ATTENTION SEEKING? BEGIN YOUR BOOK WITH A BANG. (Undiscovered Voices Blog Tour)

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I realise I am becoming increasingly impatient. This isn’t a sign of ageing, (I hope), but thanks to working in children’s publishing and while it’s easy to understand how the slow process and occasionally sleepy editors may be trying to one’s tolerance levels, actually that’s not to blame in this instance.  Instead it’s to do with my shrinking attention span and growing appetite for a story to start instantly with no beating around the bush, free from gentle description or lengthy scene setting. In short, I have a zero tolerance policy for rambling openings.

As I have mentioned before, we receive hundreds of submissions every month and after the covering letter the next test is the opening. Unless it’s engaging and punchy it’s unlikely I’ll continue reading for very long. So what makes a good opening?  I think there are three key components and I’ll describe them in a moment but first here’s an exemplary beginning from Joe Craig. When I read the first chapter of KILLER, the first Jimmy Coates title, I knew I wanted to work with Joe.

Jimmy knew what was coming, but he was too late to dodge out of the way. Georgie pounced on him and they both landed with a thump on the bed. She moved quickly, and easily locked her arm round Jimmy’s neck.  Then she dug her knuckles into the top of his head, kneeling over him. Not again, Jimmy thought. All these years he had never been able to escape his sister’s hold.

What works so well about this is that the reader is propelled straight into the action – we’re there with Jimmy as he fails to dodge and we want to know what exactly he is dodging and then what the outcome of the fight will be. We get a sense of what Jimmy is like and of his relationship with his sister and all of this in just a few lines – plus if you read on it gets even better, but I’m not giving any more away!

So key concept number one is an active character. We need to meet the protagonist and for children’s books this should be a child or child substitute.  We ought to see their personality emerge and this is unlikely to be evoked through a physical description.  For instance if a character has brown hair we don’t learn much about what they’re like or their state of mind, if they’re kicking the kerb we do.  So the character needs to appear quickly and they should be doing something.

Concept number two – the action starts off the page.  It’s the leaping onto a moving vehicle idea – the journey has started before the first page and the reader is late to the party but desperate to play catch up.  Take Eva Ibbotson’s opening to THE OGRE OF OGLEFORT, where the Hag of the Dribble has just started her day and the reader jumps into join her.  The Hag isn’t actually the main character of the story, but Eva’s allowed to break the rules. Besides, as you’ll see, it works wonderfully well:

Most people are happy when their feet are dry. They do not care to hear squelchy noises in their shoes of feel water seeping between their toes – but the Hag of the Dribble was different. Having wet feet made her feel better: it reminded her of the Dribble where she was born and had lived for the first seventy-eight years of her life, and now she dipped her socks into the washbasin and made sure they were thoroughly soaked before she put them on her feet and went downstairs to make porridge for herself and her lodgers.

            The Hag did not care for porridge – being fond of porridge is quite difficult – but she was glad to be busy; it helped her to cope with the terrible homesickness which attacked her each morning when she woke and saw the sooty brick wall of the house opposite instead of the wide sky and scuddling clouds of the place where she had lived so long.

Here the reader is able to form a vivid picture of the Hag without any hint of a physical description.  We’re there on the Hag’s shoulder dipping her socks in the washbasin with her. This is something Tony Bradman talks about in our CBC Writing for Children Course and he uses the following example from beginning of Philip Pullman’s NORTHEN LIGHTS:

Pantalaimaon fluttered ahead and through the slightly open door of the Retiring Room at the other end of the dais.  After a moment he appeared again.

“There’s no one there,” he whispered. “But we must be quick”.

Crouching behind the high table Lyra, darted along and through the door into the Retiring Room, where she stood up and looked around. The only light in here came from the fire-place, where a bright blaze of logs settled slightly as she looked, sending a fountain of sparks up into the chimney.  She had lived most of her life in the College, but had never seen the Retiring Room before: only Scholars and their guests were allowed in here, and never females. 

Again we’re introduced to the main characters and they’re doing something interesting, something forbidden. Which leads us on to the third component; there needs to be a question in there; something the reader wants to know the answer to.

Will Jimmy gain the upper hand?

What is threatening the Hag’s everyday life?

