In October 2012, my agent forwarded me this wonderful, shiny, hand-made, sticker-covered guitar. It was part of the offer she had just received from Scholastic to publish my book, Wild Thing
I was thrilled. I had first dreamt up Wild Thing in the Spring of 2010, and I had poured a lot of energy, enthusiasm and sheer hard work into that book. I was delighted it had found a home.
I was also immensely touched that the editorial department had come up with such a lovely way of offering for the book. I reckoned they must really like it (either that or it had been a really slow day in the editorial department).
In fact they did
like it, because not only had they offered for Wild Thing, but for two sequels too. I had been commissioned to write a series! At that moment, one of my writing ambitions came true. I’ve wanted to write a series for a while. I think that’s what children like reading (I certainly did) and besides, having invented Wild Thing, older sister Kate and their crazy world, I didn’t want to leave them behind.
|The first book: out now|
It was intimidating though. Suddenly I didn’t just have one deadline, I had a raft of them. The next eighteen months were all mapped out with writing, delivering and editing Books One, Two and Three.
As I near the end of that process (Wild Thing was published last month, the third Wild Thing book is now in its final stages) I can say it’s been breathless, but great fun. If I was nervous about sustaining the characters through three adventures, I needn’t have been. The second book almost wrote itself.
Perhaps this was not surprising – by now I understood the characters so well.
(I also had the helpful guidance of my editors. They pointed up the importance of reintroducing the characters at the start of each book for readers new to the series.)
So what is it that allows a book to become a series? Wild Thing is pitched for 8+, and is the story of two sisters and their somewhat chaotic lives and adventures. I suppose in publishing terms it fits in with many of the other character-led series for this age group. That also means it's got some very impressive competition!
What most of these series have in common is a real-life setting and fairly everyday adventures: which means that the characters have to be strong enough and distinctive enough to sustain the series.
In my case, the main characters are two sisters. Kate, the elder is fairly sensible. She is driven to distraction by the exploits of her little sister Josephine (aka Wild Thing) who is only five and not sensible at all."Why can't we send Wild Thing to prison, though?" I said to Dad.Dad laughed. "I thought you wanted to sell her."
I found I understood those sisters pretty well. Perhaps that’s not surprising. I’m an elder sister myself.
|Kate and Wild Thing|
Sibling relationships are one of the universal themes of childhood, but other aspects of Wild Thing are more unusual. An older child writing about a much younger child is unusual but also risky – because the common wisdom is that children prefer reading about characters older than themselves.
Maybe so. But one of the things I’ve enjoyed about the series is that a younger child (Wild Thing is five) can get away with more than an older child can. It’s great fun writing about someone who can say and do what she likes. I hope that the readers will share that same vicarious pleasure.
Also, not many children are being brought up by a single parent rock guitarist dad. But again, that works for the series. A musician can be around in his children’s lives, but also absent (and absent-minded) and all kinds of chaos can ensue.
The real test though is what happens when the books reach the readers’ hands. Does it speak to them? That’s something that will take a while to discover.
What do you think makes for a successful series? ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Emma's new book, Wild Thing
, about the naughtiest little sister ever, is out now from Scholastic. It is the first of a series for readers 8+. Wolfie
is published by Strident. Sometimes a Girl’s Best Friend is…a Wolf.
"A real cracker of a book" Armadillo
"Funny, clever and satisfying...thoroughly recommended" Books for Keeps - Book of the Week
"This delightful story is an ideal mix of love and loyalty, stirred together with a little magic and fantasy" Carousel
Emma’s Facebook Fanpage
Emma on Twitter - @EmmaBarnesWrite
5 Misconceptions I used to have about writers and writing:
1. I used to think all writers were rich.
Now I know that most writers barely make a living from their work - so cash-wise they're poor.
But they're also rich: Rich in having time to do the thing they love, the pleasure of knowing they're doing work that their innermost core calls them to do, flexibility of working space and flexibility of working hours.
