Today, in the midst of Bologna Book Fair, we’re sharing a wonderful piece from Dave Lowe, author of the MY HAMSTER series and, more recently, THE MUMBELIEVABLE CHALLENGE and THE INCREDIBLE DADVENTURE which are published this Thursday by Bonnier Zaffre / Piccadilly Press.
When I tell people that I’m a children’s author, they usually smile, which I interpret as – well, that explains the terrible haircut, at least. When they ask what kind of books I write, I say ‘Early Middle Grade Fiction’, and then they smile again, which I interpret as – I have no idea what you just said. So I explain: I write chapter books, or those books on the 6-8 shelves in big bookshops (though I find that age-band restrictive – readers of these books are often older).
You’d think by now I would know what I was doing. Well, I don’t. Not really. But I do have a few tips gained from lessons learned along the way:
1. Check out the competition (Part 1)
My books are (supposed to be) funny, so you might say that my competition is Andy Griffiths, or the Weir-do books by Anh Do. But I don’t really think of it that way. Mostly because those guys are way more successful than me. But also because it’s more helpful to see the competition elsewhere: Youtube, Xbox, Netflix. More than ever before, we need to grab the reader from the first page. Actually: the first sentence. And then, a bigger challenge – you have to keep the kid’s attention. For the entire book.
It’s a cliché, but I want my books to be unputdownable. Putting superglue on the cover is apparently illegal, so cliffhangers are important – I want the reader to think: just one more chapter. Then: just one more chapter. And so on, until it’s well after bedtime. I asked my UK-based editor, Talya Baker, to outline some common pitfalls for MG manuscripts: ‘Too much description, scene-setting or backstory towards the beginning can make the story harder to get into,’ she said. ‘Picking the right moment to open the story is also crucial.’
2. Check out the competition (Part 2)
Reading a lot of modern books will give you a good feel for what’s out there. You’ll notice that there are lots of series. At the time of writing, there are probably a billion different Rainbow Fairy books, supposedly authored by ‘Daisy Meadows’ but actually written by evil robots trying to sap parents’ will to live.
(When I found an agent that liked my book My Hamster is a Genius, she said, ‘Can you write another in the series?’ and only took me on as a client after seeing the second book. For two reasons: agents and publishers want to know that you’re not a one-book wonder. Also, series sell.)
In your research, you’ll also notice a really wide range of word-counts in EMG. Books for the youngest end of the market, like Sally Rippin’s Billie B Brown series, can be 3 – 4,000 words. My Stinky & Jinks series (about a boy and his sarcastic genius hamster): 7 – 11,000. My new series, The Incredible Dadventure (out in Australia in June, since you’re asking): around 25,000 words.
3. Avoid common pitfalls
Back to Talya, my editor. I asked her about what marks out the good manuscripts from the not-so-good: ‘One thing often missing is really well-rounded, convincing secondary characters, including any – or at least some – adult characters. Even if the main character is good, if they have shadowy or 2D/purely functional people around them, then that makes the whole feel unsatisfying.’ Also: ‘Some warmth and hope is generally good, especially if the subject matter is tricky. Nothing too bleak – we’re not talking YA! And, harder to prescribe, but probably the thing that marks out the great from the average (and the poor), is accessible and distinctive writing. Clunky dialogue can sink a book too, as it makes characters feel unrealistic.’
4. Read it out loud
Reading out loud can really help identify clunky dialogue – and not just dialogue, either: lots of my readers are grown-ups, reading to their kids, so the rhythm of every sentence becomes important. (It also pays to remember that it’s the adults who usually buy the books. So I try to keep them happy, too – not at the expense of the child, but in the same way that Toy Story, say, is entertaining for all the family.)
5. What about illustrations?
You’ll notice that most EMG books have illustrations, but unless you’re completely brilliant at drawing, step away from the pencil. Maybe you’ve got an artistic friend. Again, unless your friend is Shaun Tan or Quentin Blake, I’d say hold on. Publishers have great people whose job it is to find the perfect illustrator for a book or series (though the author is usually included in the process). Each of my series has had a different (brilliant) illustrator. The books have a different tone, and the illustrations should reflect that.
When you’re matched with an illustrator, there are lots of ways of working. I’m a bit of a control freak and put brief footnotes in the text, as a guide for the illustrator. Tristan Bancks, in the brilliant My Life… series, gives illustrator Gus Gordon open slather; every writer/illustrator pair works out their own way of collaborating.
6. Don’t get disheartened
Finally: it can be hard to find a publisher. My first published book was actually my fourth attempt. And most writers have a similar story – most authors’ ‘debut’ novels are in fact their second, third or twenty-first tries.
So, in short: read a lot, write a lot. And be persistent.
If you’re writing Middle Grade fiction, we’d love to see your work – check out our submissions page now to find out what our agents are looking for.