Why are Lyra and Pantalaimon sneaking into the Retiring Room and what will they discover in there?

So it’s simple! Character + Action + Question =  The perfect opening!

If you’re an unpublished author and you are writing for children Undiscovered Voices is the competition for you and in fact it’s all about beginnings. For many it’s the start of their engagement with the children’s publishing world as the winners all have an extract of their work published in an anthology which is sent out to children’s agents and publishers. More details can be found on the Undiscovered Voices website.

Of course it’s the opening extract which is featured in the anthology and there’s still time to add the finishing touches to your work and apply the magic formula, (see the earlier equation!), as they are accepting applications from 1st July – 15th August. I’m looking forward to seeing some thrilling first chapters in the anthology when it is published and hopefully it will be the start of something exciting for many new writers.

Stephanie’s Christmas 2012 Children’s & Young Adult Book Round Up

So I thought it might be timely to talk briefly about some of the books I’ve enjoyed this year and some of the titles I’m planning to read over Christmas.

THE DINOSAUR THAT POOPED CHRISTMAS by Tom Fletcher and Dougie Poynter has been the number one bestselling picture book in the UK for the last three weeks and it is THE ultimate stocking filler. We’ve had a lot of fun working on this book and several serious meetings have dissolved into laughter and silliness – of course they have as it’s impossible to be too serious when the subject matter is pooping dinosaurs. Random House have done a fantastic job producing and promoting the book and they must win a prize for staging the earliest Christmas party ever. Tinsel and mince pies in October was a little surreal.

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A picture book series I’ve admired from afar (as I don’t represent the author/ illustrator), is HUGLESS DOUGLAS by David Melling. It’s another idea that sells itself with that title, and combines a gorgeous character with a simple but compelling idea. I also adore Fiona Roberton’s CUCKOO, a picture book I’m handling translation rights for about a baby cuckoo who feels different and goes off searching for someone who will understand him.  It’s simple and beautifully told with delicately drawn, touching illustrations. Hodder’s picture book list is an impressive one having had a sneak preview of what lies ahead I know they have some treats in store for 2013.

On the young fiction side it has been a pleasure to see Guy Bass’ STITCH HEAD go from strength to strength and Stripes have done a fantastic job with translation rights selling him in to nine territories. I’ve also been pleased to see Australian author, Anna Branford’s VIOLET MACKEREL series launch this year – a quirky, thoughtful and smart series aimed at young girls.  Walker paired her with illustrator Sam Wilson and the result is a dazzling and delightful package. Not my clients but ones to watch are Jamie Thompson, whose DARK LORD: THE TEENAGE YEARS won this year’s Roald Dahl Funny Prize and Joanna Nadin’s hilarious PENNY DREADFUL series. I think being called Joanna makes you more qualified to write funny young fiction as we have our own bonkers series launching next Spring from Joanna Simmons. Scholastic will publish the first title, PIP STREET: A WHISKERY MYSTERY in March and we can’t wait to see this on the shelves.

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This year saw the posthumous, and as a result rather bitter sweet, publication of Eva Ibbotson’s THE ABOMINABLES which has received wonderful reviews and was short-listed for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.  For readers aged 8+ this is just a dream to read and Marion Lloyd and her team have worked wonders with this warm, witty and heartbreaking adventure about yetis and their search for somewhere they belong.

I was fortunate to teach with Tony Bradman on our Creative Writing for Children weekend and six week course and one of the most fascinating sessions was on editing which involved comparing two different openings for his new book, VIKING BOY, before and after he revised and edited it. The impact was remarkable and Tony is a true craftsman. You can feel this in VIKING BOY as he takes the reader on a journey with all sorts of twists and turns throughout which he is always in complete control. The story has real depth, some fantastic characters and although it may seem geared more towards boys I can see both genders enjoying it.

Usborne published the first in Chris Ould’s YA crime series, STREET DUTY: KNOCK DOWN in October and Chris’ experience writing for TV on The Bill and Casualty definitely gives a real authenticity to the setting. He asks the questions Lee Child insists you need to pose to create a truly compelling read. Someone has been knocked over but why did she run into the road and how come she’s not wearing any shoes? Another fantastic fast paced thriller with a twist is C.K Kelly Martin’s YESTERDAY which is part sci-fi, part romance and all absorbing.