2. I used to think a writer could write anything they wanted.
But I soon found out if you want to be published by a regular publisher you need to take into account the word count publishers are looking for (especially for younger readers) and if you want to use your writing to express your ideals and be published by a regular publisher its better to do this subtly. (Of course with e-boooks you can do what you like!)
|Bella Donna's favourite meal|
My first book published was very close to my heart and expressed my life view and because it got published relatively easily I thought I could do that all the time - but my manuscripts then started to turn a bit crusader-ish and got turned down. I still want to share what I believe in but I put it within a fun story. My Megan Rix books are all about how amazing I think animals are. In November I took part in the World Vegan Month and blogged for Animal Aid. I realised that my characters in the Bella Donna books (apart from the cats) only ever eat vegan or vegetarian food - and that's how I'd like to be (I count myself as a nearly vegan as I can't always manage it.)
| is Munchkin|
3. I used to think once your first book was published it'd be plain sailing.
Hohoho! How wrong could I be. But not having my second or third novel manuscripts published was the best thing that could have happened because it meant I learnt to diversify and write for a range of ages and media and publishers rather than just one slot.
4. I used to think the writing life was easy.
5. I used to think you needed an agent.
But that isn't true. I think I'm up to my fifth agent now - one for children's books and one for adult non-fiction. I like having an agent because it lets me have more time to write and also gives me professional back-up, editorial help, sorts out my contracts and makes sure my finances are in order. But my first three books were published without having an agent so it isn't always true (and certainly not true now when you can publish yourself.)
What misconceptions did you have or maybe you went into writing with your eyes wide open - and if you did then good for you!
Ruth Symes website is Ruthsymes.com
and her Bella Donna website is Belladonnaseries.com
She also writes as Megan Rix
and her latest book 'The Great Escape' has been shortlisted for the East Sussex Children's Book Award.
When I visit schools I often tell the children how I had whooping cough when I was 8 and had to have a whole term off school. As it was pre-computer days, and my mum didn't want me watching too much TV, every week, and usually more than once a week, she'd bring me home all the library books she could and I’d read them all, along with lots of adult books including Reader's Digest versions of ‘A Town Like Alice’ and‘The Devil Rides Out’.
When I went back to school and took my end of year exams instead of being near the bottom of the class for English as I usually was I was pretty near the top - thanks to no schooling and tons of reading (I still had to have remedial maths for a term but then I caught up.) One of the books that sticks most clearly in my mind from that time was about a girl who's wandering round a market at the start of the summer holidays and somehow ends up with a magical cat. I don't know who it was by or remember
5 Comments on CAT MAGIC - Ruth Symes, last added: 8/1/2012
I am working on a new early chapter series (more details after the contract is signed!) and the first step is to nail down a series title.
What Makes a Good Series Overall Title?
Here’s some of the criteria we are thinking about as we work on a series title.
- Search Engines. The title must be easy for search engines to find. No funny spellings. Very obvious. Must be findable on Amazon and Google.
- Character Name v. Topical Titles. Many early reader series take the character’s name as a title for the series. Witness: Clementine, Judy Moody, Junie B. Jones or The Buddy Files. However, some take a more topical title, such as the Magic School Bus series, the classic Box Car Kids, or the Magic Tree House. We’re discussing which is more appropriate for this series.
- General enough, yet specific enough. The series title must be general enough to allow a variety of individual titles; yet it must be specific enough to individually identify this series from all others. Some suggested titles have been too specific, too restrictive. They would lock the series into certain areas and not allow for flexibility if the series takes off. Others are too general and don’t give enough of a flavor of what is happening in the series.
- Short, snappy. In all the above, we are keeping in mind that the series title must be memorable. Short is better, and something that trips off the tongue lightly.
- Fun. Of course, writing for the early elementary ages, it must be a fun title.
The individual titles will come later. For now, it is vitally important to nail this one.
