Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Problem with Picture Books... Part 1

Picture Books are favourites among many readers and writers, but what IS a picture book?

A picture book is a story intended for young readers and pre-readers. It is short (generally around 700 words placed over 32 pages) and the illustrations and text combine to create a satisfying whole. Picture books are layered stories. They have to be, since, unlike a lot of other literature, they are designed to be read or heard several times over. They come to a satisfying ending which may have a twist, but the story cannot depend entirely on the twist since it has to stand up to repeated readings.

Picture books differ from one another just as books at other levels differ, but the brevity of the texts generally keeps them to single thread narratives and to strong, single themes.

Let's look at a few different types of picture book text.

Retellings are traditional stories, sometimes from different cultures, told by modern writers. Sometimes they follow the original texts, but they might reinterpret them or change the slant or point of view. The change might be radical enough to make the story change completely, or it might be so far from the original that only the theme remains. Retellings have several avenues of appeal. Some people like them because of the familiarity factor. Others like the radical retellings which generally give a nod and a wink to modern taste. Some retellings take well-known rhymes or traditional songs and change the words a bit.

Empowerment stories take small, shy, timid main characters and place them in a position where they display courage or intelligence to solve the central problem.

Domestic Problem and New Situation stories set up a common situation such as moving house, the arrival of a new sibling, or the loss of an older relative or a pet and carry the story to a believable but satisfactory conclusion.

Imaginative Play stories bring the protagonist's imagination into the story to create excitement, action and (occasionally) fear and peril.

Act and Consequences stories present a protagonist whose actions bring consequences which must be worked through.

Friendship stories set up friendships and explore the challenges.

The list above defines just a handful of the picture book types, but each has its own balance and unwritten rules. The problems with picture books begin when writers fail to understand these and present the situations without the depth of theme and follow-through.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Antagonists vs Enemies

Today's post is an excerpt from the Characters and Characterisation workshop, available from

Antagonists vs Enemies.

Creating an antagonist or enemy for your protagonist is a challenge. Both are strong relationships, and can be set up in much the same way as friendships and romances.

Antagonists can both be sympathetic characters. They won’t necessarily dislike one another, but they have opposing viewpoints or goals. If one wins, the other loses, and even if compatible as characters they (and you) shouldn’t lose sight of this.

Set up your antagonists as carefully as you would a pair of friends. Give them enough compatible characteristics to make them believable equals (or near equals). Make their opposing goals strong ones. It must matter who wins. Make your readers want both to win by making the characters equally interesting or admirable. If it seems likely the antagonist character would win, consider letting it happen.

Decide if the relationship between the two exists only in the context of the goal or if it could carry on afterwards. If so, will it warm to become friendship or sour into enmity? Will pity, triumph, regret and pride play a part?

An enemy is similar to an antagonist in that his/her goals conflict with those of the protagonist, but different in that there is an element of personal dislike or hatred. An enemy needs to have motivation as strong as the protagonist's, but need not be sympathetically portrayed. Enemies can be motivated by revenge, lust for power, bitter rivalry, envy, sadism, greed, desire, obsession or just plain evil. You should always know how enemies view themselves. Do they feel justified in their persecution of the protagonist, or do they know they're out of line? Why does the enemy hate the protagonist? Personality clash? Inherited feud? Envy?

Avoid making the enemy stereotypically ugly without good reason. Even if s/he is wholly evil try to give a glimpse of some human emotion or failing. Try to make this enemy an opponent of worthy stature.

Excerpt from Pp 53/54 Characters and Characterisation

Lesson 3 – More Human Characters.

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Problem with Chapter Books...

Chapter books are difficult to write with that elusive sparkle/shine/punch/impact or whatever you choose to call that quality. It’s not easy to define, but most readers and writers know it instinctively. It’s that thing that makes a book either grip you from Page 1 and hang onto you thereafter or else the thing that keeps the book with you… possibly for life.

Think about your favourite books of all time (and tell us about them in the comments area below)- those are probably the ones with sparkle.

Sparkle is the thing that makes that one book stand out from the fifty or so you read in a year. It can show up in books that are not necessarily brilliant in other ways, but it is always persuasive. Sparkle in a book might be equated with charm in humans.

It seems from my experience that this sparkle is more likely to crop up in picture books or in YA or primary school novels than in chapter books. I think that’s because picture books are lean, and powerful; they rely on a kill’em premise, a classic shape, clear theme and a pared down but musical style.

