whatever happened in Chapter 1 will be felt. The pace of the narrative may pick up a bit. If there was a change in Chapter 1, it will be consolidating now as the character(s) realise it isn’t just a blip.

In Chapter 3, a complication or new event will probably push the story along. The story stream will deepen and widen a bit, as other characters or events make input.

In Chapter 4, a major event, gain or loss will usually occur, with the extra input from Chapter 3 consolidating. The climax might belong here.

In Chapter 5, the story will come to a conclusion. This might involve solving the problem, or achieving the goal, but it’s just as likely to mean acceptance that change is permanent, or that the goal can’t fully be achieved.

The ending of your book might be happy, sad or satisfactory. It might be what we call a “qualified happy ending”. The ending might seem inevitable, or it might be a twist and a surprise. The kind of ending you choose will depend partly on the genre and party on the theme. The general tone of the book will affect it, too.

 

Lesson 4: Shaping and Pacing.

Shaping Plans for Longer Books

With longer books, it is more difficult to get the shape and pace right. You need to treat your main plot as you would a shorter book, but the subplots are going to be stronger and need more attention.

Subplots

Unlike the main plot, subplots need not last for the length of the book. Some will be present from the beginning, and might be resolved two thirds of the way through the book, while others may not start until a few chapters in. Mostly, subplots are connected in some way to the main plot, and sometimes their resolution can affect the progress of the main plot. For example, the main plot of a book might be the protagonist’s desire to fit in with a certain “in” group at school.

Subplots might include problems with a particular teacher or subject, inheriting a dog from an elderly neighbour who is going into a nursing home and Dad’s efforts to paint the house. These would all support the main plot in some way.

The teacher or subject subplot is school-based, so the attitude the “in” group has to it would colour the protagonist’s view.

Dad’s painting could add humour, and also some family interaction to help show the protagonist against a home background. The way Dad deals with his efforts and problems could either reflect, or provide a counterpoint for, the protagonist’s efforts.

The adoption of the dog could help build a rounded picture of characters and home. If the adoption is ungracious and forced, it will reflect on the characters and make the protagonist seem more likely to show ruthlessness at school.

Another subplot could show the protagonist’s interaction with a loner at school. If this is told from the protagonist’s viewpoint, then it becomes another supporting structure. If told from the loner’s viewpoint, it could show a new side of the story as the loner either succeeds or fails in entering the “in” group, or possibly refuses to try.

In a multi protagonist novel, what we think of as subplots are often really parts of the main plot. If you look at the overall plot of “Trinity Street”, you should see that each of the three protagonists has his or her own plot, or personal journey. The three twine together to form a single major plot line, and true subplots, such as Camena’s adoption, Gerhardt’s relationship with Jens and the strain between Maureen and David, all contribute to the character studies of the protagonists.

The more complex your novel, the more subplots you can afford, but always make sure true subplots are not allowed to overshadow the main action.

A rule of thumb for identifying “true” subplots is this; if you can excise the plot strand from the book without disturbing the main plotline, then you have a true subplot.

Pacing

Pacing your plot is very important in any book, and in a children’s book it is enormously so. Some writers seem to be able to control pace automatically, but if you are not one of these, it is best to look at the pacing before you actually begin to write.

To control your pace, look at the number of story events you have designated for each chapter. If there are many of them, the pace will probably be fast, if only a few things happen, the pace will be more leisurely. Remember that story events can be large or small. The large events should be given more emphasis when you write them up, because otherwise your novel will seem pedestrian.

 

Lesson 4: Shaping and Pacing.

Unwritten Rules about Subjects.

One of the most difficult aspects of writing for children is learning and understanding the unwritten rules about subjects and ideas, themes and attitudes. At every level you will find yourself running up against “rules” you didn’t know existed.

To understand this, there are things you need to know.

(1)You are writing books for children or teenagers, but most of the time you are selling books to adults.

Editors are adults. So are agents and publisher/financers. Booksellers are adults. So are reps. So are librarians, teachers and parents and most reviewers.

Teenagers and children might buy their own books, but even then they can buy only those books that have filtered through the fine mesh of adult choice.

(2)Fashions in books change. Favourites of your own childhood are almost certainly out of date. You need to write for the current generation.

Be especially wary of writing stories where everyone is nice and has a good time.

(3)Some publishers don’t like specific settings and prefer you to set stories in Everytown. It’s worth checking out other books published by that company to see if this is likely to be one of its “rules”.

(4)Modern writers for children are no longer banned from writing about subjects such as birth and death, divorce, neglectful parents, illness, cruelty, racism and (up to a point) sex. However, there are new (and mostly unadmitted) bans in place.

Just as the world of medicine beat smallpox and got AIDS instead, so the new batch of writers can be disallowed from writing about some forms of morality. The pendulum swung back from the casual sexism and ageism of the 1960s, to the terror of the 90s at the bare idea that a female parent might cook a meal or that a grandfather might prefer to sit in the garden rather than kick a football and sail a yacht.

The pendulum is still swinging, and you must try to anticipate its current and future arcs when writing for children.

(5)Another pendulum problem is what you might call counter-elitism. Some people in the book world are so against the idea of publishing books that might seem elitist that no character is allowed to harbour much in the way of traditional ethics or to enjoy activities such as ballet or horse riding that are available to only a few.

Writing style can also be homogenised with an easy-to-read structure that can sometimes lead to bland and forgettable books. It doesn’t have to be like that, but it can be.

(6)Subject matter that is suspect in PB or JCB, RS and in some SCB includes; befriending strangers, activities such as scouting, admiration of teachers, camping without parents, sharing food, some forms of fantasy, Christmas, Easter, witches, ghosts, swearing.

The reasoning behind some of these unadmitted bans is clear.

No one wants to encourage children to indulge in risky or dangerous behaviour.

No one wants to encourage elitism or segregation.

No one wants to offend or alienate the large numbers of people who disapprove of some forms of fantasy.

What makes much of this difficult for writers is that sometimes publishers ignore their own (or others’) “rules” and publish books that break the rules. Sometimes these books do very well, which makes the other writers, who have been disallowed from following the same paths, feel put-upon.

It is very galling for authors whose books about wizards have been rejected on the grounds of “the rules” to see other authors making a very good living out of —books about wizards!

There is nothing you can do about any of this, but it does pay to be aware of the problem subjects before you waste your time and the publisher’s by submitting the wrong ms in the wrong place. In other words, don’t put a gun in your character’s hands. You’ll only shoot yourself in the foot.

 

Lesson 4: Shaping and Pacing.

Specific level – Senior Chapter Books.

Senior Chapter Books come in between JCBs and YA novels. They are almost always longer than the JCB, but not necessarily shorter than the YA novel. The length is fairly elastic, and seems to have as much to do with fashion and different publishing companies as anything else.

SCBs can be 20,000 words or 70,000 words or even longer, but many of them, including “Alien Dawn”, fall in the 40 – 50,000 word area, which makes them just a little shorter than a 55,000 word category romance.

JCBs often fall into the 64 or 128 page range, but SCBs are inclined to be 200 pages or more. “Alien Dawn”, for example, is 214 pages long.

The extra length allows for more complex plotting, more characters and more complicated themes. Characters can have more shades of grey in their makeup, and moral issues and physical danger can be more extreme.

Fantasy (with the exception of books about witches and wizards, which might still upset editors) can be stronger, and fantasy themes and concerns can be treated with less explanation.

The readers of SCBs not only tend to be older than the children reading JCBs, but they have more experience of a wider range of subjects. They have encountered more different kinds of narrative, and should have begun to think analytically and objectively. Their imaginations are still free ranging, but they are able to put themselves more securely in others’ shoes.

A seven-year-old JCB reader might imagine herself flying with birds, but the SCB reader will see the dangers and difficulties as well as the fun.

A SCB can have a multi stranded plot, and it can be told from multiple viewpoints. First Person narratives are still popular at this level, but so are Third Person viewpoints. Older characters can be presented from the inside, as readers should understand that adults have feelings, get frightened or worried or lonely just as children do.

Animal characters are quite popular. Sports and group events like performances are interesting. Mixed groups of girls and boys can be used in the context of school activities, or in cases of siblings and cousins, but it’s less likely that a boy and girl will become friends spontaneously in a realistic story. If you are writing a fantasy or adventure, girl/boy companions can still be used, especially if they are thrown together without their consent. There is no need to go into the sexist routine of boys not wanting to associate with girls, but in real life most friendships at this age group tend to be single sex.

I say most because there are always some boys who actively seek feminine company when they’re eleven or twelve. They seem to relate well to female teachers, too, so it isn’t romantic attachment. Conversely some girls will associate with boys because boys are more likely to be interested in the activities they find congenial.

There are also rare cases of boyfriend/girlfriend relationships between children of eleven or twelve, but these are usually between children who are teenagers in everything except actual years.

It is tempting to write about the latest crazes and interests in the preteen sets, but with the long gap between a novel’s conception and its publication, (even if it is accepted by the first editor who sees it) this can result on your book being out of date before it hits the shelves. It is better to get the overall impression of interests and relationships between the 8-13s than to use too many specifics.

If possible, you should observe a wide cross section of children in your target age group. See how they treat one another, how they interact with older and younger people, and whether or not they have begun to develop an interest in physical appearance.

See whether they go about in groups, pairs or singly. If you see them out with their parents, see if they seem happy in older company, or if they constantly hang back. If you see a girl shopping with her mother or father, watch to see if she helps put things in the trolley, or if she argues or distances herself.

By noticing a wide variety of real older children, you will begin to get a fix on the modern child’s attitudes, interests and appearance.

 

Lesson 4: Shaping and Pacing.

Supplement. Anatomy of a specific SCB.

“Alien Dawn”, by Maggie Pearson, is 214 pages and broken into 14 chapters. It comes in at around 50,000 words. There are no illustrations. The striking cover picture is by Sam Hadley.

Chapter 1 opens with a few lines that seem to show a being arriving from some specified place (maybe Space) and being greeted by unspecified beings. After that, the viewpoint switches to a seaside heath where we meet the main characters; Jed “who’d recently discovered what a pessimist was, and decided he was going to be one” and who muses that it will probably rain tomorrow, and Karen, who is drawing Jed’s attention to something in the sky. The two children finally realise they’re seeing a UFO, then there’s a crash, confusion, and Karen temporarily loses her sight. The story is told from Jed’s viewpoint until halfway down Page 4, when the author uses a transition sentence to move smoothly into Karen’s viewpoint.

“He wasn’t going to make waves.” (End of Jed’s P.O.V.) “As for Karen, she’d had no time…” (Beginning of Karen’s P.O.V.)

Part way down P.5. the viewpoint switches back to Jed with another transition sentence. The old naval base is introduced, and Jed wonders why its new incarnation as a weather tracking station has to mean razor wire.

By the end of P.7., Jed has seen Karen home, and closed the gate behind her. The reader continues down the path in Karen’s P.O.V. and encounters Lazlo (whom Karen addresses as “Lasher”) working on a motor bike. Next, Karen encounters Jan, whose name (pronounced “Yann”) gets a brief explanation. (This might not be explained in a YA novel, or an adult novel.) Jan is painting. Next Karen hears the TV and assumes that “seven year old Toby” is watching it. This is the first age the reader is given, and at first sight some readers take Lazlo and Jan to be much older than they are.

We learn that Jan is painting posters for a “demo” and that Lazlo “does the demos”. Mum is dolphin-watching “with a party of her old dears” and Jan speculates that maybe the dolphins are watching her. This is an important clue to later events.

At the end of P 10, Karen is in her room, assuring herself that everything is normal. Her sight is returning, and she finds a small stone in the pocket of her coat. She remembers a scene at the UFO crash site that she doesn’t remember actually happening… bright light, and a figure walking. Jan comes in and spots the stone. He is very interested, but the chapter closes on P 12 with Karen alone again, realising that the stone has unlocked her memory. “The stone was the key”.

A lot of information has been given in this chapter. Several characters have been introduced, and the first fantasy (or sf) event has happened. The writing style is much more sophisticated than that of “The Orange Outlaw”, and some readers might be captivated with the quiet humour.

Chapter 2 introduces Jed’s father, who is on medication for what seems to be a mental disorder and who relies on Jed for shopping, cooking and everyday support. We learn that Mum has married “Nigel the Nerd” and, in the face of Nigel’s ultimatum, has chosen Nigel over Jed. Karen calls to discuss the close encounter, and Jed tries to brush it off. Jed goes off to look at the site, and encounters two men in suits who interrogate him. Jed goes home. There’s another small passage from the Unknown Being’s P.O.V.

In Chapter 3, Karen tries to talk to Jed at school, and again he avoids the subject. Karen does a painting in Art that intrigues her teacher. And so it goes on, until on P 33, Karen corners Jed and persuades him to look at, and then to take possession of, the odd stone.

