w4yp-transparent-smallAdvice from the experts

On Saturday, thirty-five people gathered at Zürich’s Volkshaus to spend a day learning about writing for young people at a workshop organised by Nuance Words. The experts were Julia Churchill, children’s agent with AM Heath, and Sara O’Connor, editor at Hot Key Books.

So many useful ideas came out of the discussions and questions that it was impossible to summarise in one post. So I divided the day into two reports.

Yesterday, Julia talked about being a children’s agent. What she does, what she looks for and what makes a great book.

Sara_OConnor_3Today, Sara breaks down the elements of writing with some practical exercises of how to improve your manuscript and avoid all those beginners’ mistakes.

Sara’s excitement and enthusiasm was so infectious, even those of us who don’t write for young people learned something as she took us through:

  • World-building
  • Character
  • Plot
  • Revision


DO: Release the storyworld information slowly. Use one piece of description every 20 lines and make it earn its place.

DON’T: Have characters comment on this world which is familiar to them. Don’t fill on backstory describing how they got here. Let that filter through via story.

EXERCISE: Highlight three small but powerful world-building details in your opening pages. Now find one unnatural thing a character would not do. Delete the latter.

50% of submissions I receive have some fantasy element. Authors think that’s original. It isn’t. Everything’s already been done so be exceptional.


DO: Plant details which allow the reader to join the dots. Find authentic depth and true motivation to your MC’s behaviour.

DON’T: Underestimate your reader. Physical description is no substitute for personality – that cliché of having characters look in a mirror and describe themselves? Please don’t.

EXERCISE: Write a scene where the character closes his/her eyes. Use other senses to create stimuli and use character to create interpretation.

EXERCISE: Answer these questions about your MC

  1. What’s the first thing s/he does that makes the reader care?
  2. Why do I want to be her/him?
  3. What’s the worst thing that could happen?
  4. What’s the one thing s/he would never admit?

 How can you use those last two answers to create tension?


DO: Make sure your characters’ choices drive the plot. When outlining your scenes, use the word ‘because’ rather than ‘then’. That way, you describe why, not what, and keep closely tied to character and motivation.

DON’T: Force it. If your original plan isn’t working, try writing it a different way, using the opposite reaction.

EXERCISE: Identify your Obligatory Scene. What’s the event you set up in the early chapters – confrontation, kiss, discovery – and when do we get the pay-off? Is it the biggest and best scene in the book?


DO: Embrace it. Revising is what makes it a better book and you a better writer.

DON’T: Confuse this with proofreading. Revision means seeing your story with different eyes. If possible, find a beta reader/critique buddy you trust.

EXERCISE: Take your first page and cut twenty words. Ask yourself if it’s better. Identify what you cut and why. Then cut another twenty.

EXERCISE: Take your chapter-by-chapter outline and cut a chapter where nothing pushes plot or character development forward. Can the material you deleted be fed in elsewhere?

Read. Read across genres, read across age ranges, read books for your core reader. Just read. If you don’t read books for children, don’t try and write one.