Wednesday 31 August 2011


I'm delighted to bring you some advice on children's writing from two experts, Sarah Stewart and Cat Clarke, who have combined to form a specialist consultancy for writers of children's and Young Adult fiction, The Lighthouse. The Lighthouse offers editorial guidance and manuscript appraisal for both published and unpublished writers.

A little about Sarah and Cat
Sarah was Fiction Editor at Scholastic Children’s Books, where she worked with high-profile authors such as the bestselling Maggie Stiefvater, Karen McCombie and Dan Freedman. Previously, Sarah spent ten years as a journalist and magazine editor, writing for a wide range of publications, from The Guardian to Mizz magazine. She is the author of The Girls’ Annual 2010 (Michael O’Mara books).

Cat is the author of YA novel Entangled (Quercus, 2011). She was Senior Commissioning Editor for Non Fiction at Scholastic Children’s Books, working on Terry Deary’s bestselling Horrible Histories and developing and commissioning several new series including My True Story. Previously, she spent five years at Usborne Publishing, writing and editing books for 4 – 10 year-olds.

I grabbed hold of them and asked them some questions.

NM: What are the three most common problems you find in MSS that are sent to you?
Often, new writers haven’t considered the age group or audience for their book. In one sense that’s fine – ideally, we should all just write naturally and tell the story we want to tell – but when writing for young people, there’s always a danger of being either too sophisticated or too babyish. Knowing what 7-year-olds read as opposed to 12-year-olds, for example, is crucial.
Also, we often see simple mistakes in continuity, or typos in the first pages of a manuscript. We don’t mind a bit if you forget whether Mrs Cheese is wearing a red or a yellow dress … but agents will find mistakes like this tiresome, and you want a potential agent to enjoy your manuscript without distractions.
Thirdly, pacing. Sometimes we find stories with sluggish starts, or stories that launch in without us getting to know anything about our protagonists. It can be tricky to find the balance between setting the scene, and pulling the reader into the action.
NM: What areas of the children's market do you think have the greatest opportunities as the moment?
Young Adult is still incredibly strong, but interestingly, there has been a bit of a gap for some time now in fiction for very young children. Several key brands/series have the 5-7 market well-tapped, but there may well be space for new voices there. 
[NM adds: quite a lot I'd like to add here! It's worth stressing that only some areas of YA are strong - in other areas many authors are being dropped despite award and critical success, because teenagers may love deep, stand-alone novels of a somewhat literary bent but they don't buy enough and therefore publishers are cutting back. Sales are also too low for us to survive. I know this...
Another major gap in the market, much spoken of by serious reviewers and experts, is quality fiction for 9-11s, who are often voracious readers. Many publishers are looking for fresh new voices here, writers who can tell powerful and unusual stories. Many people also feel that there's too much jokey stuff - though it does well commercially - and that an over-looked and much harder area is rich, stunning young fiction without the slapstick.]
NM: What sort of things make writing for children so much harder than people might think?
Writing for kids is storytelling in its purest form – there’s no sacrificing narrative for style. Children won’t hang about. If you bore them, they’re off (and quite right too). Of course, style is still important, but the story has to be central at all times.
A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that writing for children is the easy option - often assuming that at some point you'll surely 'graduate' and start writing books for adults. They couldn't be more wrong. The best kids’ writers make it look so easy, but it’s not!