From then on, the mystery increases, with every scene adding more touches to build a rounded picture. The stone affects creativity, and when Jan gets hold of it his paintings explode into brilliance. Karen becomes frightened, and Jed has more unsettling encounters with the men in suits. By the end of the story, the strands have all come together; Karen’s half brothers Lazlo and Jan have been deeply affected, and Jed’s father’s malaise is explained. The men in suits and their interest in the “weather station” have been uncovered, and the dolphins have played their part. The whole complex web has been spun, and Jed has decided that; “Pessimism was rubbish. You imagined the worst that could happen and you braced yourself to meet it head on and then life suddenly stepped sideways…”

“Alien Dawn” is an unusual book in many ways, but it does fulfil most of the givens for SCBs. Jed and Karen are not teenagers, but “older children”, and their friendship is not in the least romantic. They react in different ways to mystery and stress, and both have “different” home lives. Jed has had to take on the role of carer for his father, while Karen lives with both parents and her brother, plus the three elder children from her mother’s first marriage.

In many ways, SCBs like “Alien Dawn” can be more “adult” than some YA fiction, perhaps because characters this age are less self-absorbed than some teenagers. Some of the plot is so complex that many readers would need to read the book twice to find out exactly what is happening at all times.

Books like “Alien Dawn” should be required reading for anyone who thinks children’s books are “sweet little stories”.

 

Lesson 4: Shaping and Pacing.

W.I.P. Section. Troubleshooting Your Plan.

You now have your plot worked out and also a list of your characters. You know what kinds of people (or animals) your protagonist(s) and other major characters will be. You have cut out unnecessary characters.

Now you need to look at the cast of your story alongside the plot and make sure the two can interact successfully.

In real life, people don’t always act consistently, but in a book there needs to be an obvious reason for characters to do what they do.

Graphing Events

One way of troubleshooting your plan before you start writing is to make a graph of story events. You do this by looking at the way in which each event affects the main character on an emotional level. The baseline of the graph (which is actually drawn halfway up a page, and not at the bottom as you might expect), is what you might call “Situation Normal”.

Most people live at “Situation Normal” most of the time. Exactly where SitNor is on the emotional scale depends on a great many things. Imagine a scale of emotion where abject misery/fear is at Point 1 and where absolute delight and bliss is at Point 10. Someone who is starved/abused/very ill/bereaved might spend most of the time at Point 1 or Point 2. This is SitNor for them.

Lucky people (and we all know them) for whom life throws roses instead of rocks, will usually spend a lot of time at Point 7 or 8. This is SitNor for them.

The majority of people seem to spend time at Point 4,5 and 6. They get through their days being neither very happy nor very unhappy. They’re OK and OK is SitNor for them. If something very nice happens, they will rise above SitNor to Point 8 or 9. If they suffer a disappointment, loss, grief or guilt, then they may sink to Point 2 or 3.

Now, consider your major character and the story events. Supposing you character has a SitNor of 5, then what is his/her emotional state at the beginning of your story? When the first event comes along, does that raise or lower your character’s emotional level?

If you plot a line graph by placing one point above or below the SitNor line for each event, then you will end up with a “picture” of your plot. You can use this picture for troubleshooting. Look at this example. The “key” is at the bottom of this section.

If too many events occur on or close to the SitNor line, then your story might be pedestrian and bland. If a lot of events happen on the same level, no matter what the level might be, you have the same problem. If the line zigzags wildly up/down, up/down, up/down, (say going from 2 to 9 to 2 to 8 to 3 to 9) then the plot might be predictable and choppy.

If your graph shows a small rise, a dip, a higher rise, a lower dip another rise, a major dip and a major rise at the end, you have a traditional “Cinderella” plot shape. This one works as well now as it did in the 16th Century.

If you see too much evenness in your plot graph, now is the time to fix it. Rethink some of your plot events and get the variation happening.

Key to Graph Provided

On this graph, SitNor is at point 6. Above SitNor is Joy. Below is Misery.

Arrows show the direction of Nice Events and Sad Events. The red graph points marked A, B, C, D, E, and F show story events.

The story starts at SitNor (A). Something bad happens to the protagonist (B). The protagonist makes a move that improves the situation to (C). Things get worse again at (D), and then the problem is solves spectacularly at (E), catapulting the protagonist to joy and satisfaction. (F) marks the end of the story, as reality sets in again. This would be a fairly dramatic story.

 

esson 4: Shaping and Pacing.

Exercises and Bibliography

 

Exercise

Read at least two SCBs published in the past few years. Notice the points at which they seem more mature than the JCBs you read before. How old are the main characters? How do they interact? Are they boys or girls, or a mixture?

Bibliography.

“Alien Dawn”, Maggie Pearson.

 

Lesson 5: Beginning your Book.

This lesson is about beginnings, and the specific focus age level is YA. In W.I.P. You get to make a start on Chapter 1.

How to Write a Good Beginning.

More About Beginnings.

Viewpoint

Tense

Specific Level – YA Novels.

Supplement. Anatomy of a Specific YA Novel.

W.I.P. Section. Writing Your First Chapter.

Exercises and Bibliography

How to Write a Good Beginning.

! Very few modern children’s books begin with that traditional storyteller’s opening; “Once Upon a Time”.

! Some writers write a first chapter and then dispose of it completely and begin their books at the original Chapter 2.

! If you can’t catch young readers’ attention in the first two or three pages, you probably never will.

! The first few pages of a book are sometimes the most difficult to write.

All these statements are true, and all are somewhat startling to some novice writers. So, what does comprise a good beginning for a children’s book? The answer to that is that a good beginning for a children’s book has the same attributes as a good beginning for any other kind of novel.

There are two things we think about as “beginnings”.

One is the first sentence, or the first scene. Sometimes, in a PB, the first sentence is the first scene. Let’s look at the first line of the PB we studied back in Lesson 2.

“Joey was hopping along with his mother”.

This line, with its supporting picture, presents a subject, characters, a name, action, setting, and familiar relationship all in one. Not bad for seven words! Any child hearing the opening sentence and seeing the picture would learn that –

Joey is a little animal (the picture shows a wallaby, but they may think it’s a kangaroo).

Joey is his name, as well as his stage of development. (If this were just a role name, he would be the joey.)

Joey is with his mother, and is going somewhere with her.

He is hopping. The picture shows an outback scene.

This kind of scene-setting, character, action (or the promise of action) works well on all levels, but the higher up the levels you go, the more words will be used to achieve the effect.

Here is the beginning of a very short JCB.

“When we moved into our new home, I was just an ordinary kid. Now I feel like a hero!”

The character is introduced. He has just moved house (action), now he feels like a hero. (Promises more action.)

Here’s the beginning of “The Orange Outlaw”.

“Dink, Josh and Ruth Rose stood on Uncle Warren’s balcony. Nine floors below, the cars, buses and taxis of New York zoomed by.”

Characters and place (balcony in New York) are introduced. The promise of action to come lies in the words “nine floors below”. Readers feel instinctively that something is bound to happen to people who are nine floors above the street.

Action need not be offered immediately, but the promise or possibility of action or excitement is useful. The older and more experienced readers get, the more likely they are to be willing to wait for the pay-off of action…as long as they know they are going to get it soon. In the SCB and YA Novel, you can sometimes have a deceptively quiet or calm beginning.

“It was a calm, peaceful night, with nothing but mist to disturb the stillness of the fields. It was the kind of night when nothing ever happens.”

Older readers know something of irony, and as soon as they read that second sentence they will be gleefully certain that something is going to happen, and that it will be dramatic. This doesn’t mean they will accept two or three pages of beautifully written scene setting before something does happen, so give them a pay-off soon.

Opening a book with dialogue is also a good technique. Speech is almost the same as action, and the speech tag (e.g. “said Laura”) acts to introduce at least one character. Try not to have an inconsequential remark as a beginning. Make it something interesting or dramatic.

“How do you freeze a teacher?” Laura wanted to know.

“Huh?” Zann stared fixedly at her cousin.

“How do you freeze a teacher?” repeated Laura.

“That’s what I thought you said…”

“So? How do you?”

”The question is not how you do it,” said Zann, “but why you’d want to.”

An exchange like this introduces two characters, gives a clue to both personalities and sets up a mystery and promise of action. Why is Laura talking like this? Would she really freeze a teacher? How? Why?

 

Lesson 5: Beginning your Book.

More About Beginnings.

There are two things we think about as “beginnings”.

From discussing first lines and scenes, we move on the “beginnings” in the second sense.

The Second Sense of Beginning

This beginning is the point at which the author takes up the protagonist’s story. It isn’t always easy to pinpoint a beginning. Even in real life you might say something like this;

“When we got caught up in the pilot strike… oh, yes. We did know it was likely, but we had to fly that week. If my grandmother hadn’t heard about my cousin… you see, he’d been arrested. No, he didn’t do it, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

In this short passage, the narrator offers a muddled situation involving an interrupted journey, but the audience never learns exactly what the situation was. Whatever it is, it happens during a pilot strike. The narrator says “we” had to fly that week. S/he mentions that Grandmother heard about a cousin, who had been arrested. He was innocent, but was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So, where is the true beginning of this tangled tale, and how would it begin if it were part of a novel?

A.The strike being called?

B.The narrator catching the flight?

C.Grandma hearing about the cousin?

D.The cousin’s arrest?

E.The cousin going to wherever he was?

These events go backwards in time, and so offer different possibilities. Each one fulfils the criteria of (promise of) action, character, and place. The correct beginning depends on the major plot of the story.

If the story concerns the narrator’s problems during the strike, then whatever happens after the strike is called is the main story, and the affair of the grandma, cousin and arrest is what we call “back story”. That is, it provides a reason for the narrator to be where s/he is, doing what s/he’s doing, but doesn’t directly impinge on the plot otherwise.

How much back story needs to be used depends on the length and complexity of the book.

If you chose to begin the story at A., with the strike, then the back story could be presented in flashback, in expository narrative, or in dialogue.

A (the strike), would be the first passage in the novel, followed by E, D, C, and B, or by just C and B.

If you were using dialogue, then Grandma and the narrator would discuss the other events while they wait out the pilot strike.

If you used expository narrative, then the narrator would use a transition sentence to say something like this;

“While we were sitting there, chewing our nails, I opened the letter that had brought us here. I’d read it so often I knew it by heart, but the contents still seemed unbelievable. My Cousin Lachie under arrest? Impossible! Lachie wasn’t….”

The explanation would proceed to give the information, and then another transition sentence would bring the narrative back on track, to the designated present of the strike.

“I sighed, and folded up the letter. Rereading it wouldn’t help. Nothing would help. I glowered at the terminal, willing it to flash a reassuring message. ‘The pilot strike has been resolved’. That message would do nicely.”

If the chief story is about Cousin Lachie and what happens to him, then the book should begin with E or D, and then jump from one setting to another leaving Cousin Lachie in prison while Grandma learns of his predicament and the narrator makes arrangements to catch the flight.

Beginning the story at an even earlier point is still possible. For example, what is the connection (aside from blood relationship), between Grandma, Cousin Lachie and the narrator? Did Grandma raise them both?

Are Lachie and the narrator both teenagers, looking after Grandma?

It is a mistake to start a story too early in the protagonist’s life. Readers in their teens won’t usually want to read about the protagonist at the age of six unless there’s a dramatic occurrence that will affect the character later. Nor do most older readers want to read about a happy protagonist going about his/her usual business.

This doesn’t mean you have to start every book with a disaster, but it is good to take up the story at a turning point in the protagonist’s life. Let’s look at the beginnings of books discussed in this course.

In “I’m Big Enough”, Joey Hopalong is about to make his first solo journey.

In “The Orange Outlaw”, the three children are at Uncle Warren’s place in the city and a painting is about to be stolen.

In “Alien Dawn”, Jed and Karen are just about to see a UFO come down.

In “Trinity Street”, Tell’s long friendship with Camena has just come under threat, and will soon be disrupted forever.

Change makes a good beginning for any novel. Change, and the promise of action.

 

Lesson 5: Beginning your Book.

Viewpoint

Viewpoint and tense are important to any kind of writing. There is no one “correct” viewpoint for a children’s book, but it’s useful to know the advantages and disadvantages of each kind.

First Person is a common viewpoint in children’s books. In first person, a main character (usually the protagonist) is telling the story directly to the readers.

The major advantage of first person narration is that it is very accessible and direct.

The narrator can speak with hindsight, giving the readers more information than s/he actually had at the time. Some readers enjoy the vicarious feeling of “being” the main character.

There are disadvantages, too. Using first person viewpoint usually means that only one viewpoint is available. If the narrator wasn’t present at a key event, then s/he has to tell it at second hand. Having a young narrator also means that everything has to be filtered through a child’s viewpoint. There are some things the narrator can’t tell the readers because s/he isn’t mature enough to understand them.

Some writers forget that children and teenagers use syntax and vocabulary that differs from that used by most adult writers. If your child narrator comes out sounding like an adult, you’ve gone wrong.

Using an Animal Narrator

When using an animal narrator to tell a first person story, be sure to remember that animal perceptions are very different from human understanding. Some animals can’t see colour, and dogs will see everything from lower down than a human would, and will also rely more on their noses than their eyes.

Multi-First Person is a viewpoint in which two or more protagonists take it in turns to tell the story. This means that whoever was present can tell key parts of the story, and offers a chance to have more than one “voice”.

The disadvantage is that occasionally readers get confused as to who is telling which bit. The younger the readers, the more explicit you need to make the changes in narrator.

