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.


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’s impossible to summarise in one post. So I’ve divided the day into two reports.

julia-churchillFirst, Julia on being a children’s agent. What she does, what she looks for and what makes a great book.

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

Julia began by explaining the role of an agent. She impressed us all with her passion for books, her dedication to her writers and her willingness to talk openly about what does, and doesn’t work for her.

 As an agent I spot talent and help develop it and then sell it.  And then do whatever I can to make a career for each author and support and back them along the way.

008Giving an overview of the market, she explained the changes in publishing have influenced the retail environment, so that saleability becomes an increasingly important factor. So if she sends a book to an editor at a publishing house, and that editor loves it, the next step is to convince the whole company, including sales and marketing, that this is something they should buy. It’s not always easy.

Acquisitions meetings often end with blood on the walls

010If they want the book, Julia negotiates the best possible deal for the author, taking into account all the different rights issues: selling direct to international markets, merchandising, TV and film, audio, computer games, royalties, discount rates.

The relationship is long-term. The agent is there to help with ideas of how to develop that author’s career and a business partner.

Of course agents are aware of trends, but realistically, the time it takes to get a book to market means that the dystopian/paranormal romance/magical powers trend will be overcooked and saturated.

The next big thing is currently being created in some writer’s shed. I have no idea what it is yet, but it will have these key elements:


This is what I look for in the query letter. The hook, the premise, that something original. I talk more about freshness in publishing than I did when I worked in fruit & veg.


With great characters, who they are, their nature, matters. Physical description is really to reveal character – it has little value in and of itself.


I’m attracted to simplicity and focus. What do the characters stand to win, or lose? The No 1 problem with most debut books? Too much going on.


A vivid setting becomes a character in its own right. It should be so imbued with emotion it couldn’t happen anywhere else.


The feeling you are left with when you finish the book, this is the heart of your story. But beware of preaching. Maurice Sendak said, ‘I have never written a book with a lesson’.


This is the thing that connects with your core reader: the excitable five year old, the adventure-hungry nine year old, the slighty aggro teenager.


Agents only read the first few chapters so make sure everything is there from the off. Get in late, get out early. Begin when the action begins and cut the rest. I get about twenty submissions a week which begin with an alarm clock going off. Be spare, make every word count, hit the ground running.


This week sees the publication of Kimi’s Secret, by John Hudspith. I’ve been watching Kimi grow for some time and I’m chuffed to bits that this terrific book is now available to everyone. One of the most fascinating elements of Kimi’s journey was the involvement of a group of Scottish schoolchildren – a great story in itself. So I’ve persuaded John and Anne to share it with us. It’s a cocklewarmer and no mistake.

‘Kimi’s Secret’ Writing Workshops, by Anne Stormont and John Hudspith.

Young readers and writers collaborate with children’s author.

Anne Stormont: I am a Support for Learning teacher in a primary school. In early 2009 I was asked to work with a group of eight eleven-year-olds in order to extend their writing skills. This was a group of able and discerning readers, whom, their teachers felt, had lost enthusiasm and motivation in their writing and who seemed to be underachieving. I was charged with turning this state of affairs round. Simple!

I set various types of writing exercises in order to stimulate the children’s creativity – providing story starters, playing games that generated ideas and using extracts from various children’s novels. This worked to a certain extent but I still didn’t feel I was getting their best work.

By chance, I was, at that time, reading an early draft of the opening chapters of John Hudspith’s children’s novel, ‘Kimi’s Secret’. I thought it was brilliant – great story-telling, original and engaging. But I wondered what the target audience would make of it. So I read a couple of chapters to my group of somewhat reluctant writers. Their responses were amazing. They liked the characters and the story and they wanted more, but they also had suggestions and ideas of their own about the text.

And that was the start. I asked Johnny if he would like to be our ‘virtual writer-in-residence’ for a term and to engage with the children on a writing project. I would read the book to the children and they would respond chapter by chapter with critiques, suggestions and comments. In return Johnny would set Kimi related writing tasks for the children to complete and submit to him for feedback. I also asked the children if they would be up for it.

John Hudspith: How could I not? What an opportunity to experience something quite wonderful – direct contact and interaction with my intended readership – I will admit to feeling a bit wobbly at the prospect, knowing fine well that if my story was not up to scratch then I would be told in no uncertain terms and that the drawing board would surely beckon. I dived in headfirst and with fingers crossed.

Anne: Both Johnny and the children took up the challenge. Everything was done by email to and from me. Johnny sent me the chapters as they became ready. And during two, hour long sessions per week, the children listened to the story, sketched and wrote their responses, filmed their round table discussions and debates, wrote Kimi inspired stories of their own and carried out detailed reviews of characters and plot. Film clips, writing, photos of detailed sketches, commentaries – all were emailed by me to Johnny and he emailed his (personalised to each child contributor) responses back.

