I’m not really one for rules. In fact, my debut novel, Princess BMX, is all about breaking them. But the reality is, if we want to write for children, and get published, there are some fundamentals we need to consider. Not rules exactly – didn’t I tell you, I hate rules – but industry truths that unless we are showing our publisher the money big style, it would be foolish to ignore.
So, here’s six writing truths I’ve uncovered on my publishing journey. I’ve learnt other things too, but what do you expect from a free article?
Concept is everything. Yep, that surprised me too. Call me Aristotle, but I thought it was all about hooking the reader and keeping them hooked through a well-written, imaginative story that reveals some form of deeper truth. And of course it is, but if you don’t have a marketable book, the elusive publishing deal will remain out of reach. This really hit home for me while listening to agent Sarah Davies at the SCBWI Winchester Conference 2016. Discussing Jay Asher’s high concept novel Thirteen Reasons Why, Sarah suggested that working out your pitch should be the starting point of any writing project, going so far as to say, if you can’t reduce your story to a high impact movie-style strapline, it might be better to forget it. You may disagree. Many writers prefer to take much more of a panster approach – starting with the seeds of an idea and letting the themes and concept grow embryonically as they write. It’s also true that views on what’s marketable and desirable are constantly shifting. But Sarah knows her stuff, and this approach is certainly worth considering.
Know Your Audience. Linked to concept and marketability, you also need to be clear who you are writing for. You might think this is the child, and it is, so long as your child centred story fits neatly somewhere on the Waterstones bookshelf – or better still table. Know these bookseller categories and know what they mean in terms of word count, language, relevant themes, the age of your protagonist and so on. That is unless you are Philip Pullman, who is categoric in his claims that the story must rule and target audience is something for the publisher to worry about. See, I told you rules were rubbish. But you better understand them before you break them or you will turn into a mushroom. That’s a lie, obviously, but you get my point.
What happens before the story starts really matters. So now we’ve got concept and market sussed, we can begin. Well maybe not. We are repeatedly told as writers to start in the story moment – we have to draw kids in and capture their imagination instantly. And this is true. But if the inciting incident you use to do this isn’t linked to the emotional journey of the protagonist, you will lose your reader pretty quickly. And what of your supporting cast, the antagonist, or the key partners in adventure? What’s driving them and how is this relevant to plot? You might not want to slow the story down with this detail, but you need to be clear on it if you want the plot and characters to be convincing.
Every detail matters. One writing rule that really winds me up is the one about making sure every word moves the story on. Of course, nobody wants to read waffle (oops sorry about that) but if the narrative is to have any personality, a writer needs space to play with the text and have a little fun. I do agree however that details matter. Chicken House’s legendary Barry Cunningham, who I am honoured to call my publisher, often reminds writers to show the reader what the characters are having to eat. This isn’t just because Barry loves his scran, it’s because food can tell us so much about the world our characters inhabit. It shows us when times are good, things are hard, or when we’re in an alternate world where things don’t quite work the same. And kids love food – the importance of food in children’s literature a much-debated subject. But that’s not really my point. My point here is that the detail is important. Be specific, think about the symbolism, the world you are trying to build and make the words work harder.
A strong and unique voice is essential. Sure, nobody really knows what this means but editors and agents reserve the right to demand it. They can’t really say what they are looking for in terms of voice, but they’ll know it when they see it. So that clears things up nicely then, doesn’t it? Not. But don’t despair because there are things you can do to make voice stronger and your characters more distinct. The most important thing is to trust yourself. It was suggested to me when I was in the early stages of developing Princess BMX that a fantasy character couldn’t speak so street. Luckily, I’d watched Adventure Time, and knew this simply wasn’t true – I mean, keep up people – so I had the confidence to trust my instinct. I also stopped worrying about whether I was funny enough, and that’s when the funny began. There are some more practical tips I could give you. But I think I’ve done my bit for now. Afterall…
You’re never really finished. There’s always more to do. FIVE rounds of edits I undertook with my editor. FIVE. Then there were the copy edits and the proofreading. So, sure, get your manuscript as submission-ready as possible but keep an open mind. Because making a book is collaborative and the best editors will take your dirty little lump of coal and lay on the pressure until they turn it into a diamond. Then someone else will help you polish it and get it ready for the shop window. And you have to let go and trust them to make that window more Harrods than Argos.
About Marie Basting
Marie Basting is the author of Princess BMX. As Assistant Regional Advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, she supports the development of writers and illustrators at all stages of their careers. A former learning and development manager, she has extensive experience of providing workshops and support for writers, regularly delivering outreach support for the Portico and Manchester Metropolitan University, where she works as an Associate Lecturer. A trained coach and mentor, Marie has an MA in Creative Writing and a Level 7 certificate in Action Learning.