Third Person Limited means that the story is told in the third person (the protagonist is referred to as “she” or “he” or “Lucy” rather than “I” and “me”), but that events are still seen through only one set of eyes. If the protagonist isn’t present in a scene, then the scene can be told only in dialogue as someone else fills Lucy in, or else by a transition passage beginning: “Later, Lucy discovered that…”.

Multi-Third Person Limited is a very useful viewpoint. It gives main characters (and occasionally others) turns at being “viewpoint” character. “Trinity Street” is a multi-third person limited novel.

Omniscient Viewpoint is less common than it was. You might call true omniscient viewpoint the “God’s Eye View”, because the reader knows what everyone thinks and what everyone does. One character may not know what the others are thinking, but the reader does. In omniscient viewpoint a character can be seen from the outside as well as from the inside, so you might write; “Lucy’s green eyes seemed to turn dark as she remembered her dream.” You couldn’t write that in third person limited, because the reader would be privy to Lucy’s thoughts but not to the way her eyes looked.

“The Orange Outlaw” is close to omniscient viewpoint, but although we see the protagonists from both inside and outside, we see Uncle Warren and other adults from the outside only.

 

Lesson 5: Beginning your Book.

Tense

Tense

Most novels are told in Past Tense. This doesn’t cause many problems except when it comes to flashbacks and to first person narrative

In a flashback, you take the readers back from the designated present of the story into a time in the past. This is accomplished by transition sentences, but you do need to watch out for some verbs that act differently in the immediate past tense from the way they react in the flashback.

Using past tense in a first person narrative can have a bad effect on suspense. If your main character is “telling” the story in hindsight, then it’s perfectly obvious that s/he survived the events of the story. This doesn’t matter unless your novel is a thriller, but what if it is?

There are several ways you can avoid this lessening of suspense. One is to couch your narrative in the form of letters or journal entries, so that each one is proof only that the narrator survived to write that particular letter/entry.

Another technique is to set the narrative within a frame. For example, your frame story might be the narrator and another character waiting somewhere to be rescued, and the narrator tells the other character the story up until “now”. This still leaves doubt in the readers’ minds about what will happen after the spoken narrative is finished.

One other construction you need to watch in a first person/past tense novel is what you might call continuing truths.

It is perfectly correct for your narrator to say:

“Dad and I went for a picnic that day,” because that is true past tense.

It becomes more difficult if you continue the passage like this: “Dad and I went for a picnic that day. We took sausages to cook. Dad loves sausages.”

Here we have two past tense verbs (“went” and “took”) and one present tense verb (“loves”). This might seem wrong, but if you move the whole passage to past tense and say: “Dad loved sausages”, then you end up with a false sense that suggests that either Dad is dead, or else that he no longer loves sausages.

Generally, if what you are describing is a continuing situation, then it’s OK to use the present tense verb.

Present Tense Narrative

Telling a story in present tense is a good way of maintaining suspense, but you do need to be careful with those verbs. Even in present tense, some facts and actions lie in the past, and the verbs should reflect this.

“I wait for the dog to reach me. I can see its ears flopping as it runs. Its chops flop too, and at every step its fangs flash into view. I am more scared than I have ever been before. This is even worse then the time I fell off the diving board at the quarry.”

Using the past tense verb “fell” there is perfectly correct, because the scene at the quarry happened in the past.

Present tense narrative is usually used with first person viewpoint, but it is possible to use it with third person limited or even with multi-third person. Here is the same passage in present tense/third person.

“Jack waits for the dog to reach him. He can see its ears flopping as it runs. Its chops flop too, and at every step its fangs flash into view. Jack is more scared than he has ever been before. This is even worse then the time he fell off the diving board at the quarry.”

Think carefully before you write a book in present tense narrative. Quite a few readers dislike it, because they find it distracting.

 

Lesson 5: Beginning your Book.

Specific Level – YA Novels.

YA Novels can be great fun to write. They vary from light-hearted romances and comedies to complex narratives that are scarcely different in themes and content from mainstream fiction for adults.

The major difference lies in the ages of the protagonists, and in the way these characters are depicted. Most YA fiction titles have protagonists in their teens or very early twenties, following the rule of thumb that pre-adult readers generally prefer to read about characters their own age or a little older. The days when YA heroines like Anne Shirley of the “Anne” series by L.M. Montgomery grew up into middle age without losing their girl readers have just about gone.

It’s important when writing a YA novel that you write about the characters as people. It may not be possible to see your teenaged characters as they would see themselves, because most adult writers have matured beyond the self-absorbed state of many teenagers. However, be very careful not to look at them as if from outside. In other words, don’t “write down” to them.

Many teenagers have more formal education, but less experience in the wider world, than adults. They have more experience of the world of modern teenagers. They know more about some things (especially such things as MP3s, SMS and whatever is Hot or Not), but less about things like Latin roots, the anatomy of old films and how to use up and make do and wait for gratification.

Many teens are both cynical about the values their parents hold, and gullible about throwing themselves into causes and fads which appeal to them on an emotional level. It seems they will believe just about anything as long as it isn’t their parents (or any other legitimate authority figure) telling them.

All this seems self-evident, but it is important to understand this kind of thing before you write a YA novel. You are not writing for an older child or for a slightly less experienced adult. If you try to do either, the tone will be wrong and your manuscript will probably be rejected.

This is not to say you need to exactly mimic the way teenagers talk and dress and act. If you did that, they would probably find the whole story ringing false. Not only would it inevitably be the way teens were acting/talking/dressing about eighteen months ago by the time your book is published, but also it would be subtly off key.

Have you ever read a book written and published during your youth and then compared it with a modern novel set in that same period? If so, you will understand what I mean. It doesn’t matter how much research a modern writer does before setting a book in 1969, 1940 or 1985; s/he is still going to produce a stylised picture of the period.

It is easy to pick out the striking events and attitudes of an era while neglecting the many other events and attitudes that provided legitimate counterpoint at the time. For example; while teenagers of my age were Protesting, smoking Pot and experimenting with Free Love in the cities, I was placidly riding my pony, dancing to the record player, reading books and writing short stories. It was the 1970s in country Tasmania. My only real nod to the ‘70s lay in my Indian print skirt and in my choice of music. But what contemporary author would write a YA novel set in the ‘70s and produce a picture of the period that I would find familiar? When writing a YA novel, you need to take a subject that will interest teenagers, and approach it from an angle that they will find either familiar or challenging. Use the kind of language they use themselves, but soften the casual swearing. Most editors don’t like it.

Above all, remember the things the matter to teenagers. Just because they are heavily into animal rights, rites of passage, peer pressure and the painful separation of self from child-of-the-family, doesn’t mean they’re not also bothered by acne, fluid retention and what to wear to the beach. If you can take all these concerns seriously, and never dismiss them in your fiction just because you might dismiss them in reality, you are well on the way to writing a successful YA novel.

 

Lesson 5: Beginning your Book.

Supplement. Anatomy of a Specific YA Novel.

“Trinity Street” is 301 pages long, and clocks in at around 84,000 words.

It has no chapters, but is broken into four parts, “Kismet” (Page 1),

“Wild Zone” (Page 75),

“Plateau”, (Page 149)

and “Trinity Street”, (Page 218).

These four parts trace different stages in the stories of the three protagonists, Tell, Gerhardt and Camena.

“Kismet” is the name of the yacht that explodes, throwing the three into the water and sending Tell and Camena into a one-way trip to the future. The name also reflects the fate that Gerhardt alone knows (or thinks he knows) is waiting for them.

The Wild Zone is the place where Gerhardt must persuade Tell that she is really in the future, and where he explains what is happening (or what he thinks is happening).

The Plateau is a place they visit, but it is also a balancing point where matters could go either way. If Gerhardt is right in what he believes, Camena and Tell have lost nothing. If he is wrong, then he has lost everything. His meeting with Jens finally gives him the truth about the past, present and future.

Trinity Street is a street where Tell and Camena were to have met with a fatal accident. It also represents the end of Gerhardt’s belief in Moss and in Hub HI-Q, and a giant step in his relationship with Tell.

At the end of the novel, Camena is apparently lost, but her fate seems no worse than it would have been if she had never been Recovered. Camena’s story might be over, but Tell and Gerhardt fight to survive.

Behind the three young protagonists lies the struggle between two factions of the future. HI-Q is a movement determined to “recover” lost genes from geniuses of the past who died without having children. Camena is one of these subjects. To this end, Hub HI-Q breeds genetic constructs like Gerhardt and trains them to move back in time, and to locate the subjects just before their deaths. Gerhardt is the Recovery Agent on Camena’s case, and he believes she will be offered the chance to live on in his time. This is not true.

The second faction, RI-P., believes in letting the human race determine its own destiny, and rejects the idea of “recovering” elite genes. It is to mollify RI-P. that HI-Q has agreed to return the subjects to their fated deaths after removing the genetic material.

Against these opposing philosophies the stories play out. Tell is a pawn in the game because she should never have been Recovered at all. Her strong friendship with Camena is not enough to save them both, but her growing telepathic link with Gerhardt might save her. In the end of the book, Gerhardt, faced with disaster, makes a desperate decision which puts him and Tell forever beyond the reach of HUB HI-Q and RI-P, of Tell’s time and his own. He and Tell are not even together, but they are confident of finding one another.

No JCB would ever end on an uncertain note like this, with one protagonist presumed dead and two more exiled in time. A few SCBs might, but there are several things that mark “Trinity Street” as YA rather than SCB.

The protagonists are older – 15 and 18. There is a definite physical attraction between two of them, and they are likely to act on that very soon. The emotions are stronger, and the stakes are higher.

Few SCBs would suggest lingering death and the possibility that one protagonist might kill the other to save her months of suffering. The philosophies of genetic engineering, selective breeding, abortion and genetic obligation are unlikely to be discussed in a SCB.

Finally, although villainous adults are far from unknown in SCBs, it would be unlikely that the only “good” adult would be unable to help the protagonists much in the end. If Tell and Gerhardt had been 9 and 12 instead of 15 and 18, they would probably not have been mature enough to forge the link they need and would not have survived exile. Therefore, if this had been a SCB, Jens, the “good” adult character, would have had to play a much more active role. Below is the cover of the German edition. Note that this one has figures on the cover, while the original Australian edition has none.

 

Lesson 5: Beginning your Book.

W.I.P. Section. Writing Your First Chapter.

By now you’re ready to start writing your first chapter.

You should know-

(1)The genre and age-level of your story

(2)what story events will take place in the chapter

(3)which characters will be introduced

(4)which viewpoint you will be using

(5)which tense you will use.

It is also useful to know if you plan to have a frame for the story (as mentioned earlier in this lesson) and which tone you will take.

Tone is fairly difficult to explain, but it really means the general mood of the story. It stands apart from genre, because a thriller (for example) can be told in a light-hearted fashion, in a sober fashion or in a frightening fashion. Imagine you are reading your story aloud. You should know instinctively the tone of voice you would use. This gives you a clue to the best tone for your narrative.

You have already learned something about good beginnings in this lesson, so now is the time to put this into practice. Write your first sentence, and expand that into a first scene.

Scenes in a book are the same as scenes in a film or television programme. They are things that happen to a character or group of characters in one setting. They pertain to one event or to one section of an event.

Say your characters, Lou, Gina and Hugo, are at a picnic with their older cousin, Jude. They’re eating sandwiches and talking. Lou and Hugo decide to go down to the river to fish, while Gina and Jude stay where they are. The picnic, Lou’s and Hugo’s departure and Gina’s and Jude’s decision to remain are all one scene, but the scene must divide to follow one set of characters.

The scene could continue with Jude and Gina or with Lou and Hugo, but not with both. Otherwise, the scene might end when the company divides, and two new scenes could take place heel and toe. The first would probably follow Hugo and Lou, and then the second would follow and show what happened to Gina and Jude.

Needless to say, something important must happen to both groups of characters if each is to have a scene. If only Lou and Hugo have an adventure, then Gina and Jude’s activities need nothing but a sentence or so. Scenes can be divided with a blank line, or with a transition sentence.

Scenes can be anything from a few sentences to a dozen or more pages in length, but in a short book like the one you’re writing for this exercise, they shouldn’t be too long.

Write your first chapter through to the end, and make sure you end at a hook or cliffhanger. This encourages young readers to continue into Chapter 2. Ending at a cliffhanger is also helpful to you as a writer, because it makes it easier to feel enthusiastic about writing the next chapter.

Important. Up until now, it’s been all about plan, plan, plan. Now is the time to stop working to rule and start writing by instinct. It may seem difficult to get the duality right at first, but it does help to know where you’re going before you start out. It also helps if you launch yourself off that bank and into the stream of the story.

And here’s another tip; as soon as you’ve finished writing Chapter 1, before you read any of it over, go on and write the first paragraph or so of Chapter 2. Then take a break.

 

Lesson 5: Beginning your Book.

Exercises and Bibliography

 

Exercise

Study a couple of recently published YA novels. Read the blurbs, and then the first pages. If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, skip through reading passages at random, and check out the end. You should get a good idea of tone and vocabulary.

Bibliography.

“Orange Outlaw”, by Ron Roy. Random, 2001.

