Challenging Children: Long words or short?

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As a writer of children’s books, I’m always concerned about whether my prose is pitched at about the right level for its intended readership. You know: are any of the words too long, sentence construction too complex, cultural references above their heads, subject matter too ‘adult’?

This is compounded by the fact that reading ability varies so much. Well it does for adults too, of course, but when your target audience is as narrow as 8-12-year-olds or thereabouts then you don’t have to be especially off-target to miss it. If the bull’s-eye is an averagely competent ten-year-old reader, then your book may be beyond a struggling eight-year-old (at least without adult help), yet also not testing enough for a high-flying near-teen. (Then again, advanced seven-year-olds and some young teens might still be within range.)

For this reason (as for so many others) the sharp eyes of beta-readers and editors are invaluable. Then again, I’m a firm believer that kids shouldn’t be patronised, and that there’s also scope to stretch them a little. Indeed, surely that’s part of the value of reading. If they never come across new words, for instance, how will their vocabulary grow?

An example: an editor of Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer picked up on the word ‘sumptuous’, used to describe an especially spectacular starry sky beheld by Danny one night. Would your younger readers know what that means, they wondered?  Might a simpler word be used in its place?

I should emphasise that I did take that editor’s advice probably 90% of the time; and even when I didn’t, I always thought carefully before rejecting it. I’m certainly not suggesting they were wrong to ask the question. They wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t. But ultimately, the author themselves has to make the decision. The editor’s opinions are always to be respected (you’d be wasting both their time and yours if you didn’t) but they are never the last word.

In the end, sumptuous stayed. I love that word. It’s so, well … sumptuous. An extravagant, opulent, overflowing kind of word; but crucially, for me it was the very best one for the job in that particular sentence.  Another place, another time, I might have agreed with the editor and changed it.

Of course, as I said above, it’s a matter of balance. Too many new, long or challenging words might discourage the young reader. The prose should be accessible; and after all it’s there to tell the story, not get in the way, jump up and down and shout, ‘look at me, aren’t I clever!’. Too many pauses to consult the dictionary are bound to obstruct the reading experience and prevent the child’s full immersion in the adventure.

It’s a similar thing with sentences. I tend to keep them short and simple more often than not. But the odd longer, more complex sentence is no bad thing, and the variety should serve to make the text more interesting – and, yes, challenging. In that sense, it’s little different from adult fiction.

If the young reader gains in knowledge and ability through your book, that’s a wonderful thing. I’d love to think that some kid, somewhere, might one day say, ‘Dad, thanks, that dinner was sumptuous!‘, just because they read Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer.

 

It’s Judgement Day (gulp) …

judgment day

And the verdicts are in. As I wrote recently, I submitted the second draft of Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer for a Writer’s Workshop critique. In addition, my esteemed fellow blogger Bookgirl very kindly volunteered to do a beta read. And thirdly, the most demanding examination of all: my two sons (aged ten and six) have been the semi-willing recipients of bedtime excerpts, at least when I’ve been able to get them both together at the same time and stop them punching each other.

So what did they all say, I hear you shout?

Well, to take the third review first … George and William seem to quite like it. They laugh at most of the bits that are supposed to be funny. They ask questions – sometimes a lot. (‘How big is a light year, Daddy?’ ‘That was two pages ago … OK, let’s go back …’ [three minutes later] ‘how big is a light year, Daddy? [sigh].)

They also haven’t had to ask what too many words mean, which is probably good – but I like it that there’s a few they haven’t immediately understood. It’s good to expand their vocabulary a bit, right?

And even when they start fidgeting and kicking each other ‘playfully’, they immediately snap back to attention when I threaten to stop reading. (‘One more page please!’) They do seem to take it all in, even when they appear not to be – a curious gift all my kids share. Now it’s perfectly true that, when it comes to postponing lights-off time, the boys will employ all sorts of subterfuge. However, whenever they glimpse the flash of cold light on nail scissors, for example, they will usually – vey suddenly – be overcome by complete and total exhaustion and beg for bedtime. So at the very least I can claim that my boys prefer Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer to having their nails cut.

