I was 8 years old once…

I always think of myself as a picture book writer. Even now, when I’m working on the first draft of two middle grade novels (not at the same time) my brain still manages to make my hand reach for my notepad insisting that I write. Just. One. More. I love writing for little people but I think it’s time I wrote for bigger little people too.

And so, three first-draft picture books later, I’m back on track with my middle grade and off to a slippy, sometimes sideways start. Who knew that being able to write more than 500 words would be so liberating! It’s like I’ve just been handed the icing spoon as the cake has finally been decorated and told those magic lick-the-bowl-clean words…go for it.

I’m going for it. I’m going for it so much that I have veered off my chosen path so many times, the story that popped into my head all those months ago is no longer quite what it was. I like to think it’s better.

It’s better because I shared those first chapters with those in the same boat as me. It’s better because I left it all alone feeling sorry for itself for a month and then opened its eyes once again to see where it would take me. It’s better because I breathed new life into it using information and research (a quick hello to the guys at Central Library – you rock!). It’s better because I dusted off my guide motto and used the words to my advantage – be prepared. It’s better because I spoke to people who know all about the wonderful world of 8-12 year olds. It’s better because I read and read and read some more. It’s better because I believe it is.

I attended the Writing For Children aged 8-12 Scottish Book Trust event at the Glasgow CCA last night.

An industry panel all lined up just for me..and a hundred others. All food groups of the literary world were represented: the agent (aka Lindsey Fraser) – the formidable genius that spots your potential from the four-hundred-times written synopsis and sample chapters you pass her way.  The editor (aka Imogen Cooper), a comma-spotting, story arc journey-taker who will keep you on the right path and shoo away the pesky crocodiles in the slushpile waters below. The publisher (aka Eleanor Collins) another watcher of all things book-y. Do you have that special something that will make her coffee go cold as she reads your submission because she can’t bear to put it down? You do? Hooray! Then look no further, your book has found its new home (if she likes it!). And last, but by no means least, the wonderful Melissa Cox, Head of children’s book buying at Waterstones (I know!). She will decide which books goes where and when on the shelves and as I found out, she will also let you know what she thinks of your book cover too!

The evening started with a fantastic film of local primary 7-12 year olds telling the viewer what they wanted to see in a book, what they expected authors to write about and what they would write about if they wrote a book. Needless to say there were dragons, princesses, monkeys, pirates, fantastic worlds of drama and angst..all in a days work apparently. Some of the books they were reading were: Magical Faraway Tree, Harry Potter, Alex Rider, Cherub and anything by Anthony Horowitz.

Nuggets of gold were dished out to all in attendance (in no particular order):

  • Read, read and read the submission guidelines over and over and over again – send in EXACTLY what they have asked for. If no contact name is given, Google the editing director for that company, there is no place for Sir/Madam’s here, they are worthy of receiving your work and should supply a name.
  • Be authentic – what is your USP? What does your story have that no-one else is writing about?
  • 8-12 year olds love reading books,it’s the best age to catch them, hook them and make them stay up late reading the latest journey their hero/heroine is about to take (don’t tell mum and dad though). Books are very influential at this age – they may not read anything until YA so trap them while you can!
  • What does the word ‘book’ mean to you? What would it mean to an 8 year old?
  • A fantastic genre to write for – a cardboard box is not just a cardboard box…it’s an interplanetary rocket that will save the world, you know. Or a ship. Or a truck. It’s not just a box.
  • How much fun can you have with them? Take them on a journey they have never been on before. Show them what they are missing when they don’t read your book. It’s an adventure you have created that they will never forget and all down to the use of your dramatic events and story arc.
  • Aspects of Fiction writing: voice, pace, plot, characterisation, dialogue, humour, setting, imagination and hook.
  • What is it in you that reminds you of being between 8 and 12? Dig deep for feelings, emotions and familiar sounds. Think of the 5 senses as you take a trip down memory lane.
  • What worried you when you were 8? What did you want when you were 11? What did you save up your pocket money for? What was important to you back then?
  • Will this book please the parent aswell as the child and will the child want to read more?
  • The age of the MC will be at the top end of your age bracket – all younger children want to do what their older siblings are doing.
  • Realistic setting (apart from fantasy novels) – parents expect more from us now.
  • Authors going into schools will have a different impact on each child as they normally read at home in relative peace and quiet.
  • Some words to describe behaviour can be considered old-fashioned – idiot perhaps could be eejit, for example.
  • Anything up to 50,000 words – would look to reduce if it was longer than that. Can bulk out with illustrations too if not long enough.
  • If writing a series – it’s normally book 4 that the magic truly begins! First book must have the gumption to be a stand alone. Other books would pick up on another character to carry on the legacy.
  • Books discussed: Claude by Alex T Smith, Timmy Failure by Stephen Pastis, Into The Woods by John Yorke for plotting/structure, Janis McKay for voice, Cathy McPhail for plot, Cressida Cowell for characterisation etc.

Going through the motions of writing a book from when it is first spoke about in the crevices of your mind to reaching the golden acquisition doors, is a dream come true for many writers. We all know that the children’s market is probably the hardest to break into, but we are triers, we are stay up til 3am’ers, we’re in for the long haul and all those other cliches.

We are here to stay and to write.

I was 8 once. And so were you.

Write.