“Hero”, by Sally Odgers. Koala Books, 1998, 1999, 2000.

“I’m Big Enough”, by Sally Odgers. Koala Books, 2002.

“Alien Dawn” by Maggie Pearson. Hodder Headline, 1997.

“Trinity Street” by Sally Odgers. HarperCollins 1997.

The “Anne” series by L.M. Montgomery. Various editions, 1908 onwards.

 

Lesson 6: Writing the Middle.

This lesson is about getting the middle of your book right. The specific focus is reading scheme, a very interesting challenge.

Challenges, Choices and Chances.

Challenges, Choices and Chances Continued.

What if You’ve Lost the Plot?

Dialogue and Style.

Specific level – Reading Scheme.

Supplement. Anatomy of a Specific RS Novel.

W.I.P. Section. Writing the Middle.

Exercises and Bibliography

Challenges, Choices and Chances.

As you write the middle of a book, you need to keep the flow going in three different streams. Perhaps you remember the analogy of the person driving a team of horses that I used to demonstrate the challenges in handling multi-stranded plots? We can do worse than to use the same analogy now for controlling the elements of the narrative.

The first stream is the plot. The story events are presented as scenes, linked by scene breaks (spaces, with or without *** symbols) or by transitions. The events need to keep on coming, and they need to build on one another. Plots often work like chain reactions, with one event triggering the next.

Leave aside (for now) the small and less important events and concentrate on the major ones. Each of these will present a new or enhanced challenge to the protagonist(s), and/or offer a possible change of direction. The characters may be carried along by events and have no choice but to ride the waves, but they might also be offered chances to turn back, turn aside, or go on.

As the book progresses, these choices, chances and challenges should become bigger and more important. Compare Jed’s and Karen’s challenges at the beginning of “Alien Dawn” with what hits them in the middle of the book. Compare the challenges Tell and Gerhardt face at the beginning of “Trinity Street” (suspicion over a friend’s new companion and the logistics of completing a well-rehearsed task) with those that wait for them later.

If in doubt about the strength of a choice, chance or challenge for your characters, always ask yourself if their actions/reactions matter. Ask what they stand to lose if they fail or make the wrong choice, and what they might gain if they take a chance/challenge or make the right choice. Ask yourself, also, what will happen if they try and fail. Will they be better or worse off than if they’d not tried?

It is difficult to generalise about how slight a challenge is too slight, because children’s books differ enormously in tone. In JCBs, challenges are seldom of the life-or-death variety.

In “The Orange Outlaw”, for example, Dink, Josh and Ruth Rose face the challenge of finding out who stole the Monet painting. This sounds like an important challenge, because a Monet painting is valuable, but what do the children risk? Not a lot. If they don’t solve the mystery, the owner will have to claim on his insurance. Uncle Warren will feel bad since the painting was in his care, but he won’t be blamed for the theft. Dink will feel bad for Uncle Warren, but apart from that, the children risk only the disappointment of not solving the mystery.

This does matter quite enough for a JCB, but challenges in SCBs and YA novels are likely to be stronger, and should always impinge on the protagonists.

In “Alien Dawn” Jed and Karen try to keep a secret, but the alien’s arrival seems to threaten them and their families. Lazlo’s friend is smashed up with his bike, and the men in coats are decidedly sinister. The protagonists must make choices, and at times it seems that every choice involves serious risk to someone.

In “Alien Dawn” the problems are like rings of ripples from a stone dropped in a pool. The issues threaten more and more people as characters get involved.

In “Trinity Street”, the risks of making bad choices are extreme. Bad choices offer death, and ruin, as does doing nothing. Trusting the wrong person is lethal, and there is no choice that will return the three protagonists to their SitNor state as it was at the beginning of the book. One set of apparent futures is gone, and in the end the only possible choice is a leap of faith. As with “Alien Dawn” the fallout will hurt other people who didn’t ask to get involved.

 

Lesson 6: Writing the Middle.

Challenges, Choices and Chances Continued.

Word of Warning

Despite the terrible choices YA and SCB characters sometimes have to make, most editors (and most writers) avoid producing children’s books that end in utter hopelessness. The fairytale saviours such as rich uncles and restored fortunes and reclaimed long-lost parents are out of fashion, so you should avoid painting your characters into a corner from which they have no chance. Sometimes, characters end up sadder-but-wiser, and sometimes they end up dead. Often they seem worse off at the end of the book than they were at the beginning, but they should always have something in compensation.

In “Trinity Street”, Gerhardt’s world has crashed down and Tell has lost her best friend, her family and her century, but against that they have each gained something. They have one another, Tell has been saved from a hideous lingering death and Gerhardt has done what he could to right the wrongs to which his ignorance contributed.

The biggest challenges and choices in a book need not be physical. Sometimes a moral dilemma can seem insurmountable. Will a protagonist betray one friend or the other? Sacrifice a friend/relative to save him/herself? Support a friend who is wrong against an enemy who is right? Take the easy way even when it’s dishonest? Shield a friend who has done something terrible?

The second stream of the book is the stream of character.

In most trade/mainstream children’s books, characters change and develop in the course of a story. Strengths and weaknesses of personality emerge, strengthen and weaken. Characters develop confidence, trust, cynicism or despair.

If character development is to be an important part of your narrative, you need to keep it under control. Your characters should react as themselves to every choice or challenge, but different challenges can bring out different facets of personality.

If your character stream is about the deconstruction of an apparently solid personality, you need to give some thought to how and why events will undermine that person.

If your protagonist is growing in strength, you need to know why.

In some books, one personality grows while another fails, so you might need to look at how one set of circumstances can benefit one personality while weakening another.

Character growth or disintegration tends to be faster and/or more extreme in single title books rather than in series. In some long-running series characters remain reasonably static. Protagonists are introduced in the first book and remain much the same until the end.

“The Orange Outlaw”, not only a JCB, but also a book in a long-running series, may be an example of this. There will be more about series and series characters in Lesson 7.

The third stream of the book is theme.

The theme is enmeshed in character and plot, and many character passages and incidents in the plot will illustrate or enlarge on it. Since theme is something that can appear almost automatically in a story, it isn’t always easy to control.

In some cases, it seems to work better if you deal with theme in the second draft, after you have had a chance to read the first draft and see what is already in place.

 

Lesson 6: Writing the Middle.

What if You’ve Lost the Plot?

Sometimes you lose the plot while writing the middle of a story. This usually happens for one of three main reasons:

(1)Your characters have developed in an unexpected direction.

(2)You find you’re writing “long” or “short”.

(3)Logistics have caught you out.

(1)When plotting your book, you usually move your characters like chess pieces. You might write something like this;

“Jamie watches in dismay as the oarless boat is swept down the river.”

This seems fine in the synopsis, but by the time you come to write up that scene Jamie has developed from chess piece to personality. And you know, now, that Jamie would never stand and wring her hands as her little sister is carried downstream. She would undoubtedly plunge in after the boat, and, what’s more, she’d catch it. If you know Jamie would act like that, then forcing her to fit the plot line you have decreed would be foolish. Characters have to remain true to themselves.

If you have a “Jamie” situation, then take up the synopsis, and see if you can amend it to take in the new situation.

Suppose the original storyline called for Jamie to watch helplessly, and then run and alert a picnic party to sound the alarm, while her sister Cassie spends a terrifying day alone in the boat.

You could change this so that Jamie catches the boat but can’t stop it because of the current. She manages to scramble in, and then she and Cassie are swept downstream. A picnic party sees them, but can’t help (it’s an elderly great-gran and three five year-olds), so Jamie flings her cap (with her name and address inside) to the bank. Finally, she manages to get the boat to the bank, but it’s the wrong bank and seems nowhere near civilisation.

Now you have an equally exciting situation, but Jamie is acting according to her personality.

(2)Sometimes, you will find that the sequence of events you have planned will take either far more or far fewer words than you expected. You were planning to write a 50,000 word SCB, but you’re only half way through the plot line and the word count is already 37,000 words and rising. Or maybe you have almost finished the plot, and you just know the book is going to pull up at 35,000 words, which is 15,000 words too soon.

If either of these problems besets you, try reading the existing text from the beginning. Are any important scenes missing or glossed-over? Is there too much exposition? Do you have longwinded dialogue? If any of these problems exist, correct them and reassess the word count. If the existing text seems problem-free, then you may need to look at that synopsis and either shorten it by cutting out a sub plot or plot wrinkle, or else lengthen it by adding a complication your characters won’t expect.

Using Jamie and Cassie and the boat scene as an example, you can see where you might add a new complication. Instead of having Jamie and Cassie wait for rescue, you could have a severe storm come in. Not only will they have to find shelter as the river starts to flood, but other characters will be very frightened for them. Get a tree down over the road Dad will need to drive along to find them. Go back and make the cap Jamie flings as a clue be, unknown to Jamie, a cap belonging to her friend who has just gone to Greece for several weeks. Now the “clue” will be compromised.

(3)Plots can also go wrong because of logistics. It is easy to write something like;

“Sero picks up her cousins from the airport” and then discover that although Sero is old enough to drive where you live, she isn’t old enough in the state/country where you’ve set your book. You could make her older, but that would mean she wouldn’t be still at school, and will spoil the whole kids-alone scenario.

You might write;

“Gareth goes to the pharmacy and picks up Tom’s medicine”, and then you find out that photo i.d. is needed to pick up prescriptions.

Or you might write;

“The kidnappers send Gina and Mac to a phone box, where they wait for instructions”, and then you find out that it is no longer possible to call public phone boxes. Or that parking meters don’t whirr any more. Or that schools don’t allow dogs on the premises. Or that German isn’t taught in high schools any more.

Generally, it isn’t faulty research that trips writers. It’s more likely to be the things they thought they knew and so never bothered to check. When I was writing a YA novel in the 1980s, I thought I knew it was possible to do “Matric” in one year. (It was when I went to school.) I discovered, almost too late, that it wasn’t possible any more. So, why didn’t I make my protagonist a year older? Because that would have made her old enough to get a driver’s licence which, for plot reasons, she couldn’t be.

Another problem is galloping technology. A useful plot complication goes down because mobile telephones no longer have to be charged every twenty-four hours, because telephone bills can be paid on the internet, or because a certain medicine is suddenly available without prescription. SMS means you don’t need to speak on mobile phones any more. Broadband means you don’t have to wait for a website to load.

If you need a wake-up call about what technology can do to plotting, read the Kate Brannigan series by Val McDermid. Time and again, Kate solves a problem by using an esoteric point about computers – which any computer literate twelve year old would know these days. They’re great stories, but already they read like period pieces.

If you get caught in a logistics problem, you must think of an alternative. Don’t try to brush past it, think/hoping the readers won’t notice. Maybe nine-year-olds wouldn’t notice the credibility gap, but an editor probably will.

Consider “The Orange Outlaw”, “Alien Dawn” and “Trinity Street”. Has advancing technology made any of these feel like period pieces?

 

Lesson 6: Writing the Middle.

Dialogue and Style.

Dialogue DOs and Dialogue DON’Ts

Dialogue is even more important in children’s books than in books for adults, and most of the points about writing good dialogue apply equally. Here are some dialogue Dos and Donts.

Do aim for dialogue that sounds natural, not for dialogue that is natural. Natural dialogue is full of inconsequential small talk, pauses, petering out and other junk. That’s fine in Fact, but not in Fiction.

Do take notice of the way children and teenagers speak. They don’t sound like adults.

Do make your young first person narrator sound his/her age.

Do clean up the dialogue a bit. Most editors don’t like faithfully-reproduced swearing.

Do make sure dialogue performs one of the *three major functions.

Do set dialogue out properly. (See Lesson 8.)

Don’t put inappropriate dialogue in the mouths of your characters. (Your characters are not you.)

Don’t reflect reality in those endless Did, did not, did, did not exchanges in which children often indulge.

Three Major Functions of Dialogue

1.To convey information. 2.To illustrate character. 3.To move the story onwards.

Two More Functions of Dialogue

4.To break up narrative. 5.To amuse and entertain.

Style

Writing style is often subjective, but there are a few points on which most people agree.

Style Dos and Don’ts

Do use a clear style for children’s books.

Don’t confuse the terms “clear” and “bland”.

Don’t be afraid to use adventurous styles, as long as the meaning is clear.

Don’t use clichés or weak verbs or weak adjectives.

Don’t use too many adjectives and adverbs. One strong one is worth several weak ones.

Don’t be afraid to use the word “said”. Use an unadorned “said” around seven times out of every ten. Why? Because it is invisible.

Do use specific terms rather than general ones. Use “dalmation” or “spaniel” instead of the generic “dog”.

Don’t use intrusive author asides. These are out of fashion (unless you’re Lemony Snicket).

Don’t use run-on sentences.

Don’t use very long sentences.

Do make sure your sentences really are sentences, with a subject, object and verb.

Do remember that sometimes the subject is “understood” rather than actually present in a sentence. For example: “Sit down here.” The subject is “You (understood)”.

Style to Match Genre and Age Level.

Your writing style should match the genre and age level of your manuscript. For example; the style for a fast-moving adventure is probably less ornamental than the style for a baroque fantasy. Below are some short passages of style, showing the demands of different types of mss. These excerpts are all from my own books; in part because I hold copyright and can legally reproduce the passages, and in part to show that one author can achieve lots of different styles.