You have to know and respect your audience, and avoid talking down to them. Often we see manuscripts with plots and characters that are quite complex, yet the story is written in an rather simplistic 'bedtime story' sort of tone. The voice needs to match the age group you're writing for. And remember ... a good bedtime story doesn't necessarily make a good novel!
[NM adds: Agree with all that. And creating a strong voice is harder when that voice has to be authentic as a child's-view voice and yet be written by an adult. There's a kind of ventriloquist's skill. We are telling the story through a child, not trying to sound as though it's by a child. Time-scales are different, too - children's stories generally can't take place over many years. There are ways round this, of course, but it's important to keep the focus on one period of time - say a year at most.]  
Can you suggest some exemplary books or authors of various sorts (over a range of ages and genres), which you'd recommend aspiring writers for young people should read?
Absolutely; we love this question! Perhaps look at old classics like Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War or Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs, and then ping forward into contemporary anarchy with Andy Stanton’s Mr Gum books. Jeremy Strong’s books are cracking examples of humour that works for both boys and girls, and for a glimpse into how to do fast-paced dystopian YA, go for Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.
[NM adds: a great start. For other genres/ages perhaps readers can add their own suggestions? So, blog-readers, what are your suggestions for historical, sci-fi, issue-based, thriller, contemporary psychological, and all the many different age groups? For example, I'd say you can't write decent YA if you're not aware of the power of some of these: Meg Rosoff, Kevin Brooks, Malorie Blackman, Julie Bertagna, Marcus Sedgwick. You might even like to try mine! Fleshmarket and my Highwayman books for historical, Sleepwalking for dystopian, Passionflower Massacre for contemporary psychological, Deathwatch for contemporary thriller, Mondays are Red for magical realism, Chicken Friend for 9-11 friend/issue-based.]
Apart from finding out what's wrong with this MS, what else do writers learn from having an expert eye cast over their work?
It’s so, so hard to be objective about your work – in fact, it’s impossible! As writers as well as editors, we know how difficult it is. And friends and family can be very kind, which is lovely but not always constructive. We can offer honest feedback, delivered in a way that won’t hurt your feelings (promise. We know what it’s like to have hurt feelings). And we’re very good at spotting things like which dress Mrs Cheese should be wearing, and asking you to fix things like pacing! Often these things crop up in other creative writing you’re doing, so it can be very useful to be aware of them in a more general sense.
If you'd like help with your children's writing from Sarah and Cat's consultancy:
We can be found at, and we love it when people say hello on Twitter @thelighthouseuk. Or email us directly on

As you know, I run a consultancy, too - Pen2Publication - but I'm not taking on any more clients just now. So, hurtle over to Cat and Sarah for good advice!

Do ask them some questions in the comments below! And please add to the list of recommended books or authors for children's and YA fiction.


Anonymous said...

What a great read!

Lots of sound, insightful, knowledgeable advice.

Tabitha Bird said...

Great food for thought. I am especially interested in books for boys in the 9-11 age group as I have a very savy 8 yr old boy who reads everything he can get his hands on. He is always asking me what else is out there for him. He also writes his own books :) Give him ten years and who knows? :)

Laura Mary said...

Ooh... this post is like gold!!! Saving every precious word - thanks!
In terms of YA authors to recommend, ahh where do I start! I am in my twenties now but never stopped reading YA books! I love, love, love Garth Nix, Marcus Sedgwick, Malorie Blackman (maybe not for the very young though) Philip Pullman, Neil Gailman (Coraline is just amazing) Michelle Paver ooh who else... Oh and Lemony Snicket of course!!! Tabitha - has your son read any Darren Shan? They can be a bit on the gory side so maybe have a quick read yourself, but I love them! I love that he doesn't hold back on the 'horror' despite writing for youngsters. I remember I loved being scared and grossed out as a kid - I used to read Point Horror books by the dozen!

Becky said...

Hi everyone,

Becky, Nicola's assistant here. I'm replying on Nicola's behalf because she's away from her desk for a few days.

Glad you enjoyed the interview - Tabitha: great that you have such an inveterate reader; I'm sure he will go far in life! Laura Mary: I still read YA too :-) Anon: thank you!

Anonymous said...

For someone working on a YA book, this interview was fascinating and enlightening.

I'd like to add Patrick Ness's "A Monster Calls" and Eoin Colfer's "Artemis Fowl" to the expanding canon. I'd put "Fleshmarket" on the list too, and not just to score points. I bought it while on holiday in Edinburgh and felt like I was on the streets of the Old Town while I was reading it.

Anonymous said...

I read Laura Mary's post just as I hit "Send" and remembered "Dark Matter" by Michelle Paver. Had a few anxious nights' sleep after that one!!

Emma Pass said...

A really great post! For more YA reading, I'd recommend Tim Bowler (any and all of his books; he is a stunning and hugely original writer), David Almond (for the same reason as Tim Bowler), Mike Lancaster's fast-paced and creepy 0.4 and Charlie Higson's THE ENEMY and THE DEAD. Joanne Horniman and Jaclyn Moriarty are also incredible, as are Tabitha Suzuma, Sharon Dogar, B.R.Collins, Jenny Valentine, Ally Kennen, Keith Gray, Craig Simpson and Bernard Beckett. For younger readers, you could try Louis Sachar, Dav Pilkey, Julia Golding, Joseph Delaney and Derek Landy (Skulduggery Pleasant).

And that's just off the top of my head – there are so many wonderful writers out there, I could go on listing (and certainly intend to go on reading) them forever!