The boys’ interest and enthusiasm is their best feedback. But in the course of reading the book out loud, I’ve also given myself another perspective on the quality of prose in the book, including its suitability for the target age range. As a result, come the third draft, some sentences will be re-written – typically to become shorter and simpler – to improve clarity and flow, and some extraneous or ill-fitting words will be canned.

Turning now to the feedback from the adult experts – well, it’s always fascinating to get someone else’s take on your work, particularly when you can be confident they know what they’re talking about. There was much encouragement from both the Writer’s Workshop reviewer and from Bookgirl, and nice things were said about many aspects of DCFS, for which I’m grateful. But, more importantly, they hit on a number of areas requiring attention, and that’s always the most valuable feedback.

I’ve briefly summarised the main points of feedback in the table below, along with my own observations (you might need to click on it to view properly):

DCFS review summary

Now obviously the details of this won’t mean much to you unless you’re one of the small band of people (the WW reviewer, Bookgirl, George and William) who’ve actually read the manuscript, or had it read to them. But bear with me …

Although all of the above points are valid and require attention, there were three in particular that jumped out as being the most fundamental issues with the book:

  • # 3: Credibility of dialogue. This related to my tendency to use a number of passages of dialogue, mostly between Danny’s parents, to furnish plot exposition. Nothing wrong with doing that, except that in places it seemed forced and therefore less than totally credible.
  • # 5: Not enough action in the climatic chapters set in outer space. Instead, a lot of numbers were thrown around here, to emphasise the vastness of space – e.g. how big is a light year, the distance of the nearest star to Earth, etc. I wanted DCFS to have some educational content, but it also needs to be an exciting and entertaining story. The way I’ve written these two chapters, they’ve become too much of a science lesson and not enough of a story.
  • # 6: The villain, Captain Frost, basically disappears well before the end, and her eventual fate is referred to only in passing in the final chapter. She therefore plays no part in the book’s climax. This is closely linked to # 5 – because if Captain Frost was with Danny and his friend Nat inside the saucer in outer space in the climatic two chapters, there would be a whole lot more action and interest. (So can you see what the solution might be …?)

In my next posts I’m going to look at the above issues in more detail, as I believe they’re representative of some fairly common problems in manuscripts, particularly early drafts. And also I’ll discuss how I’m proposing to put them right. For now, though, I’d make two interesting observations.

First, both WW and Bookgirl picked up on #5 and #6. If you get two beta readers both say the same thing about your manuscript, you’d better take notice.

Second, if I’m being honest … none of the above – #3, 5 or 6 – really surprised me very much when they were pointed out. Sometimes you have a hunch about things that don’t quite work. It nags at you. Really, I knew that some of the exchanges between Danny’s parents were probably a bit contrived. I did worry there were too many numbers being sprayed around in space, in lieu of real action. And Captain Frost’s early departure did not strike me as ideal – it was, in hindsight, a major plot weakness. Why work hard to build a credible villain, only to let them bow out with a whimper two-thirds of the way through the book?

So if, deep down, I knew these were problems, why hadn’t I fixed them in the second draft? It’s not because I’m an idiot. Well, not only because of that. It’s also because sometimes these things only really dawn on you as you’re working through the manuscript, often while you’re thinking about something else. And sometimes they hang around, tapping you insistently on the shoulder until you finally take notice. Or you do something about them, but maybe not enough, or not the right thing to really fix them.

There are other things, too, you might worry about that turn out to be OK. For example, I wondered if I’d pitched the book’s readability at the right kind of level. It is, after all, aimed at a younger age group than I’ve written for before. But I’m pleased to say that the reviewers seemed to think that, generally, it was about right. That’s not to say that more fine-tuning isn’t required, that there aren’t some words or sentences that need tweaking, as I’ve mentioned above. But I’m pretty happy now that this isn’t a major area of concern.

