Notes for writers
The following notes are gold-dust for fledgling children's book authors trying to get published. These are a compilation from many authors and they cover some common issues writers struggle with and offer absolutely amazing advice and tips on how to get published. Many thanks to Mary Murphy
These notes were compiled over some time, for talks and to give to people starting out in writing for children. Most of the ideas I came across in books on creative writing etc, but unfortunately I haven’t kept a record of sources or credits. If you read some of these kinds of books you’ll take much more from them than from these pointers.
I strongly suggest you do rework again and again your writing before you show it to anyone, and do look at the available material online or in books, and apply some of the thoughts. Put your story through boot camp.
A publisher receives hundreds of manuscripts weekly by people who are creative and talented – you want to send something better. Make sure your work is a pleasure to read, and is engaging, rhythmic, interesting.
I don’t read or comment on stories people are hoping to have published because:
- I am afraid their ideas may seep in, and I may use them accidentally in the future.
- I am not an editor, and my responses are misleadingly personal rather than professional.
- It takes me almost a day to thoroughly read and comment on a picture book text, and as I am asked to do that quite often, I just don’t have the time.
And in fact, pretty much all my comments would cover the same ground, which is covered in these notes. It’s better to use your own responses and engage editorially with your own work.
Here are some typical ‘flaws’ in initial manuscripts:
- You haven’t examined your central characters motivation.
- The character behaves inconsistently.
- You so haven’t found the voice/person that both rings true and fascinates.
- You haven’t checked that ‘each word counts’. Read it again and see what gets in the way of the narrative flow. Then read it again, again, again. (Out loud.)
- There isn’t a clear, defined, narrative path through the story.
- You haven’t read books on creative writing and applied the relevant wisdom.
- It feels as though you haven’t you revised and edited it enough times. (I recently heard a novelist say she rewrites at least 70 times.)
- You’re ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’.
- You’re talking down to, or being overprotective of, your audience.
Get to know your publishing area. Go to bookshops and libraries. Explain to yourself in detail why you like certain books. What age group is the book for? Is it in a series or a one-off? A retelling of a story you know? Is the language lively, lyrical, bare, descriptive? Is the tone cheeky, anarchic, peaceful, practical, spiritual? Etc.
Look at publishers’ websites, writers’ blogs etc. to familiarize yourself with the area. I think it is risky to be too immersed with others’ thinking, but a bit of it might help you to understand the form.
Read books about writing for children, and creative writing in general. Learn the rules, then break them if you like. Writing for kids has specific requirements re language, word counts etc.
Decent examples are: The Creative Writing Coursebook Edited by J Bell and P Magrs, published by Macmillan; Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (a classic, first published 1934); Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg.
'Artists and Writers Year Book' has contact details for publishers, and articles on approaching publishers, presenting work, etc. They also publish: 'Children’s Writers’ and Artists' Yearbook'. Send work to relevant publishers. Have a good look on the publisher’s website to see what kinds of books they are doing, and how to submit work etc. Let them know if you’re making a multiple submission (i.e. to more than one publisher at a time). I suggest borrowing this one from the library, as it’s updated yearly. Many publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts and you may have to find an agent. Here’s a starter list from the generous Lou Trevealen (you can also find some publishers who accept manuscripts directly from her link)
Keep a journal: carry a notebook with you for key words, phrases and ideas you might otherwise forget. Have it by your bed in case you wake with an idea.
DON’T discuss ideas with family/ friends. This can dissolve focus, and dilute your idea. And you’re showing them to people who already like you, and probably don’t really understand what makes a kids’ book work. Many writers only show ideas to colleagues (editors, agents, etc) or writing groups. Engage with, examine, express YOUR self. Trust your instincts. This is often how an idea becomes uniquely yours.
A writing group might be useful for support, motivation, constructive criticism and sharing processes. Consider doing a writing course or workshop.
Send your best. Before you send a story to a publisher or agent, make sure you are happy with it. If you could do it better, do it better. An editor or agent might read your work once. It has to be as special as you can make it. Several aspiring writers have expressed surprise to me that a publisher hasn’t spotted their potential, and hasn’t understood that the writer knows their work can be improved. If you know it – do it! Give it the time. Remain true to the idea. The idea could evolve; I¹ve had books change dramatically over time.
Finding an Illustrator: It is not the writer’s job to find an illustrator: the publisher has access to a pool of established artists. If the writer has an idea of an illustrator who would be ideal for the book, the publisher is happy to hear it.