YA science fiction thriller (“Trinity Street”).

Tell began a cautious sidestroke, legs and arms moving minimally to avoid any more painful shocks. It was only another hundred metres to go, now, and here came another wave, swelling silently from the ocean, bearing her in its bosom like a salty Abraham.

The gulls were crying, and if she could hear that then her ears could not be badly damaged. No doubt she had water in them and would get swimmers’ ear … a few drops of paraffin oil would serve to dry them out. And the main thing was life.

The wave dumped her on a beach.

Fantasy SCB. (“Candle Iron”).

Allyso lifted her chin at that. ‘I never said I was a hero, Keeper. I said I was Allyso.’

The grinding continued and the Keeper bloomed out of the darkness. It was as if the rock itself had come alive but it wasn’t only the mode of arrival that made Allyso stare.

‘You- you’re a dragon!’ she faltered. And so it was, the first she had ever seen. It blinked at her with heavy-lidded eyes, black as pools of ink, full of the thoughts of the ages.

‘I am a gemdrake,’ creaked the dragon, ‘but why have you disturbed me, halfling?’

Allyso swallowed. ‘I need the time-gem,’ she said.

The gemdrake roared, and the sound was borne on a gust of sulphurous breath that made Allyso cower away from the gate. She was aware, out of the corner of her eye, that Tollerman was crouched behind her.

Science Fiction JCB. (“Sleepless in Space”).

Cru-unch. Clunk! And a little jolt.

What was that?

Nothing, I told myself. I’m the only one awake, and I didn’t crunch or clunk. I must have been dreaming.

I tried to sleep. Eleven more months of this!

Clunk! Scrittttch!

There was no jolt this time, but I knew I wasn’t dreaming. It sounded like someone docking a space-hop rocket.

It can’t be! I thought. Not all the way out here! But the more I listened, the more it sounded like that. But – a space-hop rocket? A month away from the moon?

Comments on the Styles.

The YA style is allusive. The passage “bearing her in its bosom like a salty Abraham” is something that wouldn’t work in a JCB, but most literate teenagers would get the point.

The SCB has a similar piece of text “the Keeper bloomed out of the darkness”. Here the verb “bloomed” is used in an unusual fashion. Older child readers would accept this, but seven-year-olds might be puzzled.

The JCB plays no such tricks, and the words and sentences are all short and easily understood.

 

Lesson 6: Writing the Middle.

Specific level – Reading Scheme.

Reading Scheme is a very broad category, covering books for emergent readers (children of five or so) right up to the SCB level. There are even a few reading scheme titles for teenagers.

Reading Scheme isn’t always known by that name. In various times and places it has been called “Educational Readers”, “Class Sets”, ‘Reading Books”, “Graded Readers” and “Literature Based Reading”. It all comes to the same thing.

What is Reading Scheme?

Reading scheme is split into fiction and non-fiction. This lesson will refer to the fiction side of things. A reading scheme novel is aimed at a particular reading age. Some series actually have notations such as “Year 4/2” on the backs of the novels. This would refer to children in Term 2/ Second Semester, Year 4 / Fourth Grade in Primary School/Elementary School. Others are graded by colour or some kind of logo.

The early stage stories are very short and very simple.

The books at this level might have 8, 12, 16 or 24 pages, with one or two lines of text per page. There will be large pictures. These stories are not picture books, though, because they are designed for children to read themselves. Text might begin with something like this:

Lucy had a red hat.

So did Dad.

Lucy had a blue coat.

So did Tom.

Lucy had a yellow shirt.

So did Liz.

The reinforcement/repetition is important, but it is also important to have a “cap” ending to make the text, no matter how brief, into a story. The ending in this case might say that:

Lucy has a pink shoe.

So does the dog!

As the levels get older, the books get longer and more complex, but about half of all the RS series I’ve seen reach their top length at about 7,000 words. These are for readers of eleven or twelve years old, so many of these top-level readers are, in effect, SCBs that are between a quarter and a tenth of the length of their trade cousins. I call them “bonsai novels”, which isn’t an official term, but which aptly describes them.

A bonsai novel might be just 5,000 words, but it will have protagonists of 11-13, and will have a vocabulary and subject matter and theme to suit older children. There will be no sub plots (there isn’t room) and the storyline will be direct and the pace, brisk.

Series that allow longer texts will be similar to trade novels at the same level, with a few important distinctions.

If you would like to write reading scheme novels you need to understand the points on which they differ from trade.

1.Length. Even if the series doesn’t call for bonsai novels, there will probably be a set word count.

2.Genre. Some forms of fantasy are not welcome in most reading scheme series. These include paranormal subjects such as witches, ghosts, werewolves etc.

3.Social Responsibility of characters. In most reading scheme series, protagonists and their parents are not allowed to act in a criminal, dishonest, irresponsible or stupid manner. Thus a 12-year-old protagonist might get stranded on the wrong side of the river because the bridge was washed away, but must not be stranded in the city because she has gone out without permission.

4.Authority figures such as teachers, doctors, police and parents should be portrayed in a positive light.

5.There will be no bad language.

6.There will be no violence.

7.There will be no risky behaviour with water, fire, knives etc.

8.There will be no use of alcohol, no smoking, no illegal substances, and food consumed should be reasonably healthy.

9.There will be positive discrimination.

10.There will be no sexism, ageism, racism, or elitism.

11.Religion and politics will not be mentioned, and inclusiveness will be practised; i.e. there will never be a mention of Christmas, Easter or any other non-inclusive festival.

12.There will be no serious illness, death, or horror.

13.Books will rarely be set in an identifiable place and will be universal in theme and subject.

These rules sound narrow to some writers, but many of them apply to some publishers’ trade books as well. It is quite possible to write interesting, exciting and entertaining books within these parameters.

 

Lesson 6: Writing the Middle.

Supplement. Anatomy of a Specific RS Novel.

“Selka”, by Edward E.B. Cracker is a RS novel intended for readers in Year Seven/ Junior High. It is part of the “Momentum Plus” series. It has seven chapters and 32 pages, and is just over 4,000 words. It has coloured illustrations (see below) on most pages.

Chapter 1, “Riding White Horses”, begins on Page 5. The story is told in the first person by Mari Gordon, a lighthouse keeper’s daughter on the (fictitious) Atland Islands. This is a past tense narrative. Mari speaks of being eleven, and of her Aunt Nesta persuading her father to send her to school on the mainland. Mari recalls that she didn’t want to leave her best friend, Selka.

Nesta arrives, and Mari goes to the bay to say goodbye. Selka arrives “splashing through the wavelets”. Mari can’t bring herself to tell Selka she’s leaving, so she agrees to go riding. Selka calls the white horses, and the girls go for an exhilarating gallop along the shore.

At “the mers’ cove”, Nerissa, one of the merpeople, says “the Moncrief” (the ferry captain) has told her Mari is leaving. This is the first definite clue that Mari’s friends are not human.

Selka is upset, and the girls swap pendants before they part. Selka says; “Remember me, Mari”, and Mari promises to return for a final farewell.

At the end of P.9. Selka, revealed as a selkie girl, resumes her seal shape and goes back to the sea.

The chapter is 750 words long. It introduces setting, protagonist, and seven other characters, including four non-humans and one ferry captain with “sea sight”. It sets up Mari’s childhood existence, and lays the ground for her departure. The story begins at a time of change.

Chapter 2, “Glenfair”. A storm forces the ferry to leave early, so Mari misses seeing Selka. The ferry captain, Alan Moncrief, advises Mari not to speak of island things. “Folk won’t understand”. Mari describes her new school, her teacher, Ms O’Neill, and her friendship with local children. The islands seem far away.

The ferry journey makes a division between Mari’s worlds.

Chapter 3, “Spanish Silver”. P.14. A history lesson. Ms O’Neill, a diver, shows some Spanish coins from a wreck. Mari recognises one, a half Reale, from the pendant Selka gave her. She shows Ms O’Neill and says she acquired it “down by the sea caves”. Ms O’Neill schedules a dive at the Atland Islands. Mari is disturbed at the idea of her two worlds – home and school – meeting.

The history is lightly sketched but correct, and Mari (and the reader) learns to pronounce “Reale” properly. Mari is motivated by a wish to impress her teacher, but is wise enough to skirt the issue of how she acquired the coin-pendant.

Chapter 4, “Only a Seal”. P.17. Back on the island, Ms O’Neill and Mari discuss the pros and cons of island life. Mari learns that the teacher and her friends are making a film. At the bottom of P.19, Ms O’Neill thinks she has seen someone in the sea, but Mari responds that it is “only a seal”. She can’t explain Selka to Ms O’Neill, and is worried about how simple Selka would seem. She resolves to see Selka “tomorrow”, but a storm prevents this.

This chapter shows Mari’s problem with her colliding worlds. This reflects the problem some people have when they hesitate to introduce their unsophisticated childhood friends to later acquaintances.

Chapter 5, “Treasure Hunt”. P. 21. Mari goes treasure hunting with the divers, and learns a little about wreck-diving. The students wish for a spectacular find to end their film. Selka surfaces and “put on human form”, but Mari distracts Ms O’Neill’s attention. She talks loudly to drown the sound of Selka’s voice.

Chapter 6, “Unreality”, opens on Page 25. Mari has the brilliant idea of asking Selka to show her a wreck for the divers to “find”. Mari finds a hurt and reproachful Selka, and explains that she can’t let her meet Ms O’Neill. She asks Selka about a wreck, but Selka doesn’t understand about films. Mari bursts out that she’s “so stupid”, and “only a seal”. Selka dives under the water. Mari tries to swim back to the shore, but finds the sea inhospitable.

On P. 28, Mari says she looked for Selka during the next week, but never saw her, or the mers, or the white horses. She does find the pendant she gave to Selka abandoned on the rocks. She wonders if Selka was ever real.

Chapter 7, “Sea-sight”, begins on P. 29. Mari is more disappointed than Ms O’Neill about the lack of treasure. Ms O’Neill says that the hunt is as good as the finds, and returns Mari’s half Reale pendant. Unable to find Selka or the other sea folk, Mari begs Alan Moncrief for help. He tells her that sea-sight is fragile, and reminds her that most people manage well enough without it.

Knowing she has ruined things, Mari goes to the bay and makes her apologies “blind”. A seal swims to the rocks, and Mari finally understands that Selka and the others need people to define them, so she makes an effort of will… and sees Selka take on human form. “You’ll go away again”, says Selka, and Mari agrees- but promises she will always come back.

“Selka” is a very short book, but the theme and plot reflects the SCB level of the text. Readers will learn something of history, legend, faith, treasure-hunting, friendship and obligation. They will learn that friendship is fragile, and that friends can’t be pushed aside and then taken up when it suits.

The plot, theme and characters would have fitted a trade SCB, but it’s interesting to speculate on whether greater length would have strengthened or weakened the story.

 

Lesson 6: Writing the Middle.

W.I.P. Section. Writing the Middle.

Writing the middle of your book should come quite easily. The first chapter will have helped to bring the characters and setting alive, and you should have presented your Protagonist’s situation and either hinted at, or delivered, a challenge or choice.

You have already begun Chapter 2, so now continue where you left off. It is sometimes helpful to keep a running word count as you write. Remember your chapters don’t have to be the same length. It’s quite common for the last chapter to be shorter than the others.

Use Chapter 2 to build on the situation already presented. Let your protagonist react, but remember to keep him/her firmly in the driver’s seat. Even if the character is behaving weakly or wrongly, make sure s/he is a prime mover of the plot. Remember the saying that “a person who never makes mistakes never makes anything else, either” and apply that to your protagonist.

By the end of Chapter 2, the change or challenge should be well underway, and the plot should intensify in Chapter 3. If your character has made an effort to solve the problem or achieve the goal in Chapter 2, show the results of that effort. If the initial problem/goal is solved, set a new problem/challenge.

This new challenge should evolve from the original situation.

In “The Orange Outlaw”, the children find that clearing one suspect leads them to investigate another. Discovering the identity of the thief leaves them needing to prove it. Each new challenge builds on the one before.

In “Alien Dawn”, Jed’s and Karen’s experiences become more and more complicated. Some challenges devolve directly from the UFO and the stone, and from their efforts to keep these secrets. This book is longer than “Orange Outlaw”, though, so there is room to show more challenges building from the children’s own natures and family situations.

In “Trinity Street”, Tell’s initial suspicion of Gerhardt is magnified as the shocks keep coming. By the time she knows she can trust him, the situation is out of hand. Tell’s predicament (being stranded seven centuries out of her own time) springs directly from her initial interest in/suspicion of Gerhardt. Her telepathic connection with him is what carries her through the veil. The connection proves both a danger and a blessing as the suspense mounts.

In “Selka”, Mari’s ability to take Selka and the others for granted begins to work against her when she takes friendship (and not mere existence) for granted. Her move towards sophistication and knowledge looks set to deprive her of her older gifts of faith and acceptance.

Depending on your plot, you might choose to bring your story to a climax in Chapter 4 or Chapter 5. Don’t do it in Chapter 3, because that will lead to a too-early peaking, and a too-long conclusion.