I should add that, of course, the reviews also picked up things I hadn’t spotted or considered at all. That, again, is the beauty of the fresh pair of eyes.

Now all I have to do is act on all this excellent advice, roll up my sleeves and get stuck in to draft number three …

Do you come across similar issues to these in your writing? What has been your experience of critiques and reviews?

 

Improving my book: manuscript critique vs beta readers

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I wrote last week that I’d finished the second draft of Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer, and that my next priority to get some outside input – people who can help me clarify what’s good about it (hopefully something), what could be improved … and what stinks. For me, this step is absolutely critical.

For one thing, I’m reading the book aloud to my two sons. The other thing I’m doing is getting another adult to review the manuscript. I know of two common ways to accomplish this. First, find someone (or more than one person) to be a beta reader. Or, second, to pay for a manuscript critique. I’ve chosen the second option. Why?

Well, there are several reasons:

  1. By choosing an established, reputable literary consultancy (I’m using The Writer’s Workshop) you know you’re getting someone who knows that they’re doing, an experienced editor and/or author who’s been there, done that. WW use a pool of published authors, from which they select the most suitable to review your manuscript.
  2. I’ve used WW before and I’ve always been impressed with the results. You get a pretty detailed report (typically about 8-10 pages) which identifies problem areas, along with suggestions for improvement. There’s always some very perceptive stuff in there. There is usually also some encouraging feedback about those things that do seem to be working.
  3. The report can also give advice on where to go next with the book, post-revisions. My first two books are self-published, and I totally buy in to the ideals of indy publishing. But it’s unavoidably true that most books sell very few copies – and most of the biggest success stories there have tended to be in certain genres. DCFS is a children’s book, and I believe that’s an especially difficult market to succeed in with self-publishing. (If anyone has any views or experience about that, I’d be very interested to hear it.)

I have no doubt whatsoever that Falling Girl and BASIC Boy were much the better for having been critiqued in this way, and for me then implementing the majority of the reports’ recommendations.

Just to clarify one point, however: the critique is not a line-by-line edit, nor a proofread. The WW report is an assessment of the books a whole, including the plot, characterisation, dialogue and general writing quality. If you need a copy-edit or a proofread, that’s a separate thing – and, in my view, a second draft is much too early for that. There’s no point in proofreading something that’s bound to be at least partially, if not extensively re-written.

The most obvious drawback of the critique is the cost, which is dependent on the length of the manuscript. Fortunately DCFS, being a children’s book, is relatively short – the second draft is just under 27,000 words. For that, the WW critique cost just under £300 (i.e. around $500).

For some, of course, spending that might not be an option. You might also take the approach that, if you view self-publishing as a business, how likely are you to earn back the money? Well, if my first two books are anything to go by … probably not.

But then, I don’t view my writing as a business. I’d love it to be, but so far at least I haven’t had the sales to make that a reality. Instead, I see it more as my hobby. Some people have fairly expensive hobbies. They might renovate old cars, play golf or tennis or join a gym; I do less expensive things like running and cycling, and spend the money on improving my writing instead. That way I can justify spending money on things like this.

Of course, I don’t want to waste money, and apart from the critique my costs are minimal. I publish on Amazon, doing layout and design myself. I also do my own proofreading (wisely or not, I’m not completely sure). So manuscript critiques, so far at least, have been my only major expense. I see improving my writing as the area where paying for outside help adds the most value.

Asking for beta readers to review the book would, of course, avoid this expense. But I haven’t gone down that route, at least not this time, for three reasons:

  1. Finding the right beta reader might not be quick or straightforward. Anyone’s opinions are valuable – but some probably more so than others for this purpose. I’d want an experienced editor who knows a lot about about writing for children. In reality, it’s hard to avoid having to pay for that kind of expertise, along with the time and effort involved.
  2. Time. People are busy, writers certainly not excepted. It might take a beta reader some considerable time to get round to doing their review.
  3. If you don’t pay money, there’s bound to be a reciprocal element – i.e. someone reviews your manuscript, and you review theirs. That’s fine, and in many ways I’d like to be able to do that. But at the moment, I’d find it very hard to find the time.