Publishing contracts work on the basis of royalties. You get an advance against royalties which is usually split into 3 stages: Signature of contract, Delivery of artwork and First publication.
Thereafter the publisher issues 2 statements per year stating what royalties have been earned, and attaching payment where applicable. You can get a sample contract from the Writers' Union. Illustrator and author will split royalties. (Can be e.g. 60/40 in favour of one or the other.) Get relevant professional advice before signing a contract.
A publisher might offer a development fee instead of a contract. This would involve the illustrator doing maybe 2 spreads that the publisher shows at a book fair, and the contract follows depending on co-publisher interest.
Humour (top of the list in children¹s reviews), empathy, clarity of image, consistency of character. Consistency of voice is essential. (You may hear inconsistencies when you read your writing aloud.) Don’t patronise, don’t be cynical.
Develop your own process: don¹t mistake one author’s process for ‘the way‘. Do work that pleases you, rather than focusing on the commercial outcome.
Voice will emerge from character and story. Give it enough time to develop. Don’t rush writing, but keep energised. Keep STORY and CHARACTER to fore. It¹s easy to allow clever/lyrical writing or images to distract from story. You want to REVEAL and ENGAGE WITH story and character. Be sensitive to the physical world. Make a conscious effort to shed stereotypes and ABSTRACT language. Concrete imagery gives life to language. Choose a sympathetic rather than unexplored subject, based on your own INTEREST, experience and insight. Bringing out your personal record of experience requires a capacity for spontaneity, which the world warms to. Develop a sharp eye and ear. Balance spontaneity with organisation.
Children bring emotion to stories. The author meets them with emotion. Stories are charged with meaning for a child to the extent that the author writes what is meaningful to herself. The power of a story is felt as contact takes place between child and author. Don’t preach or tag your story with morals. The writer transmits value through herself, through the quality and reach of her discernment, judgement and feeling.
Listen to your writer’s voice. Don¹t be shy, grand or false. Be yourself.
Listen to your characters’ voices. How are they different from each other?
Main character changes your book is their journey.
Know whose story you’re writing. Write around your character outside story, get to know them. Trust your reader. Leave space for them to own the story.
Stand aside and let the story happen.
"The writer should be present everywhere but nowhere visible, like God in nature." (McGahern)
PICTURE BOOKS FOR PRE-SCHOOLERS
Aim for simple, direct stories, with a sharp clear design – no subsidiary pattern. Conciseness, excitement and unity. For very young children (pre-speech or even older) a book might not have an apparent story or plot.
Balance words and pictures, rhythm and pace, description and action.
RHYTHM involves a quality of thought, of movement. Read your writing aloud to feel the tempo and word sounds. Always read your work aloud, several times at least, to feel tempo and word sounds. Picture books are 'performed¹, like theatre they are family books as well as children’s books.
Refrains are not jingles. They are inherent parts of the story structure, often marking a turning point, or carrying the weight of the action. (E.g. Three Little Pigs.)
Children love alliteration, rhythm, rhyme. You can use some long or colourful words that will be new to the child. If accumulation or repetition is evident in the action, this can determine the framework of the language pattern. Vary tempo with visuals as well as with text. Tempo is the rhythm of the writer¹s basic idea.
Write and rewrite to examine your text: for example, write in first person, change to third, and back again. When is the character more real? The story more vibrant?
Sketch and resketch to explore your layouts where page breaks occur etc. Is enough/too much/too little happening on a spread? (This can be age-related.) Picture book texts for this age are very short, each word counts. Final draft averages 100-400 words, but may be 1000. Pictures expand on or give new light to the text.
Text and illustration need 'one voice'. Writing needs one coherent voice.
What DESIGN does this story take of its own accord when you trace out its movement? You can start working out how a picture book will operate page turns, scale etc. - using the natural 'design' of the story, though you may need to adjust to the publisher¹s chosen format later.
Start on the involving point, build to climax, end on note of satisfaction, reassurance and/or surprise. (Like Maeve Binchy, Dickens)
PICTURE BOOKS MODEL:
(Remember – know the rules before you break them!)
Beginning: Quick no easing into the story. Each word counts.
Middle (page 2 on): Each spread has an action. Each spread makes about the same contribution. Each spread should: contain at least one word; have a consistent mood; be a step, sustain/create the pace.
Finale: Narrative ends. May use extra page for crowning touch.
BALANCE the manuscript: before final edit, divide it into 12 sections, or the number of spreads you plan. (This division of spreads applies only to picture books.) Does each spread have visual potential and story interest?