 

Lesson 6: Writing the Middle.

Exercises and Bibliography

 

Exercise

See if you can find some reading scheme novels. You probably won’t find them at ordinary book shops, but try educational suppliers. The local school might be willing to let you see their collection, too. Compare the modern RS novels to the school readers you remember from your own days at school.

Bibliography.

“Orange Outlaw”, by Ron Roy. Random, 2001.

“Hero”, by Sally Odgers. Koala Books, 1998, 1999, 2000.

“I’m Big Enough”, by Sally Odgers. Koala Books, 2002.

“Alien Dawn” by Maggie Pearson. Hodder Headline, 1997.

“Trinity Street” by Sally Odgers. HarperCollins 1997.

The “Anne” series by L.M. Montgomery. Various editions, 1908 onwards.

Kate Brannigan series by Val McDermid.

“Sleepless in Space” by Sally Odgers, Koala Books 2002.

“Candle Iron” by Sally Odgers. HarperCollins 2001.

“Selka”, by Edward E.B. Cracker. Macmillan 2000.

 

Lesson 7: Climax and Ending.

This lesson gets into the home straight. The climax and ending of your book is all-important. Learn about it here. Do you like series? That’s the focus level this time!

Writing the Climax

Strong Writing.

Finish Your Book.

Specific Level – Series Fiction.

Supplement: Anatomy of a Specific Series.

W.I.P. Section. Writing the End of your Book.

Exercises and Bibliography

Writing the Climax

The climax of your book is the most exciting part. It is the part where the drama builds to its greatest heights, where discoveries are made, goals achieved, mysteries solved, secrets revealed and the biggest challenges faced and met.

Of course, not all children’s books are dramatic. Most picture books are not, and JCBs are often domestic in nature. Nevertheless, all books need a shape. If you think about this in terms of graphing, the climax is where your characters are furthest from Situation Normal. This can be exciting, frightening, tragic, or joyful, but whatever happens your protagonist(s) must have an emotional investment in the climactic affairs.

Climaxes can be marked by any of the following:

1.Goals (not necessarily sporting) achieved or shockingly lost.

2.Greatest challenges met or failed.

3.Personal problems overcome by character’s own efforts.

4.Bad influences outfaced.

5.Unpopular or unusual hunches or ideas proved correct – or incorrect.

6.Relationships made or mended or finally discarded.

7.Loyalty rewarded or punished.

8.Physical bravery saves (or fails to save) the day.

9.Opposition to a course of action overcome.

10.An apparent weakness turns out to be a strength, or vice versa.

Many of these possibilities for climactic happenings come in pairs, depending on whether the climax is to be a triumph or bitter disappointment, but of course these are not the only options. Your characters might fail to achieve their goals, yet you might still be able to take much of the sting out of the climax. This is more important at the younger levels.

Example:

Suppose you are writing a YA novel and the climax comes when the heroine finally realises her relationship with her boyfriend is compromising a friendship she values. Realistically, whatever decision she makes is going to be painful. She can break with the boyfriend and keep the friendship, or drop the friend and keep the boyfriend, or muddle along trying to please both. The strongest decision she could make, (supposing neither boyfriend nor friend is really bad news) would be to make it plain to both of them that she won’t be manipulated or allow them to fight over her. She risks losing both, but she keeps her self-respect. Any of these decisions would reflect her character, and also change the theme and tone of the whole story. It’s a fairly harsh message whichever way it goes.

If you were writing for much younger readers, you might have this scenario.

Your hero’s family is moving from the country to the city. The beloved pet donkey is too old to be sold and cannot be kept in a city garden. No matter what happens, the boy cannot keep the donkey, but if a grandparent or country-based friends steps in, or if the new owners of the farm love donkeys, then some of the sting will be drawn.

Remember:

Not all goals that children and teenagers have are achievable. It is cruel to imply that they are.

Not all goals should be achieved. Acceptance into the “in” crowd is not a good goal to achieve if your character must barter away his/her self-esteem or integrity.

Achievements based on lies or deceit are likely to come apart in a spectacular way in fiction as well as reality.

Not all challenges can be met. For every David-and-Goliath battle that the David wins, there are many that Goliath will win from sheer physical strength. It is easy to assume that the intelligent little bloke can outwit the musclebound thicko, but what if Muscles is intelligent too?

Compromise is sometimes necessary. So is backing down. The trick is to write persuasively so that the characters who compromise or back down are still able to triumph in some way, if only by having the wit to admit that they’re not going to win and the grace to concede without whining.

 

Lesson 7: Climax and Ending.

Strong Writing.

When you come to write your climax, use your strongest writing. Use strong, direct verbs, cut the waffle and make events clear and easy to understand.

Make sure your protagonist(s) can be involved in the thick of the climax. If the climax takes place in a battle zone, a natural disaster area or a confrontation with powerful enemies, make sure your protagonist has a role.

Remember, even in broad-canvas novels, it is the personal stories that matter. A ten-year-old can’t rescue an entire group of people from a flood or a bushfire, but s/he can salvage a pet, a small sibling’s favourite toy or a treasured photograph. An eight-year-old can’t possibly face down five twelve-year-old bullies terrorising a friend, but s/he can find the fortitude to fetch an adult.

Don’t gloss over the climax in a bridging sentence or so. Some writers dislike writing dramatic scenes, and so finish one scene with the protagonist facing apparent disaster and begin the next one with disaster averted. If you can’t (or don’t wish to) produce a full-blown dramatic scene in real time, you must at least describe it in retrospect, or in dialogue.

Keep the level of drama pitched to suit the level of your readership. The scene in “Trinity Street” where Pris pursues Tell with the burning brand would be too graphic for a JCB.

Keep the level of drama pitched to suit the genre and tone of your book. A light-hearted comedy romp can be exciting, but it shouldn’t suddenly turn tragic at the climax.

Notice the reassuring tone in the climactic scene in “The Orange Outlaw”. Ruth Rose confronts the villain, but the most he does is grumble and sneer. It would have been completely off-tone for this story if he had grabbed Ruth Rose and held a knife at her throat.

Fantasy, science fiction and historical novels sometimes call for harsher situations than you might put in a contemporary children’s book. Societies differ in different genres, and in some fantasy or historical contexts a twelve-year-old protagonist might be functioning autonomously. If evil is abroad your characters might need to fight it with swords or guile or any other means. How much violence or pain or controversial behaviour you include depends partly on the level, partly on genre, partly on tone and partly on specific publishers.

When I was writing a fantasy adventure for readers of nine or so, my editor said my boy-knight could not fight the dragon with a sword or spear. I had to think up another means of combat. In a YA novel, I was asked to punish the villains rather than letting them escape. In a YA novel a scene where the teenaged heroine detested her stepfather’s habit of watching three news broadcasts was excised. You really never know what an editor will allow or want removed or rewritten.

Here is a short passage from “Candle Iron”, a “young” YA novel. I was doubtful that an editor would allow my heroine to practise self-mutilation, even for a good reason, but the scene was passed without comment. The book won an award, and no one has ever objected to the scene.

From “Candle Iron”

“With a rush, she brought her arm down hard on the glowing metal.

The pain was worse than anything she had ever imagined. Worse than a beating, worse than the slash of a dagger. The hiss of singeing flesh was as sickening as the smell.

She might have screamed, but the breath was driven from her lungs with the shock, and her throat seemed to be closing.

Gritting her teeth, sick with pain, she lifted her arm from the candle-iron and stared at the livid white lily-shaped sear-mark on the flesh of her arm. Already the skin was crinkled, the crimson showing through.

‘Now, take my memory if you can!’ she whispered. “

 

Lesson 7: Climax and Ending.

Finish Your Book.

Finding a suitable ending for your children’s book is every bit as important as finding a proper beginning. You need to judge the best point at which to draw a line.

Sometimes, the best place to end a story is soon after the climax. If you continue too far past the big scene, you risk an anticlimax. On the other hand, you should avoid a too-abrupt ending. If your readers turn the page expecting the story to continue, then your ending might be too abrupt. The exceptions to this are when the book is part of a trilogy or other series, or if the story is part of a bigger one.

For example, the story of a battle might end fairly abruptly, and the readers would understand this is because the battle is just one in a series that make up the war. Or perhaps your story ends with the discovery of a quest object, and the readers understand the greater quest is still to come.

Another, non-children’s-book, example of this is a romantic novel where the story ends with a proposal of marriage, or with the wedding. This is reasonably abrupt, but in most cases it would be pointless to carry on and stop a month into the marriage, with so many years left to come. You might regard the proposal/wedding as the end of the unmarried courtship.

The actual ending scene or line of a book should be satisfying for the readers. It need not be specifically a “happy ending”, but it should bring some kind of closure. In most children’s books it is still usual to end on a hopeful, or at least a resigned, note. Ending a book with your protagonist is despair is likely to haunt younger readers more than it would adults.

Short books such as picture books or short RS novels usually have a “cap” or “twist” ending. Depending on the tone of the story, the cap might be as simple as; “So that was all right.” or “And they did.” or “He knew that was his last mistake. For now.”

Sometimes, the last line harks back to the first line. Perhaps you recall a JCB mentioned in Lesson 5? The opening lines were;

“When we moved into our new home, I was just an ordinary kid. Now I feel like a hero!”

The last line harks back to this with the cap ending:

“Because of me, that dragon flies around on the purple planet. When I remember that, I feel like a hero.”

Sometimes, a last line looks forward to future activity. An example is the ending of “The Orange Outlaw” when the children are looking forward to co-ownership of Polly the pony.

“Selka” finishes with Mari Gordon agreeing with Selka that she will go away, but promising to come back again. And Selka, having to be satisfied with that, calls the white horses that appeared in Chapter 1. Mari will ride them again. She has got her sea-sight back.

The end of “Alien Dawn” takes Jed full circle back to his reflections on pessimism. At the beginning, if you recall, Jed had “recently discovered what a pessimist was, and decided he was going to be one”. On the last page, he has decided; “Pessimism was rubbish”.

Even “Trinity Street”, which closes with two of the three protagonists stranded in the future and the third presumed dead, ends on a note that looks forward to better times. Gerhardt Watchmen is thinking that now “at least they had a chance.” He speaks telepathically to Tell; “Start walking, teur Estellita, he told her. I’ll meet you in the middle.”

It is worth thinking ahead to work out what kind of ending you want for your book, and then working towards it. Whether the end restores SitNor, improves on it or reverses it, there needs to be a feeling that although this story is ending, the characters will “go on”.

 

Lesson 7: Climax and Ending.

Specific Level – Series Fiction.

Quite a big percentage of the books published for children belong to series of one kind or another. There are several different types of series.

1.An author-driven series is instigated by the author, who writes more than one book about a character or set of characters or, occasionally, more than one book set in a specific place. Author-driven series come in four major types:

Authors’ Series 1 comprise books that are practically parts of the same narrative. They may be trilogies. They tend to end on cliffhangers. Most of these are conceived as series from the beginning.

Authors’ Series 2 comprise books about characters who grow older book by book. They might have one adventure in spring of one year, and the next will be later in spring, or in summer. They remember things that happened in previous books.

Authors’ Series 3 comprise books about characters who age slowly, if at all. Anthony Buckeridge’s “Jennings” is, I believe, eleven throughout the series. These characters may, however, remember previous adventures and may learn from experience.

Authors’ Series 4 comprise books about characters that never age, or change. If the characters in Book #1 are Mum, Dad, Jenny (5) and the baby, Jenny will still be 5 in Book #45, and the baby will still be the baby.

Authors’ Series 1 and 2 are the ones that show the most character development. Series with a great many titles (such as the “A-Z” series to which “The Orange Outlaw” belongs), cater more for readers who want the security of “knowing” the characters and narrative pattern rather than active character development.

Your chances of writing (and publishing) a series about characters you have developed depend greatly on luck, the current publishing climate (which changes all the time) and specific publishing guidelines. Some publishers seem to like series, because they see a ready-made readership forming, while others will be anxious to “see how it goes” with each specific book.

2.A publisher-driven series is instigated by the publisher, which decides to publish more than one book about a character or set of characters or, occasionally, more than one book set in a specific place. Publisher-driven series come in two major types:

Publishers’ Series 1 comprise books of similar length, written by different authors, using different characters. This kind of series might be given the blanket title “Tadpoles”, “Merry-go-Rounds” or “Lunchbreaks”. Sometimes these are called imprints rather than series.

Publishers’ Series 2 comprise books about the same characters, often written by different authors using an umbrella pseudonym. These series usually go under the blanket title of the protagonist(s) names. “The Hardy Boys”, “Blinky Bill”. The characters are usually invented “in house”, and then each writer is given a “bible” to make sure details are kept straight.

Occasionally, a publisher will spot a gap in the market and commission one author to write a series or trilogy to take advantage of this gap. Sometimes the guidelines will be very rigid, but now and again the brief will be vague and open to interpretation.

Series Advantages and Pitfalls.

Writing for a series has many advantages.

A successful series has a built-in readership base. This saves time for both author and publisher as a proposal can be made much more simply.

Many readers love series. They like to know what kind of book they’re getting before they begin to read.

