11 March 2016

How to write a children’s book: Tips from agent Stephanie Thwaites

Stephanie Thwaites, Literary Agent
by Anna Davis From the Agents, How To ..., Writing Tips

How do you write a children’s book – or a novel for young adults? Children’s literary agent Stephanie Thwaites offers her tips and practical advice on writing Young Fiction, Middle Grade and YA books …

1. Do your research, read lots of Children’s Books

Lots of writers who send us the novels they’ve written for children very clearly don’t read recently published kids’ books. It’s really important to read lots in order to get an understanding of what children want to read now and also to understand what’s working and not working in the marketplace. Many writers base their ideas about children’s books on the kind of books they read as a child, or on the idea that their own children like the stories they tell them at bedtime. You need to do much more research than this. Immerse yourself in the very many fantastic books being published now to be well-informed. It’s also worth keeping up with publishing news via The Bookseller or Twitter to get a sense of what publishers are acquiring now (it can take 18 months from acquisition to publication) and keep an eye on the children’s and YA prizes to see which recent titles are getting lots of attention.

From the Curtis Brown list look at Greg James and Chris Smith’s Kid Normal and Matt Carr’s Superbat – both shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize – and Ross MacKenzie’s The Nowhere Emporium – winner of  The Blue Peter Children’s Book Award and The Scottish Children’s Book Award – as examples of popular Middle Grade fiction. For older readers, check out our very own tutor Catherine Johnson’s The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo which featured on The Bookseller’s YA Book Prize shortlist and Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi which has won countless awards.

2. Get to know the different age categories for books and target your novel accordingly

Are you writing Young Fiction, Middle Grade or Teen/Young Adult? Here are a few guidelines to help you work this out. It comes down to the following:

a) Tone and subject matter

b) The age of the protagonist

c) Length

Young Fiction – for 7-9s is usually around 8-12,000 words – don’t hold me to that because of course, it will vary (these are just guidelines remember!). The protagonist will be around 9 or 10, and humour features strongly in lots of books for this age group. The books tend to be heavily illustrated with black-and-white line drawings but these are commissioned separately by the publisher at a later stage so you just need to focus on the text. There’s often a mystery involved but it’s usually not too complex. Look at Joanna Simmons’ Pip Street series or Guy Bass’ Stitch Head series as examples of books for this age group.

Middle Grade – these will generally be around 40-50,000 words long. The protagonist tends to be around 12/13 – at the upper end of the readership (for 8-12 year olds, although of course older children and adults can enjoy them too).  The story will be meatier than with young fiction, and fantasy and adventure often work well for this age group. If you haven’t read Eva Ibbotson’s Journey To The River Sea then do so immediately (regardless of whether you’re writing Middle Grade fiction or not)! This is an area where series can really thrive as often readers are the most voracious at this age. Think Percy Jackson, Artemis Fowl, Harry Potter.

Teen/YA – We could write a whole blog about the difference between teen and YA – if there is one and if it matters. But here we’re just going to lump them together because really they’re different ways of saying the same kind of thing. The readership is intended to be teenagers – 12+ or in some cases 14+ but the reality is that 80% of readers of these books are actually adults – usually around 16-24 year olds. However it’s still usually the case that the age of the protagonist is around 15, 16 maybe 17 at a push but no older. Length will usually be around 60-65,000 words but this can vary. Of course there are a few exceptions but on the whole there’s a romantic element to a YA novel, and they tend to explore issues around identity and coming of age.

3. Remember that children read UP

Always bear in mind, when planning your novel, that children like to read about older children. They’re less interested in kids younger than themselves or even their own age. So your protagonist should really be slightly older than the intended readers.

4. Your central character should not be an adult

When you’re writing books for children, your central character should not be an adult. So, for example, if you’re writing about a family, you should be telling a story which is from the point of view of one of the children, not the mother.  In fact you could just get rid of the adults generally! You’ll notice many orphaned children, neglectful or absent parents in children’s and YA books. This is so that the children or teenagers can be placed firmly at the centre of the story, driving the action, and not relying on adults around them to help figure things out. Children want to read about other children they can identify with so, wherever you can get the parents/ adults out of the picture, do so!

5. Action is good

Make sure you get your story going straight away. Get your characters quickly into action and plot out a story which has lots happening. I also have a short attention span which is probably why I’m so keen on children’s books! If a scene is not furthering the plot or developing character, take it out. Establish who your main character is and stick with them; don’t chop and change between too many character viewpoints and make sure they’re active and driving the story themselves rather than just being the recipient of things happening to them.

6. Don’t chase trends

While it’s really good to have a strong awareness of what’s being published and doing well in your chosen category, do remember that it’s not enough to write something very similar to a kids’ book that has been a big hit or that you enjoyed. Your story needs to have something fresh about it. For example, we see lots of dystopian fiction at the moment – if you’re writing into this area, you should bear in mind that it’s a very crowded marketplace and that your book will need to have something really new about it to differentiate it from what’s gone before.

7. Write from the heart

Don’t write for cynical reasons – very few writers get rich quick. Write about something you really care about. When you’ve put your heart and soul into your book, it shines through.

If you’re writing for children or young adults, take a look at our Writing YA and Children’s Fiction Course taught by author Catherine Johnson.

As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our three- and six-month novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter.


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