Category Archives: Anita says…

What makes a Children’s Book Great?

I think a great children’s book is one which views life through the eyes of the child so the characters come to life as real people. It doesn’t matter what genre it is, what point of view it is in, or what age it is aimed at, if the characters are believable and you can really live their experiences as you read each page, you’ve written a great book.

lion, witch and wardrobe

A gripping plot, strong characters and active narration and dialogue go a long way to making a children’s book a success. We all know a  good story is the battle between good and evil. It has to have characters you can like and introduce a new place. It should leave the child with a feeling of hope.

northernlights

Yes, you need great characters, you need atmosphere and emotional intelligence but it is the narrative drive that makes a great book, not the story. Narrative drive is the way the story is told as a whole package that includes character and plot. A great book plunges characters into terrible situations and draws you in to find out how they deal with them.

hunger games

Point of view can make the difference between whether the book is an adult or a children’s book. In picture books, it works well to put in something to keep the adult amused, especially if it meant to be a book to be read aloud at bedtime, or in the classroom. Adults can see the bigger picture. But remember as a writer you must still keep your eye firmly on the kids.

fungus the bogeyman

Publishing is led by fashion and there will always be a tension between what adults want for them and what children get from them. If you want to keep ahead of the game, you must analyse what is currently selling. Being aware of what sells is crucial for a writer, especially if you want to make a living out of it.

Why write a synopsis?

A few weeks ago on my blog, I talked about how a personal synopsis, or breakdown, of your novel can be a useful planning tool and map to help you complete your novel. See here. Last week I explained the difference between a synopsis for publishers and agents and a book proposal. See here.

Today I am going to talk about whether agents and publishers even read the synopsis. A question that is often asked at writing meetings and events is:

Do we need a synopsis?

This is a very controversial question. Romantic novelists, Dee Williams and Iris Gower, who I met at a Writers Holiday event many years ago, told me they had never had to write a synopsis.

writing1

Others, like Marti Leimbach, writer of contemporary fiction for adults and young adults, admitted writing a synopsis is often harder to write than the actual novel. Whereas, some very lucky people, like Lee Weatherly, claim they are easy to write. Unfortunately, I lost my notebook which had all my notes from the Lee Weatherly talk – I kept saying to myself it was bound to turn up but it never has. I may have left it on the train!

stickynotes

I have been told at a couple of SCBWI conferences by agents and publishers on various panels they don’t even read the synopsis. You should have heard me groan at that news. I spend hours and hours on mine and they’re not even going to read it. I could have stood up and screamed. Even at the recent SCBWI-BI Agent’s Party, three out of the five agents on the first panel said they do not look at the synopsis. Joanna Moult prefers a cracking first page and Kate Shaw will look at the cover letter and sample first. Zoe Plant from the Bent Agency does not even ask for a synopsis in the submission package.

So is a synopsis a waste of time?

NO! I do not think so. Other editors and agents, such as Chloe Seager, have said they do read the synopsis first and prefers to be told how the book is going to end. Some other agents have said if they don’t like the synopsis they don’t bother reading the rest. This is just as scary as I have always believed the most important thing is how strong your writing is.

What should we do?

I still think, the most important thing is how good your writing is but I also think we need a synopsis to show the editor or agent how well the story hangs together and prove it has a defined beginning, middle and end. So even though Megan Carroll does not like spoilers in the synopsis, my advice is persevere with your synopsis. It might help you to clinch the deal.

Book proposal

A few weeks ago on my blog, I talked about how a personal synopsis, or breakdown, of your novel can be a useful planning tool and map to help you complete your novel. See here. I mentioned that a synopsis for an agent or editor is slightly different and should be kept to an A4 side of paper. A book proposal for a non-fiction book is not the same as a synopsis. Today I thought I would explain how and why non-fiction book proposals are different.

books

When writing non-fiction books you do not necessarily have to finish the book before you submit your idea. If the idea has not been commissioned in-house you will need to give the publishers an idea of the layout of the book and why you are the best person for the job. In my opinion, the last bit is the hardest part.

Slushpile Challenge

Very recently, I was one of the winners of the July 2019 Slushpile Challenge. For the challenge we were asked to submit:

  • Outline of the book, including why you think there is space for it out there
  • Some market research on competing titles in the market-place, which might include publisher, pub date etc
  • Target readership, including (if applicable) any syllabus/key stage tie-in
  • Why you are the writer to tell this story
  • A sample of up to 2500 words of text (give or take) from your proposed narrative non-fiction title.

This is exactly the same sort of information you need to send to a publisher for a non-fiction book proposal, whether it is creative non-fiction or not.  I suggest you use these headings to help you. In the outline of the book I usually include a chapter breakdown.

Many of my books are published by QED one of the many imprints of Quarto.

Quarto provide submission guidelines online, which give an excellent idea of what you need to include in more detail. Each division has its own editorial focus.

If you don’t know what publisher might be best suited to the type of book you want to write, it is a good idea to take a look at the Writers & Artists Yearbook. There is a version specifically on writing for children.

Paddington Station

My study can be a bit like Paddington Station. I do tend to leave the door open so my family walk in and out whenever they please. But, even if I shut the door they walk in and out anyway. I suppose, they all know that is where they will find me. In fact, I think they purposely wait until I am fully engrossed in a piece of writing before they walk in and interrupt me.