There are also pitfalls in series writing.

Sometimes it is difficult to persuade a publisher to consider a new author-driven series. The reaction is likely to be: “Let’s wait and see how the first one does”. “Wait and see” can take two years or more, as first there is the wait for publication, and then the wait for the sales figures to come in. If the author has to wait two years to get the go-ahead for Book #2 in a JCB series, and then wait another year for publication, then the original readers will be nearing the end of their JCB reading level. Many will have forgotten Book #1.

Sometimes, authors set out to write what they believe will be single books, but then realise there is another story to tell. Again, it might be a problem to pitch a sequel to the publisher of Book #1.

For a fascinating look at the ways series fiction can be handled, go to Jim Mackenzie’s article at http://www.penrithcity.nsw.gov.au/usrpag…

Don’t forget to come back, though!

 

Lesson 7: Climax and Ending.

Supplement: Anatomy of a Specific Series.

Some series are open ended, while others have built-in boundaries. “The Orange Outlaw” is part of Ron Roy’s “A to Z Mysteries” series. The titles begin with “The Absent Author”, and “The Bald Bandit” and progress through “The Orange Outlaw” to “The School Skeleton” and “The Talking T-Rex”. A “Z” title would mark the end. To find out more about the titles in this series, visit Mr Roy’s home page and go to http://www.ronroy.com/book_list.htm .

Other series end when the initial challenge or goal is faced or achieved.

“The Reluctant Knight” series was always meant to be a trilogy. There is a specific storyline running through all three books, but each one has a self-contained plot as well. Each book is around 20,000 words, with Book #3 being a little longer. This series is a kind of hybrid; the idea of a trilogy about a young knight came from a publisher, but the plots and characters were author-generated.

The series is pitched to take in the top of JCB level as well as SCB. All three books have covers and internal illustrations by the same artist.

In Book #1, “Knightfall”, a man named Porter asks Simon Knight to exercise his pony, Traveller. Soon Simon finds himself galloping over a plain. He is wearing armour and a dragon is after him.

The dragon, Peggy, claims Simon’s appearance was foretold in a prophecy. She makes him promise to help her find Rifer, the lost dragon prince.

Later, Simon meets serving maid Becca, who can conjure pictures and lights out of nothing with a click of her fingers. Becca takes him to the old knight Sir Humphrey Bookerstaff, who also refers to a prophecy. Bookerstaff trains Simon to fight Fleamer, the terrible dragon king. Simon defeats Fleamer with Becca’s pepper pudding.

At the end of the book, Fleamer is no longer a menace, Simon has gained skills and confidence and proved himself a “proper knight”, but Prince Rifer is still missing… Traveller takes Simon home.

This book stands alone, but sets up Simon’s family, the world of Braveria, the uneasy truce between humans and dragons and the mystery of the missing prince. Peggy’s love/hate relationship with Simon is established. She needs his help, but she wants to eat him!

On the surface, this is a comedy fantasy adventure about knights, damsels and dragons, but concessions had to be made for the younger end of the readership.

Porter’s identity is never given, but he says (and proves) that he knows Simon’s dad. Simon doesn’t use traditional weapons to defeat Fleamer. He poisons him by accident, and then acts to cure him.

In Book #2, “Knight Protector”, Simon returns to Braveria where another prophecy has been found. This one warns that the Princess Elizabetha of Braveria needs a knight protector.

Simon is appointed to the position, but the Princess turns out to be his old friend, Becca. Simon and Bookerstaff escort Becca to boarding school, but along the way she is kidnapped. Now the dragon and human heirs of Braveria are both missing.

After many trials and adventures, Simon rescues the princess, escapes being eaten by Peggy and gets Becca to her school before returning home.

The series threads established or reiterated include – Becca’s powers, her reluctance to be a traditional princess, the missing dragon prince, Peggy’s dual interests in Simon, the prophecies, and Porter’s mysterious identity. Including all the existing threads plus supporting the new internal story meant it was a struggle to keep the book to the required length.

Book #3, “Knight Triumphant”, has Simon actively seeking Braveria. He joins Bookerstaff and other old friends on a quest to seek Prince Rifer.

Becca seems to have changed. Not only is she cold to Simon, but she denigrates her “click-picture” talents and claims her tutor says they are not worth bothering about.

Simon has to work out what is wrong with Becca, come to terms with the fact that he is the only character without special skills, and overcome the baleful influence that threatens to twist his nature as well as Becca’s.

By the end of the story, Prince Rifer is found, a final prophecy has been fulfilled, Becca is back to normal, Peggy has discovered that she cannot eat “a friend” and Porter’s identity and function are revealed. The prophecy book’s provenance and Traveller’s history are explained. Simon is faced with a problem that only he can solve, and he needs to do it by brains instead of force.

The series threads are drawn to a close in this third book, and Simon’s task is done. Again, it was difficult to keep the length down, and this was achieved only at the expense of not including some characters from the earlier two books. Conceiving the books as a trilogy rather than an open-ended series allowed the story arc of Rifer’s disappearance and Simon’s training to come to a controlled close rather than becoming attenuated through too many books.

Simon and Becca grow in experience, but the “real time” in our world is probably about six months.

Villains

No fantasy/adventure would be complete without a villain. “The Reluctant Knight” series introduces one for each book. King Fleamer is the menace in #1, but Simon’s efforts turn him into a friend. Lord Perridan, the vengeful relative who kidnapped Becca, is the villain in #2. Simon and Becca short-circuit his ambitions and he winds up under house arrest. In #3 the villain is hinted at throughout the story but appears in person close to the end. He is the most powerful and most purely evil of the three, and is permanently banished from Braveria.

 

Lesson 7: Climax and Ending.

W.I.P. Section. Writing the End of your Book.

Now you have come to the climax and the end of your w.i.p. When you write the climax, make sure you give the scenes their full weight. If a climax is short, glossed-over or bridged in the most dramatic part, your readers will feel cheated. By now you should know your characters well, so let analytical writing go and put your heart into it.

Most writers feel some emotional attachment for their characters. This varies from writer to writer, and also from book to book. Most agree that characters they have invented resonate far more than “stock” characters from a publisher’s series.

If you don’t feel much attachment for your characters, it need not reflect on your writing. Some people don’t connect with fictional people whether they have invented them or not. However, if you’re the type who laughs, smiles or cries when reading or watching a film, then you probably are a “connector”.

Once the climax is written, you have only to bring the story to a natural conclusion. If you’re not sure about the proper ending note, go back and read the whole story from the beginning. Then imagine yourself reading on. You should have a gut feeling about whether the book should end quickly or rather more gradually.

Don’t feel the need to tie up every end. If the ending is too neat there will be no sense of the characters “going on”.

Where should your characters be at the end of the story? That rather depends on the tone, the viewpoint and the genre and level you have chosen. In “The Orange Outlaw”, the children and Uncle Warren are in a rental car, heading back for the city. Notice the story doesn’t go on to take them back to the apartment, let alone to their separate homes. The mystery is solved, the “reward” (Polly the pony) won, and so the story ends.

In “Alien Dawn”, the end comes when Karen and Jed have been saved from the tide, the stone has gone, and the Suits have left the area. Jed is determinedly not letting Karen tell him about her encounter with the light, but she and Jed’s dad are happily discussing it. Jed, turning his thoughts to practical matters, reflects that if there are two of “them” in his neighbourhood, there must be many, many more… and so he walks in to get the dinner. In a way, this is a low key ending, but the characters have made their emotional journeys and come to a place where they can rest.

“Trinity Street” has a much more open ending. The immediate danger is gone, and so is any chance of returning to SitNor. Tell and Gerhardt are apart, but approaching one another and their future. Emotionally they, too, have come to a point of rest.

When you have written the ending, put the w.i.p. (still so-called because it is still “in progress”) aside until the next lesson.

 

Lesson 7: Climax and Ending.

Exercises and Bibliography

 

Exercise

Reread the endings of recently published children’s books and see which ones you find most effective. Work out why they work.

Bibliography.

“Selka” by Edward E.B. Cracker, Macmillan, 2000.

“The Orange Outlaw”, by Ron Roy.

“Trinity Street”, Sally Odgers.

“Alien Dawn”, Maggie Pearson.

“The Reluctant Knight” series, by Sally Odgers, Koala Books 2002, 2003, 2004.

 

Lesson 8: Polishing and Editing.

Here’s what to do when you’ve finished that first draft.

After the first draft.

Structural editing.

Second Draft.

Polishing Draft.

Setting out and pro tips.

Specific level – Overview.

W.I.P. Edit and polish your book.

After the First Draft

Opinions vary about what you should do when you have finished the first draft of your w.i.p. Some authors like to read the whole manuscript through from the beginning, others prefer to let it “rest” for a while. Still others like to start rewriting and editing straight away.

Immediate Action

Your immediate action on finishing your first draft should be to save at least two copies of the complete draft. Keep one in the computer (if you’re using one) and the other on a floppy or CD. Making a hard copy is also useful. Make sure you know exactly where the finished draft is; it is distressing if you wipe it by mistake and find yourself with half of Chapter Six instead.

Reading it Through

Reading the manuscript through can be fun. Some people love to see the results of their hard work, and to bask in the satisfaction of having finished the first draft of a children’s book. Reading your own work as a reader is interesting. For the first time you see the story in its entirety, and know you have the power and the right to change anything that doesn’t please you. This is something most readers are denied. If you read as a writer you will probably start picking faults straight away. This doesn’t matter, since you still have the power to make changes.

Pros and Cons of Resting the Ms

“Resting” the ms means laying it aside for a minimum of three days and a maximum of six months to a year.

People who favour extended resting (more than three months or so) say it gives them distance from the story and lets them come to the second draft in a refreshed state of mind. Resting also gives most writers the power to see errors they didn’t notice before. Instead of reading what they assume is there, they read what really is there.

Those who don’t favour extended resting have equally persuasive reasons. Too great a distance means the subconscious of some writers will draw a line under the project and refuse to engage with it again. If your subconscious considers the job “done” it can be difficult to persuade it otherwise. The other problem is that fashions change, editors move on, imprints close and every month of resting means another month added to the (usually) interminable-seeming period before you know if your book will be accepted.

I am cautiously in favour of limited resting. It is much easier to spot errors in a ms that has had a chance to cool. I have found more than a month or so of rest to be more of a problem than a benefit, but I stress that this is a subjective point of view. All writers should experiment and see what suits them best.

Immediate Editing and Rewriting.

Immediate editing and rewriting probably isn’t a good idea. It’s too soon to see flaws, and piecemeal rewriting is usually a problem. Let it sit for a few days before you make any changes.

 

Lesson 8: Polishing and Editing.

Structural Editing.

If your planning and synopsis “worked”, there should not be much need for structural editing. All the same, it is useful to know how to do it.

Structural editing is a tool writers and editors use to correct badly structured manuscripts. It is rare for a publisher’s editor to take the time to deal with structural editing. If the manuscript needs much structural work, it will usually be rejected.

Badly structured manuscripts can suffer from all kinds of faults. Most people have heard of “the sagging middle”, but not many realise that beginnings, ends, and climaxes can also sag or drag. If the manuscript is “slow” or “dragging”, it can bore the reader. If you’ve ever wondered when a book or a film is going to get somewhere, then you’ve probably encountered a slow or dragging story.

Slow beginnings can be fixed by the cutting and tightening. Sometimes, the whole first chapter can be removed, and replaced with a paragraph at the beginning of Chapter 2. Otherwise, with a longer manuscript, the first three or four chapters might need to be concertinaed and rewritten.

Rushed beginnings can be rewritten with added exposition. This makes things clear, and also slows the narrative so the reader has time to get used to the style and the characters.

Sagging middles usually need “pointing up” to make them more exciting. Cut out redundant material, and make the middle stronger.

A flat climax usually needs complete rewriting. If the action is dull, you need to rethink story events, and to raise the stakes for your characters. If the telling is flat, you need to give more attention to the dramatic parts. Use strong verbs, cut unnecessary dialogue, and make sure similes, adjectives or metaphors are few and fresh.

Sometimes, structure seems wrong because scenes are out of place. A good way to correct a very slow beginning, if the material can’t be cut without damaging the plot, is to begin the story right at the point of the first action, and then turn the original beginning into a flashback.

If you are unsure of where the problem is, make a graph of the story events. If there are too many sitting around the SitNor level, then you should be able to see where to take tucks or inject some more excitement.

Structural editing can be daunting for an inexperienced writer. Sometimes, it looks too difficult, or too extensive. Even authors with several published books to their credit can dread structural editing. They are usually angry with themselves for allowing the situation to develop the first place.

It is easier to the get the structure right, or to fix it if it isn’t right, at the JCB level. There are fewer subplots and usually fewer characters to prune or reposition. A complex fantasy or science-fiction SCB or YA novel can be quite difficult to re-plot, so it really does pay to try to correct structural problems at synopsis level before the manuscript is written.

As an exercise, try graphing “The Orange Outlaw” or “Alien Dawn” or “Trinity Street”, and see if you can find any structural problems.

 

Lesson 8: Polishing and Editing.

Second Draft.