John: Seeing my story, characters, plot line, pulled apart and jigged about and questioned in a manner which perhaps only children can be proficient at, brought me great wonders. Listening to their interpretations opened up new areas of story. Studying their observations on what worked, what did not, and what could be expounded, was an enlightening experience.

Anne: The project was one of the highlights of my thirty-plus years in teaching. The children and I looked forward to our Kimi afternoons and the productivity achieved was astounding. I loved seeing the children drawing as I read. Most of them did this – some drawing a character – others sketching out a scene. The quality of the debate about the effectiveness of a chapter, a character, a plotline was excellent and they didn’t pull their punches if they detected any shortcomings. This, of course, fed into their own writing which they approached with a new awareness of the tricks of the trade, of techniques and of the reader’s experience.

John: One thing that became apparent as the process went on was the children’s thirst, not just for good `story` but a hunger to learn. They loved to question unknown words like `discombobulated` which they would go on to use in their own writing. Receiving an email from the mother of one pupil thanking me for making her boy so enthusiastic about his work brought a rise to my chest I will never forget, as will witnessing the squirming faces, icky gagging, and hollers of laughter as Kimi’s Secret was read out loud.

Anne: One boy sought advice about how to be original – he felt that when he wrote, he imitated whoever his current favourite author was. His concern meant he felt that writing anything was pointless as he was ‘just copying’. But, after Johnny assured him that this was a common fear amongst writers, and that it was all right to model yourself on a writing hero as long as you put your own slant and ideas into the mix, the lad had the confidence to just go for it.

John: Engaging with each pupil and critiquing his work opened up a whole new world for me. I took great care of course, knowing that my input could be persuasive towards their relationship with words, not just now but in the future, but the responses to my recommendations and suggestions were always highly positive. It is this `joy` of teaching of which I certainly envy Anne for.

Anne: Another child came up with a detailed map of the land of Heart – spending a lot of time  meticulously checking the facts and then planning out their own fictional landscape on which to base an extended piece of fiction writing.

John: Yes, one of the greatest satisfactions was receiving pictures in the mail; each pupil drawing their own interpretations of various characters or their ideas for new scenes which would invariably include some of the more yucky elements of Kimi’s Secret. One drawing in particular remains stamped on my retina. And that is one boy’s interpretation of Heart and how it might look if viewed from the basket of a hot air balloon. When my brother saw this picture he presumed I had sent the pupils pictures of my original storyboards because my original `sketch` married this pupil’s `sketch` almost identically. His interpretation, `built` merely from the written words in the story, was spot on. I am a great believer in the power of writer to reader connection achieved by word imagery – that psychic connection – and to see it at work like this brought a great sense of achievement along with a grin the size of Scotland.

Anne: The group also came up with suggestions for sequel plotlines and new characters for further instalments.

The children wrote alternative scene/chapter endings and also developed their own original pieces of writing in response to Johnny’s suggestions. The level of eagerness to hear what Johnny’s response to their offerings had been was incredibly high. They really wanted to please this ‘proper’ author – his credibility being much higher than a mere teacher’s.

The children also got the added bonus of taking part in a competition set by Johnny. He gave them a scenario and a couple of suggestions and tips – and they were off. They worked on their entries both in school and in their own time (willingly) and were very excited as they awaited the results. The first prize winner received a book token.

John: Judging the competition was yet another highlight. To observe these young writers at work, unbridled of rules, stuffed with ambition and incredible imagination, was an absolute pleasure.

The whole process; the reading, critiquing, the questioning, the ideas, the drawings, the writing competition – opened my story-telling mind directly to what my reader wanted. It taught me not to dumb it down, not to hold back, that my readers wanted to be challenged. These readers were hungry and it was my job to feed them. For that insight alone the process was worth it.

Anne: We rounded off the project with a Kimi-themed party – Heart-shaped cakes and ‘Kimi’s Secret’ placemats – and party-poppers and sweets courtesy of Johnny.

I was invited by the education department for whom I work to share the experience of the project at a showcase of best practice in teaching and learning. This was something I also enjoyed in spite of nerves about public speaking.

The children are now at high school, but are thrilled that the book is about to be published and can’t wait to get their hands on their own copy. They are rightly proud of their involvement in this wonderful work and so am I.

John: With a precision that one’s peers might not be able to achieve, these pupils brought their unadorned demands and slammed them on my desk. This is what we want, and this is how we want it. And so it was. Such directness, face to face with your reader, is priceless. If you’re writing for children, find yourself a willing (and hardworking) teacher and get connected. Thank you, Anne and those apt pupils, for making Kimi’s Secret what it is.