Even if you are not illustrating the book yourself, I think it is useful to send the idea to the editor with a breakdown of what happens on each spread. Some spreads may have no words, like in ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ - the editor would need to know what is happening on that page. Or the text might contradict the illustration – ‘Nobody was home’, when we see people peeping out windows, for example. So show, even with stick men, what is happening. Sketching the idea out also shows you where the action is. A picture book is not going to have a lot of dialogue or description without action – you will see if the balance is working when you break down the spreads.
RESEARCH: Helps avoid cliché, clarify your vision. "Become a stranger to your subject; wonder anew at it." Wear research lightly.
The final decisions are about what you feel is really right for the book. Give it the time. Remain true to the idea. Publisher¹s input is crucial; they too want the best book possible. Once you feel it is HELPING the book to be true to itself, you¹re going the right way.
BOOKS FOR OLDER CHILDREN (4-8)
AIM for fast pace, colourful characterisation, sure-fire excitement.
Establish setting, introduce characters, create conflict, resolve it, return to familiar setting.
Movement, pace and rhythm carry the story. Text must follow without jarring, but be exciting. Use asides, interruptions or conversation to add interest. Introduce character, then motivation, then story. Consider cliff-hangers with unusual page-turns.
SENSE OF PLACE is paramount. The setting is specific and may serve as a secure background to an exciting plot. (Home, mother, etc.) A distant setting can distance scary events, making them more acceptable. The fantasy world has its inner laws. ‘When fantasy and reality meet there must be no tampering with the gyroscopic balance of either.’ Allow the illusion of fantasy but protect the demands of logic.
CONTENT has warmth, suspense, surprise and discovery. A moral view can be taken, without preaching. The sensory perception of both author and child is lively.
QUOTES FROM WRITERS:
'Follow your story and stay true to yourself.'
'Persistence is the key.'
'Love the process, and be eager to revise.'
'The deepest quality of a work of art will always be the quality of
its producer: 'the imprint of self'.'
'My most unusual gift is that my child self still seems to be alive and well - reaching back into childhood is to put yourself in a state of vulnerability again because being a child was to be so. But then all living is so...'(Sendak)
'The writer should be present everywhere but nowhere visible, like God
'The image is the language of the imagination.'
'Everything interesting begins with one person in one place'
'Space and time are the enclosures of every novel, and of life too.'
'I don’t ever try my books out on children; it¹s the infant in myself that I try them out on.'(Quentin Blake)
So You want to be a Writer? (Notes from John Quinn¹s talk, 2005)
1. WRITE! All the time. All kinds. All forms.
2. The Myth of the Muse. Do it NOW!
3. Read! All the time. All kinds. Why do you like this book?
4. Listen to how people talk, to stories. Eavesdrop!
5. Be a SPONGE! You are a camera, silently recording...
6. Be a MAGPIE! Collect words, phrases, stories, ideas. HOARD!
7. Be a DAYDREAMER! It’s okay to dream. Let your imagination go.
8. Be a CAT! Curiosity won’t kill you! Why? What ifs? Suppose
9. Dig into your childhood for memories of delight and pain.
10. Whatever turns you on where and how you write.
11. Write from what you know your experience/melieu.
12. Write from what you don’t know! Step outside your world.
13. Jule Styne Anyone can write CLEVER, that’s SIMPLE.
But writing SIMPLE, that¹s real CLEVER!
14. Make interesting characters from real people.
15. Try the economy size avoid over-verbosity.
16. Have a love affair with WORDS! Find the RIGHT word.
17. It helps to have a Beginning, Middle and End, but they don¹t have
to be in that order.
18. Find your own strength: Fiction/Non-fiction, Novel/Story,
Drama/Descriptive (Radio), Poetry.
19. Establish a point of view from which story will be told.
20. BE YOURSELF! "Let go, Let fly, forget
You’ve listened long enough,
Now strike your note."
Check out courses at: GMIT (Tel 091 742145 www.gmit.ie)
Galway Technical Institute (Tel 091 581342)
Galway Arts Centre (Tel 091 565886, www.galwayartscentre.ie)
Colaiste na Coiribe (091 753977)
Western Writers’ Centre (091 533595 , www.twwc.ie)
Writers Centre (Dublin, email firstname.lastname@example.org)
Consider joining Children’s Books Ireland (tel 018725854), and/or the Writers’ Union (in Parnell Square, Dublin 1).