NEVER FALL DOWN by Patricia McCormick is a startling, moving and ultimately uplifting story based on the true story of Arn Chorn-Pond one of the first Cambodian child soldiers to speak out against the Khmer Rouge.  This YA novel was selected as a National Book Award Finalist in the US and published by Random House UK this year. Another excellent YA novel I came across and which stood out for me this year was BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY by Ruta Sepetys.  This also sheds a light on a lesser known period of history and while it’s not an easy read it’s certainly a rewarding one.

Over the break I’m looking forward to getting into DELIRIUM by Lauren Oliver and DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE by Laini Taylor – both sent through by Hodder and wrapped appealingly for Christmas. I’m desperate to dive into Philip Pullman’s GRIMM TALES and I’m also keen to start Maggie Stiefvater’s THE RAVEN BOYS but first I need to finish a couple of adult titles I have on the go. I also feel I should read Hot Key’s THE VINCENT BOYS by Abbi Glines since there’s been a lot of discussion about this and ‘new adult’ titles generally.

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Next year there’s a lot to look forward to with F.E. Higgins’ new series THE PHENOMENALS, Catherine Johnson’s SAWBONES, M.M Vaughan’s debut, THE ABILITY, Janey Louise Jones’ PRINCESS POPPY COOK BOOK, Gareth Edwards’ new picture book, THE DISGUSTING SANDWICH, Lucy Courtenay’s SPACE PENGUINS, Sam Hepburn’s YA thriller, CHASING THE DARK and Lauren Miller’s PARALLEL among many others.

I’ll also be looking for new authors for the Curtis Brown list and new books to add to next year’s round up so let me know if there’s anything I should be reading!

 

A Risky Business

Warning: This blog post contains disturbing content.

Of course there will always be copycats – success spawns imitation and we see this in children’s publishing all the time, with jackets, marketing campaigns and even publishing party venues.  On the one hand it can seen as a response to the market, on the other hand as a chronic case of bandwagon-itis.  Sometimes it’s harmless but today I felt pretty queasy on discovering that there are children’s publishers toying with the idea of introducing ‘erotic YA (young adult) fiction’.

There have been plenty of jokes about a children’s version of Fifty shades of Grey and anecdotes about a lift in sales of books for young readers with the word grey in their title.  I joked about it myself in a previous post, but they were JOKES – funny because the idea was hideously wrong.  I’m not suggesting that YA books shouldn’t address sex or sexuality, and of course there are scores of teenagers reading Fifty Shades anyway, but to publish erotic fiction specifically for teenagers, to encourage them to read novels where the emphasis is on the physical aspect of relationships is not just a cynical and irresponsible move, but also entirely unimaginative.  It is a complete oversimplification to assume that success of a book in one genre heralds the rise of that particular genre. Following The Hunger Games there was the inevitable deluge of YA dystopian novels and publishers acquired legions of them drastically overestimating consumer appetite. As a result there are many authors whose careers are now looking pretty post apocalyptic with only a few survivors.

Thankfully there are children’s publishers who are more interested in setting, rather than following, trends. I had a cheering lunch recently with the managing director of a major children’s publishing company who expressed support for risk taking and experimentation.  This is encouraging at a time when many publishers are exercising extreme caution, and it shows an awareness of the unpredictability of the market coupled with a willingness to try and fail rather than not try at all.

In reality, a large number of acquisitions are risky – predicting sales and drawing up costings based on sales of similar seeming books is just fancy guesswork.  How books perform can be a surprise to those involved – books which sell for tiny advances can take off while enormous advances may fail to earn out.  Take the example of two books I’ve read in the last few weeks: one sold for a six figure advance and has sold just 650 copies (according to the Nielsen Bookscan);  the second was a modest deal with a passionate editor and while on paper it didn’t look likely to make a splash, it has sold 30,000 copies in the UK alone.  In an uncertain environment, publishers should be certain that they trust the  judgement of the editors they appoint. And those editors should be empowered to make decisions to acquire books they really believe in. They should be given the opportunity and tools to make them work, and the confidence to adapt and change tack if they don’t. Or at least that’s how a utopian children’s publishing world would look to me.

What’s in a name? Tackling titles and staying calm.

