Monday, February 9, 2009

Writing for Children & Teenagers by Lee Wyndham

I was concerned that some of the material in this book might be dated, and indeed some should be revised, but as far as advice or providing a guide for writing for young readers, this was an excellent beginning. As I read the book, I attempted to use Wyndham’s guidelines to assess and evaluate my own manuscript.

Early in the book, Wyndham discusses certain taboos in writing for young people. Some of those hold true, but with the market expanding and trying to lure new readers, especially older teenage readers, I think the taboos are flexible depending on which age group the writer is targeting. I have read young adult novels that were pretty racy including topics such as drug use, crime, and sex to name some of the topics that were forbidden years ago. Wyndham says that teen romance is a difficult field (Wyndham, p.12) but my observation is that it is a growing segment of the market today. It would pay to research the market and the publishers to determine what was appropriate.

I would have liked to see an updated edition that included more modern techniques such as using the web to research submission guidelines and when it is appropriate to make enquiry by email. But after getting through this early material, most of the book was very helpful and relevant. I liked he section where she advised to let “housekeeping slide” (Wyndham, p. 20) and make time to write. I don’t have a problem with that!

Wyndham advises to use both male and female character so that there is appeal to both. This vindicated my choice to have my secondary character in Lin Hua go back to being a boy as he was originally. She gives excellent information on average word count for children’s manuscripts which I thought extremely helpful (Wyndham, p. 23). With novels ranging from 30,000 to 60,000 words, I find that I am probably about a fourth of the way through my novel (8,500 words/4 chapters) assuming that mine will be in the mid-range of 45,000. That feels about right to me. She discusses the need for books with current themes that are authentic and realistic. There is also advice on the inclusion of foreign-born characters and including foreign words and phrases. She points out a need in the market for ethnic themes and stories, which my novel is.

Chapters 5, 6, and 7 specifically deal with characters and dialogue which I found valuable. Much of Wyndham says, I learned in studying drama such as the need for the characters to drive the plot (Wyndham, p. 31) and that dialogue and every scene must advance the plot. Later (Wyndham, p.88) she goes through plot structure which is key to a strong story. The character determines the action which drives the plot. Very true. There is a great deal of advice on complexities of character development and avoiding “cardboard” characters that are totally good or evil. She warns about staying true to your characters so that they don’t make mistakes that sensible people wouldn’t make (Wyndham, p.122.

I spent a lot of time in the section on viewpoint. She recommends utilizing first person viewpoint. I find that first person viewpoint is wonderful when done well but many people do not sustain it effectively.

Wyndham spends four chapters on actual writing (Chapters 14 through 17) the novel from beginning to end. She advises not to over-analyze in the first draft, just write (Wyndham, p. 105. Within plot structure, she notes that the reader may know choices at the climax of the story before the character. This is one way of building suspense (Wyndham, p. 121).

The following could be useful advise for any Hollywood scriptwriter in addition to those who write for children. She says:
The reader should be left with a sense of completion, a sense of rightness, instead of with restless questioning in his mind. It is the writer’s job to finish the story, not the readers (Wyndham, p. 122).In the conclusion, be brisk, be brief, and be gone (Wyndham, p. 126).”

Regarding first drafts, the author warns they are usually too wordy and need cutting. An enforced cooling-off period before re-reading your first draft can sharpen your critical facilities (Wyndham, p. 127). I find this to be true of my own work. I can be much more objective if I leave it alone for a while before attempting to do rewrites. It is easier to come at the work with a fresh viewpoint.

In the chapter on revision and polishing, there are word count guidelines that I found useful on what is the average number of words per sentence. Easy readers should have 11 - 14 words per sentence; sixth to eighth graders should have 17 - 20 words per sentence and over 20 is considered more difficult reading level (Wyndham, p. 128).

Wyndham offers a “four-step plan for revision” which provides an excellent recipe for polishing a book. First, do a quick read and second analyze your initial reactions to character, conflict, and dialogue. Third, take a careful look at your plot structure including beginning, middle, climax and end. Last, read again for word polishing and editing (Wyndham, p. 129).She warns that absolutely nothing is sacred on paper. In other words, be prepared to be brutal when editing.

She strongly recommends a good thesaurus. I completely agree. Roget’s has been my companion for many years. It is especially helpful with what she calls “word weeding (Wyndham, p. 134).”

I had some questions about the recommendations on submissions. This was another section of the book that seemed somewhat dated. Most other writer’s guides advise a query letter and a cover letter with your submission, which she does not. The information provided on copyright and contracts for beginning writers was good and has not changed much over the years since original publication of this book. The book also includes really helpful information on being a good business manager for yourself and keeping good records for tax time. This is something that new writers often don’t find out about until they have wasted a lot of time and money by not keeping good records (Wyndham, pp 162-163).

Rejections are always difficult for any writer. This chapter includes typical statements that might be included in a rejection letter and it includes the kinds of things that writers should be aware that staff readers say that they don’t see. This section should be read before doing the four-step editing process so that the writer is aware of what they should be avoiding.

The chapter on working with editors is excellent. Many beginning writers seem to view editors as adversarial and my experience is that a good editor is solid gold. They are a partner in the process of getting your work published and can provide a valuable objective opinion especially when it comes to polishing your work. Wyndham gives helpful advice on what the novice writer should expect when working with an editor.

The final section of the book breaks down and discusses various sub-genre in children’s literature and includes research, biographies, mysteries, picture books and the “hi-lo” books. I was disappointed that she did not include a section on historical fiction for young people.

In conclusion, I found the Wyndham book to be an excellent guide. My copy has many pages flagged and marked for future reference. This is a book that should be on every person’s shelf who plans to successfully write for young readers.

14 September 2008

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