If you can live with and/or mitigate the above drawbacks, then I can see that beta readers would be a good option. Especially if you already have one or two that you know and trust. But for now, for me, for this particular project, the paid critique seemed the better way to go.

Now the question is – will I be brave enough to reveal the feedback (warts and all) on this blog? Of course I will! [crosses fingers …]

 

Now for the scary bit …

The scream detail

Last week I finished the second draft of my children’s book Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer. I’ve previously written how I went about whipping the unkempt mess of the first draft into the slightly less unkempt mess of the second. Now that’s done, it’s time for … the scary bit. (Cue diabolical laugher.)

Up until now, the book has been my secret, inside my head and on a screen that only I’ve seen. All of it – good, bad and indifferent – has been my own special baby. I’ve tried to make it as good as I can, and in reviewing the first draft I genuinely attempted to be as objective and dispassionate as I could about identifying its flaws and areas for improvement, and implementing them. And over the course of writing two novels and absorbing the advice, wisdom and experience of many others (including some of you good people), I believe I know quite a bit about what to look out for and how to make writing better.

My baby has grown and matured. It’s now a teenager – which means (and with apologies to any teenagers reading this, because this obviously doesn’t apply to you) it’s got spots, is frequently confused, has highs and lows; and is generally at that awkward stage of being halfway grown up and knowing a lot more than before, but not as much as it thinks it does …

So I’ve now taken this project just about as far as I can by working completely on my own. Now I need someone else’s input. The second draft is surely better than the first, and (unlike the first) it’s something I feel I can show to someone else without them laughing in my face and then slapping me around the face with it. (Which, let’s be clear, I don’t want when it’s on a laptop.)

But it still has a way to go. There are still things wrong with it, big and small, things that I can’t see because I’ve looked at them too hard and too long. There are still ways it can be improved, things that haven’t occurred to me because I’ve been thinking about it too long and can’t easily step back and look at it as a whole.

I need fresh eyes; and they need to be the eyes of someone I can trust. Someone that will have a completely new and fresh angle on the book, who has expertise and insight. Ideally a market expert. So, for DCFS at this point, that means two things.

First: well, who better to get feedback from than the real experts on children’s books – children? My eldest son is ten, putting him slap-bang in the middle of the target age range. His reading ability is average for his age, and he’s a somewhat reluctant reader. Which makes him a pretty much perfect guinea pig. My youngest is six, meaning he’d struggle to read the book on his own, but I’ll read it to both of them.

Reading out loud is an excellent way of checking how well the prose flows. I did read out some chunks to myself when writing, but to be honest I feel like a bit of a nutcase if I talk to myself too much. Reading the whole thing out loud again to a (hopefully) listening audience will be a good thing.

But just as important – if not more so – is whether the story really engages them. I recently read Neil Gaiman’s excellent Coraline to the two of them, and they hung on every word. When I stopped at the end of each chapter, they begged me to read one more page from the next before finishing. (And I’m pretty sure that wasn’t only to delay going to bed …) If I can get anything like the same reaction from DCFS, I’ll know I’ve got something good.

I’m not expecting a great deal of feedback from them, but any that I can get will be gold dust. The best feedback will be how much it holds their attention. However, I fear my kids are unlikely to deliver a full, detailed critique of concept, plot structure, characterisation or the over-use or otherwise of adverbs. They will know if they like it or not, but not precisely why.

So for a more forensic analysis, I’m paying for a manuscript critique. Next time I’ll talk more about that, and why I’m taking that route instead of asking for beta readers. But for now, it’s goodbye to blogging and hello to the bedtime story … good night!