Writing a children’s book – you think that’s hard part? Now try coming up with the right title.  If you find yourself tearing out your hair, howling at your computer screen or flinging your keyboard across the room, you’re not alone. Title tantrums may plague even the most composed of authors. You’ve toiled for hours, months, or years, agonising over sentences, entering into the psyche of your characters, and creating an entire world. And now you’re supposed to reduce all of that to a few puny words.  Even God found naming tiresome and delegated responsibility to Adam; creativity has its limits. So it’s easy to see how a title can terrorise an author. The pressure to describe your book, to capture its tone and spirit in an engaging, appealing and completely original way may be too much.

Well, the good news is that you don’t need to secure the ultimate title, at least not initially. Few titles tick every box so instead just aim for a couple or at the very least just make sure it’s easy to pronounce. While a great title will pique interest early on, so will a great idea and a great book.   A title can be revisited, revamped and rearranged and in all likelihood it will change altogether and even change back as I discovered with one of my children’s authors this week. In fact if you’re too wedded to your title it can be an issue – I’ve heard of a publisher lowering their offer because an author refused to consider using a different title.  In some territories a title might not translate well – words or sentiments might not resonate in the same way and the publisher will work with an author to find the best alternative. The title of your manuscript may not end up being the title of your book so be prepared to adapt: and crucially in the words of the superbly titled THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, “Don’t panic”.

When choosing a title you might want to think about which of the following categories your choice will fall within:

1. One word – If you go down this route make sure it’s something that really packs a punch and captures the spirit of the book.

eg. CHOMP, FLIP, SAWBONES

2. Descriptive – it pretty much does what it says on the tin.

eg. GHOST GAME, SPY SCHOOL, THE LUNATIC’S CURSE, THE ABILITY

3. Eponymous –  Naming books after characters can work well if you have an arresting name for your character but remember it won’t mean anything to a reader on its own so consider adding something to their name to describe the story further

eg. VIOLET MACKEREL’S BRILLIANT PLOT, CHARLOTTE’S WEB, THE OGRE OF OGLEFORT, STITCH HEAD: THE PIRATE’S EYE

4. Longer, intriguing and slightly quirky – these are rather popular at the moment but do make sure it is relevant to the book’s content.

eg. THE STATISTICAL PROBABILITY OF LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT, MY BEATING TEENAGE HEART

And here’s what not to do:

  • The title should convey something, but not everything, about the book. Make sure it’s relevant to the story but don’t try to fit the whole story into the title, stick to just one aspect of it.
  • Avoid tongue-twisters or anything too obscure
  • Avoid anything that has been used too much or old fashioned words ‘daring’, ‘magnificent’ ‘Chronicles’, ‘Adventures’, and the word ‘eternal’ can be off-putting
  • Don’t be too clever – puns can be tricky to translate

If you can’t come up with something dazzling don’t despair – your idea of mediocrity could be deeply stirring for someone else.  Just to show how subjective a ‘great title’ can be I asked my colleagues at Curtis Brown to share  favourite titles.  You’ll see from the list below that there’s no obvious pattern here – the appeal lies in the music of the words with every reader humming a slightly different tune.

Sheila Crowley:  The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards

Anna Davis: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

Jonathan Lloyd:  Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less by Jeffrey Archer

Vivienne Schuster: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Gordon Wise: No Turn Unstoned: The Worst Ever Theatrical Reviews by Diana Rigg

Carrying a torch for reading

Thanks to @melissahillbks for pointing out this fantastic article by Philip Jones http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/aug/08/publishing-fifty-shades-books-important?CMP=twt_gu

I agree that we should be celebrating that there is so much interest in reading, rather than complaining and despairing about the kind of books readers are consuming.  I’ve encountered this in the children’s book world where parents, teachers and librarians disapprove of certain authors and particular books, but any material that helps children to engage with reading should be embraced, provided it is age appropriate of course – a minefield in itself – but that’s for another time.  I’m certainly not suggesting a 50 Shades for kids but the book that draws in non-readers is exactly what we should be searching for in the children’s book world too.  One of my children’s authors talks about the book that piqued his interest in reading as a young boy and acknowledges now that it is a pretty soulless and completely dreadful picture book but hey, it worked for him and now he writes children’s books. ‘Bad’ books can still make good readers and even good writers too.