YA books also benefit from the strong premise and clear (sometimes multiple) theme(s), and also from a more varied style option and, importantly, from characterisation that has depth and density. Of course some YA literature is light and fluffy, but it usually gets by with a very strong narrative voice that becomes the sparkle. I'm thinking here of the Georgia Nicolson books, a British YA series by Louise Rennison. Georgia tells the stories in the first person and her mode of narration is startling. The nearest I can get to it is some of the dialogue in the 1980s Black Adder television series. Whether you take to Georgia and her experiences or not, those books have sparkle by the truckload.

Books for “older children” (Primary School novels) benefit from the same things as YA and can even find a strength in the very area they lack; boy/girl romance. Because the primary school book characters are not concerned primarily (or even at all in many cases) with the opposite sex, (beyond avoiding girl germs and boy germs, perhaps) the other strong themes of friendship, family, independence, responsibility etc can be explored fully. This is also the perfect age for adventures taking place at a remove from the family circle.

If you look at chapter books in this light, you can see why they are so difficult to imbue with sparkle. They are never as clear and sharp as a picture book because they're not so pared-down. They cannot handle the depth of characterisation or theme that a YA can carry. Many of the strong themes and complex ideas the Primary School books manage are “out” for chapter books because they’re not long enough to hold them and a plot. One of the major problems is in the vocabulary limitations. Even picture books have a strong vocabulary base, because they are designed to be read by adults to children.

Does this mean chapter books are doomed to be bland, homogenous and forgettable? I don't believe so, but I think they do need extra care and feeding to make the grade.

For a chapter book to sparkle, authors have to go out a long way on a storytelling limb and trawl for that “something extra”, and it will generally be just one thing, because there’s no room for anything else.

Some sparkling chapter books are actually fables, using folk-tale-style themes or characters. This gives them a layered feel that allows children to read them at face value while adults appreciate the underlying story-heritage.

Some are really short stories (in the literary sense) in that they develop a single incident or theme. The chapter demarcations are more or less arbitrary.

Some rely on crackling humour and mad puns. A lot of these appeal more the kids than to adults, but anything that has eight-year-olds tying themselves in knots of laughter and quoting choice excerpts will probably commend itself to the book buying adults. A related kind relies on scatological humour, with bum and fart repeated ad nauseum.

Others rely on one or more out-of-the-box character or, like picture books, on a strong and specific premise. A few rely on beautiful and poetic language. (Pick up Annie Dalton’s The Witch Rose for an example.)

Then there are the one-joke premise series, which present one oddity, treat it absolutely straight, and build the whole story on that. (Think Duncan Ball’s Selby books, or Michael Bond’s old Paddington series.)

As with picture books, a high concept/log line for a manuscript helps show you how strong the story is. If the 25-word-or-fewer high concept is pedestrian, then the book probably is as well.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Review or Assessment?

Recently I've been offered a lot of books to review. I thought this a little odd, as my little review blog is very low profile. Finally it dawned upon me that some people might be coming in through Affordable Manuscript Assessments. Could visitors to this service be mistaking it for a review site?

So, what IS the difference between an assessment and a review? It's true that some publishers say "we'll be back in touch when we've had a chance to review your manuscript", but what they mean is "we will read this and consider it for possible publication".

Generally, a review is understood to mean a reader's reaction to a published book (or film, or album). A reader, who may or may not be an industry professional, reads the book and then writes a response which might include a blurb or synopsis, a few comments on how or whether the book fits its genre and the reviewer's expectations, and a run down of the strengths and weaknesses perceived in the story. Reviews can be 95% blurb and 5% comment. They can even be nothing but the book's blurb or publisher's publicity material reproduced. Some are puff pieces, and others, unfortunately, qualify as hatchet jobs. The best reviews, in my opinion, come from someone knowledgeable enough to review the book in context and also fair enough to mix disinterested or objective comment with personal response. It is generally agreed that reviews should not reveal too much of the plot and certainly not the denouement, and that they should be written grammatically. Most reviewers are not paid for their work. The complimentary copy of the book is considered enough. And of course, some readers buy a book in the usual way and choose to review it in the spirit of sharing opinion with others.

An assessment, on the other hand, is an over view of a manuscript in relation to both its impact as a book of the appropriate genre and to its potential as a publishable work. After some broad comment on what is working well in the ms, the assessor will concentrate on the weaknesses and possible problems along with specific advice on how to fix these. Manuscript assessors are paid for the job by the author, unless they are employees of a publishing company, in which case the assessment will be part of their job description.

So - assessment or review? They are different, and if you approach you are (or should be) after an assessment rather than a review.