Once you are satisfied the manuscript is structurally sound, it is time to write the second draft. Some writers produce two or three drafts of the manuscript, while others may write as many as the ten.

A second draft can be a complete rewrite, made from scratch, and without reference to the first draft.

More commonly, a second draft is a modified or edited version of the first one. If so, most people write it “over the top” of the original. In the days before word processors were in general use, the second draft had to be completely retyped, but now sections can be left or changed at will.

Always keep an untouched copy of that first draft, just in case you need to go back to it.

Here are some functions of the second draft.

Second Draft Tasks and Functions

Tidy up character interactions in the early chapters.

No matter how much thinking and planning you do about characters before you write the book, you will always know them better by the time you have finished. Characters evolve, and sometimes change considerably. They can develop in completely unexpected directions. If this happens, you need to change the early chapters to reflect the evolved personalities. Characters do change during a story, but sometimes the change is less about “natural” growth in response to challenges, changes and chances, and more about the author having a better idea.

Make sure the character descriptions match throughout the book. If the character is blonde in chapter 10, make sure she isn’t brunette-without-benefit-of-dye in Chapter 19. Keep an eye on character ages, as well. Remember, for example, that characters of 10 and 11, respectively, might be as little as a week apart in age, or as much as 23 months. Don’t accidentally have siblings six months apart in age. The second draft is also an ideal place to check character names. It is surprisingly easy to wind up with two or three characters whose names are too similar. If you have a “Charis”, a “Chris” and a “Carola” in one short ms, you have a problem, because some readers are always going to mix these characters up. Now is the time to change them.

If you don’t want a too-radical alteration, you could change “Chris” to “Kris” or “Carola” to “Marina”. Otherwise, you could refer to one by a nickname.

Be sure to check surnames as well as given names.

If you have the character whose name doesn’t seem to suit him or her, you can either change it or modify it. A “William” who doesn’t seem like a “William” might be changed to a “Nicholas”, or to “Will”. You can also use part of a surname instead of a given name. “William Jones” might be known to his friends as “Jonesy”.

Remove redundant scenes, and add any that seem to be missing.

Make sure dialogue fulfils a purpose.

Check your timeline. If the manuscript takes place over three weeks, make sure there are not too many Tuesdays.

Don’t send your characters to the bank on Sunday, and make sure you have covered any schooldays, weekends or holidays.

Timelines are especially important in time travel books like “Trinity Street”.

Make sure you haven’t “lost” any characters. If your protagonist has to look after a little sister every Wednesday, make sure this is followed through or else make other arrangements.

Don’t let characters go away for a week without making provision for the dog.

Make sure the weather is appropriate for the stated time of year.

Make sure your characters are acting according to physical capabilities. In other words, remember that most ten-year-olds can’t walk for more than an hour or so without a rest.

Once you have sorted out all these minor problems, you will be ready to write your next (and possibly final) draft.

 

Lesson 8: Polishing and Editing.

Polishing Draft

It’s a good idea to rest your ms between the second (or subsequent) drafts and the polishing draft.

The polishing draft is for just that- polishing. Us it to –

Pick up typos.

Excise over abundant adjectives.

Get rid of redundant speech tags.

Smooth out those awkward constructions.

Discover and remove most passive sentences. (Sometimes they have every right to be there!)

Tidy up any odds and ends that don’t seem quite right.

Double check your chapter numbers and/or titles. It’s all too easy to end up with Chapter 5 twice over and no Chapter 6.

Get rid of words and phrases like “very”, “quite”, “actually”, “really” and “by the way” and “as it happened” unless they need to be used. Qualifiers are necessary now and again, but less often than you’d think.

Read the two passages below to see the difference this kind of polishing can make. A. is a second draft piece from one of the “Reluctant Knight” books, and B is the same passage as it reads in the polished draft.

A.Simon’s stomach knotted a little at the thought of some of Becca’s offerings, but they had at least been eatable. Mostly.

By now, Traveller was trotting along quite calmly, the saddlebag straps slapping gently with every stride.

Saddlebags. Now there was a thought!

Simon explored them, and was soon munching cheerfully on a slightly dry piece of bread and some rather assertive cheese. A flat bottle proved to hold cold tea. It seemed an odd drink for a knight, but Simon swigged it with gratitude when he stopped to let Traveller drink from a stream. He would have continued immediately after, but Traveller had other notions. She insisted on grazing for a full three hours before she would consent to continue the journey.

B.Simon’s stomach knotted at the thought of Becca’s cooking, but it had been eatable. Mostly.

Maybe there was something in the saddlebags? Aha! Simon was soon munching slightly dry bread and assertive cheese, and swilling cold tea from a flask. As for Traveller, she sneered at the cheese and insisted on stopping to graze and to drink from a stream. Her meal took a good three hours.

The most obvious change is in length. Some of the cuts were made to bring the story down to the publisher-prescribed word count, but others serve to sharpen the text. Take that first sentence, for example;

A. Simon’s stomach knotted (a little) at the thought of (some of) Becca’s (offerings) COOKING, but (they) IT had (at least) been eatable. Mostly.

The exclusions have all been made for a reason. ‘a little’, ‘some of’ and ‘at least’ are all qualifiers, that blur the text and soften its impact.

‘offerings’ has been changed to the simpler ‘cooking’, and the change from plural to singular means ‘it’ must replace ‘they’.

You might wonder how this passage reads in the published version. The answer is, it isn’t there. Even after polishing, the ms was too long, so all that’s left in the final version is this:

“As he rode, Simon thought longingly of supper. During his last visit to Braveria, Becca’s cooking had been very peppery, though he had forced himself to eat it.”

 

Lesson 8: Polishing and Editing.

Setting Out and Pro Tips 1.

Setting out Your Manuscript

When you’re preparing your final draft, you should make sure it is properly set out. There are several ways of setting out manuscripts, but the one I am describing is acceptable to most publishers unless they specifically state that they require something different.

Use A4 paper.

Use double spacing.

Use Times New Roman in Size 12.

Use indented paragraphs.

Do not leave blank lines unless you are marking a scene break.

Begin each chapter on a new page.

Number each page.

In the header of each page, put the title (or a word from the title), plus your full name or surname.

If my name is “Alice Prentiss” and I have written a book called “The Dragon’s Cloud”, the header could look like this:

Dragon’s Cloud / Prentiss

Or like this

Dragon / Prentiss

Or like this

Dragon’s Cloud/ Alice Prentiss.

This, combined with the page numbering, helps keep the ms pages in order if (heaven forbid) two or three mss get mixed up.

On the cover page of your ms, put the title of your book, the approximate word count, your name (or pseudonym), your postal address and contact details. If you are using a pseudonym, your real name should appear as well.

THE DRAGON’S CLOUD

(35,000 words)

By Finn Feric, (real name Alice Prentiss).

OR

THE DRAGON’S CLOUD

(35,000 words)

By Alice Prentiss (writing as Finn Feric).

Most publishers don’t want you to staple your pages together. Some don’t like any kind of binding. Paper clips or bulldog clips or string are usually OK, and so is a folder or cardboard box.

Always enclose return postage.

Covering Letter

Keep your covering letter brief and professional.

Try to address it to a specific editor (you can find out his/her name by telephoning the company and asking). If you can’t find the name, or if there is an editorial team, address it to “the Children’s Book Editor”, Dear Sir/ Madam.

Introduce the book as a high concept.

Briefly sketch the anticipated readership.

Give any relevant details from your CV.

If you have had books published before, mention that. If you have won awards for writing, mention that. If you are a teacher or librarian or bookseller, that might be relevant to reinforce your interest in, and knowledge of, children and their books.

If your children or grandchildren or other relatives or writing group enjoyed your story, that isn’t deemed relevant.

 

Lesson 8: Polishing and Editing.

More Pro Tips

There are certain things that editors look for in a ms when they’re judging professionalism. Writing a good story appropriate for the modern market and suited to the publisher concerned is very important, but it also helps if you don’t make glaring mistakes.

In the old days, editors looked at typing skill. If a ms was covered with xxx or with white-out correction fluid, then they assumed the person writing was an amateur until or unless the writing skill or experience taught them otherwise. These days, they look for correctness in spelling, punctuation and grammar. Don’t ever think or say: “oh, an editor can fix that”. An editor could, but if a ms looks too labour-intensive, an editor will probably pass on it.

Punctuation

Use quote marks to denote dialogue.

Depending on which country you live in, you will use single quotes for normal dialogue and double quotes for quotations within dialogue, or else vice versa.

‘As Shakespeare said, “a rose by any other name would small as sweet”,’ said Jess.

OR

“As Shakespeare said, ‘a rose by any other name would small as sweet’,” said Jess.

Most publishers like commas and full stops at the end of dialogue inside the quote marks.

‘I don’t want to go,’ said Jonathan.

If dialogue is in the form of a question, the question mark should go after the question, not after the speech tag.

‘Are we going?’ Jonathan asked.

NOT

‘Are we going,’ Jonathan asked?

If the question is in reported thought, the question mark should go after the question, not after the thought tag.

What would happen next? wondered Teri.

NOT

What would happen next, wondered Teri?

Unless told otherwise by the publisher, don’t use quote marks around thoughts.

Spelling

Get your spelling right. Don’t rely on a spell checker.

If you have even the slightest doubt, use a dictionary.

Apostrophes.

Don’t use apostrophes in the wrong place. Look at the two examples below. In one case the word “it’s” gets an apostrophe because a letter is missed out. It is short for “it is”.

In the second case, the word “its” does not have an apostrophe.

It’s hot in here.

The cat washed its paws.

A possessive apostrophe appears when something is owned except in the following cases.

Hers His Its Theirs Ours Ones My Yours

Possessive Apostrophes.

A possessive apostrophe is used after the single owner and the “s” added afterwards, except when the single owner ends in a single “s” already.

A cat’s paw

Jane’s cat.

James’ cat.

An apostrophe is used after the s in the case of plural owners.

The three cats’ bowls were empty.

Collective noun owners, such as “crew” and “class” have the apostrophe before the s.

The crew’s tour of duty.

The class’s exercises.

Other Apostrophes.

An apostrophe is used when letters are missing from a word or words.

Don’t

Do n(o)t

couldn’t

could n(o)t

you’re

you (a)re

they’re

they (a)re

Do not use an apostrophe in a normal plural.

Onions

Cups

Cauliflowers

Apostrophes The only cases where an apostrophe might be used in a plural are the following special cases. And mark that I said might!

When adding “s” alone might be confusing. For example, the word “do” is singular. The word “dos” is more than one “do”. As in “dos and don’ts”.

The problem here is that the word “dos” is a computer term, and it’s just possible someone might confuse the two words. You can’t put an “e” in as you normally would with a word ending in a single “o” because that would turn the word into “does”, which means something else.

So, some people accept “do’s and don’t’s.”

The other possibility is when the “word” is actually initials such as CD, TV, PFD. If you write in capital letters and add an “s” some people might say CEE DEE ESS and wonder what you mean.

This can be avoided by using capitals for the CD, TV etc and a lower case “s”.

TVs CDs

 

Lesson 8: Polishing and Editing.

W.I.P. Section. Edit and Polish Your Book.

Now you should have finished the first draft of your practice book. The length of this course doesn’t allow for any resting time, so start from the beginning and read your narrative right through. Try to read as a reader. Imagine an acquaintance has given you this computer file or typescript and asked you to read it.

What do you think? Did you enjoy the story? Did you find it interesting? Did you find the characters believable? Were you amused, or moved or impatient or bored or impressed?

What advice would you give the acquaintance that handed you this rough draft book?

If you thought it was pretty good or very good, you can probably move straight on to the second draft.

If you thought it had serious faults, see if you can work out what they are.

Graph the finished book and see if there are slow spots. See if the characters interact believably. See if their motivations are clear.

See if the challenge or problem matters enough.

See if the major scenes are “big” enough.

See if any of it seems over the top.

Possible Pressure Problem

If you find the ms disappointing, you may have had a problem with writing to a timetable, or with working under pressure or to a set of instructions.

Professional writers have to deal with all these things, but if you don’t find them congenial it doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t write children’s books. It just means that you should probably write only the kinds of books that hold a strong inspiration or appeal.

It is more difficult to sell a book that doesn’t fit in a series or imprint, but it isn’t impossible. And besides, writing isn’t always about selling or publication. Sometimes, even for those of us who write full-or part time for a living, it is important to write what we want.

It would be lovely if I could tell you that writing from the heart will always bring you publication as a reward, but it wouldn’t be truthful. Writing from the heart will bring you a reward, but it’s quite likely to be a private one. Writing to market guidelines is not a sure fire route to publication, either, but it does improve your chances.

Full time children’s book writers often alternate their jobs, writing some bread-and-butter work and some from-the-heart work each year.

The Next Step

After the read-through, you need to take the next step. Do structural editing if necessary, or go right onto second draft. When you’ve done that, polish and prune.

After that? Get yourself a nice cup of tea and sit down with a good book. You’ve earned it.

Lesson 8: Polishing and Editing.

Bibliography

 

“Trinity Street”, Sally Odgers, HarperCollins.

“Alien Dawn”, Maggie Pearson, Hodder Headline.

“The Orange Outlaw”, Ron Roy, Random House.

 

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