Paddington station

One of the other times they all like to congress in my study is when I’m on the phone. Yep, I can guarantee anybody who is in the house, not just the kids, will come into my study if I need to make a phone call.

phone

Trouble is it takes ages for me to start to write and just as long to get going again when I’m interrupted. I frantically try to finish the sentence before I stop to see what they want.

I use to worry the reason they interrupted me was because I was neglecting my children and maybe I shouldn’t be working or being distracted by my PC when they are home, after school and in the school holidays, etc. But, I do like it in my study. I used to believe they would not be competing for my attention like this if I just switched the computer off, or made the phone calls whilst they were at school, or in bed. Maybe, it is a problem of working from home? Organising the time around the children is easier said than done.

I was re-reading the other day a book called, Detoxing Childhood by Sue Palmer . In it Sue made some very valid points about being a parent in the 21st century. I wrote a review of the book for Write Away many years ago. See: Detoxing Childhood.

In the book, Sue points out the latest addiction, which she termed ‘pigeon post’. This is where in any spare moments people think, ‘Oh – I’ll just go and check the email.’ Then once logged on may spend ages on their correspondence, quite forgetting the family. I do this all the time. I am addicted.

pigeon

Sue Palmer compared this addiction to the experiments the psychologist, B. F. Skinner, did on pigeons. He found if you gave pigeons intermittent, unpredictable rewards, the pigeons would peck enthusiastically at a particular spot – even to the point some would peck their beaks totally blunt. Emails are my intermittent rewards. I am a pigeon and probably just as stupid as one in that I am not even sure I want to put it right. Getting emails makes me happy, especially if they contain good news.

I reassure myself by thinking back to when I was a child. I remember how I loved playing in the street, my parents never knew half the things I got up to, and I was always okay. In the same way, my now grown-up children are just as happy to be getting on with things on their own. Occasionally they just need to check that their mum is still okay.

So my top-tip today is if you are interrupted don’t try to finish the sentence just STOP! It is easier to get back into the flow if the sentence is half-way through.

Writing a Synopsis

If you are having problems with your plot and find that your story is meandering all over the place with no real purpose you may benefit from writing a personal synopsis.

This does not mean writing pages and pages of detail, outlining the whole story before you begin. A synopsis can be a few simple sentences, or a couple of paragraphs that sketches the timeline of the beginning, middle and end of your story. This is not the same as the synopsis you use when submitting your work to agents and editors. A submission synopsis is usually written when you have finished the book and should outline the main plot points including the ending.

A personal synopsis should be the kind notes that serve as memory joggers.

railway track

Often beginner writers do not think the entire story through. They start on a high with a brilliant idea but then they hit a cul-de-sac. An outline synopsis will ensure you have a clear idea of where your characters are going and what their problems are. Ask yourself: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How.

6 W's

Having an ending for the main plot line in mind that you can aim for will keep you on the road to complete your novel, picture book, short story or non-fiction book. Giving yourself a rough framework to work to prevents you from being tempted to go off on a tangent and will help to avoid a weak and coincidental conclusion.

A fiction submission synopsis should also include the 6 W’s. Yes, I know How does not begin with a W but… anyway! It should also give an agent or editor an indication of your unique selling point, whether it is your character, your voice, setting or even scientific / historical / mythological connections.

A non-fiction synopsis is totally different and for editors and agents it is more of a book proposal than a synopsis.

Working title

If I have not been given a title by the publisher who has commissioned the book, I often start by giving my books a working title just so I can have something written on the page. A blank page is daunting and I always write something to start myself off even if I go back and change it later.

Inkedblank book_LI

It is better not to get too attached to your working title as publishers often want to change them anyway. I learnt this the hard way and it was definitely a case of killing your darlings. Nowadays I never expect the same title to be on the finished published article, short story or book. I have written quite a few short stories for a variety of national women’s magazines and most of them were published under different titles.

However, it never hurts to give the title of your stories, features and books some serious consideration as this will be the first words the editors and publishers read when looking at your submission, whether it has been commissioned, or not. First impressions are important. A title that stimulates interest or intrigue stands out more amongst the competition, especially if it is on the slush pile. 

books

A good working title will  open up the meaning of the story, revealing layers of character, theme and subtext that goes beyond the actual plot. It will also give the editors and publishers an idea of what the book is about and the tone of the book.

A working title should inspire you to write, fill you with confidence and help you to get your words onto paper because it focuses you on the story. This will give you the momentum to move forward.

When I first started out writing for children I took my first three chapters to a critique group meeting and they got so hung up on the working title even though  I explained it was just a way to focus me on the themes of the book, they did not really give me any advice on the essential first three chapters.

Emotional reaction

Emotional reaction is key to producing 3D characters in your writing.

snake

To make your protagonist and antagonist come alive you need to show their reactions to other characters and events. this will show the reader what frame of mind they are in and help to engage their sympathy and understanding. Even the bad characters can become loved if their reactions are based in emotional motivation.

Emotional reaction is a powerful tool. It helps you as the writer get to the heart of the characters and their problems. This can often be achieved in just a few well structured words.

Think about all your characters and how they would react to seeing a snake – would they scream and run away, would they pick up a stick and try and fight it off, would they freeze and be unable to move, or would they try to talk to it and befriend the snake, or would they react in an entirely different way.

How would these characters react to seeing a snake?

Each of these reactions portrays their different personalities. 

Now think about how these characters would react if they came across a snake.

How would your characters react to a snake? Would all your characters act in the same way? Or do they each have their own particular way of reacting?

And yes… you are right… it does depend on the snake and the snake’s own personality.