I have been thinking recently about how disability is portrayed in children's books. This is partly because of a fascinating project I was involved in at the Foundling Museum, where I was invited to write from the perspective of a disabled child - read more here. I also went on a course about working with hearing or vision-impaired children which was truly "eye-opening" - never more so than when I was attempting various tasks with tunnel vision spectacles. All of which made me think about how disabled characters were portrayed in the books I read as a child. That involved a certain amount of head-scratching - after all as a reader you don't tend to categorise books as "including disability" (unless perhaps you are a drawing up one of those educational lists for schools). Instead you think of "books I loved" or "books that made me laugh"or "magical books" or "adventure stories". So it was intriguing to search around on my mental bookshelf from a new perspective.
Three of them jumped out at me. All books I read over and over again growing up, and all books from very different genres.
Warrior Scarlet by Rosemary Sutcliff
Set in the Bronze Age, this is the story of Drem, a boy whose right arm is useless, and who therefore faces the challenge of how he can become a full member of his tribe, when manhood initiation requires the slaying of a wolf. It is an exciting, but also very literary, densely descriptive read. The theme of "belonging" goes beyond disability to the issues of tribal identity and birthright.
What I never realised as a child was that Rosemary Sutcliff was herself severely disabled by a form of juvenile arthritis. She knew at first hand some of the struggles involved in being perceived as "different" and inevitably dependent on other people, and she writes insightfully and amusingly about some of her experiences here. Her childhood illnesses may well have contributed to the development of her rich imagination - which resulted in so many classic novels, the most famous of which, Eagle of the Ninth, has recently been made into a film.
Jill's Gymkhana by Ruby Ferguson
This is the first of the "Jill" books - one of the best-loved series of girls' pony stories, narrated by the witty and independent-minded Jill Crewe. This is exactly the kind of "series fiction" that is usually looked down upon by critics, and always ignored when it comes to prizes. But the Jill books are truly wonderful, often subversive and non-stereotypical, and so it is no surprise that Jill's riding teacher should be a wheelchair user, Martin Lowell.
Jill can't afford riding lessons so it is her good luck that she bumps into Martin, formerly an expert rider who has been injured in a crash. At first she does not even notice he is in a wheelchair. Martin
There are two types of book series:
- Set Series - the kind with a set number of books planned from the beginning.
These are the series where every single book has a complete plot arc (or should), and then the overarching series also has a plot arc. The best example that every one will instantly understand would be the Harry Potter books. In each book there's a plot (Harry getting the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry saving Ginny from the Chamber, Harry competing in the Tri-Wizard Tournament, etc.), but the series itself has an overall plot (Harry vs. Voldemort). From the beginning, there were going to be 7 Harry books, and by golly, (even if some of them got kind of long) there were 7 Harry books. Other examples of series like this would be the Percy Jackson books, the Series of Unfortunate Events books, and locally, The Forgotten Worlds Series from CBAY.
- Open-ended Series - the kind where each book is its own stand-alone adventure.
In these books, you can have as many adventures as you can think up. The only thing that carries over are the characters. Beloved by book packagers and the ghost-writing teams, these series can literally go on indefinitely. The most famous are the various series produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate (Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Bobsbey Twins, etc.) However, there are also modern day versions like The Babysitter's Club (who may or may not be written personally by Martin -- I won't pretend to know) and many chapter book series written by a single author like the Magic Treehouse Books and, my favorites, the Judy Moody books.
And just like there are two kinds of series, there are two ways you can write a series summary:
- One paragraph summaries
This is where you write a one paragraph summary for each one of your proposed books in the series. In these small summaries you need to detail the major plot arc in its entirety. So, yes, you will need to give the plot away. This type of summary is appropriate for both set and open-ended types of series. However, if you are doing an open-ended series and dream of some day producing 46 books, do not try to think up a summary for 46 books. Limit yourself to around 5 for now.
- Full page summary
This is where you write a one page summary of your the overreaching plot of your series. Exactly like a one page summary of a single book, this is a short-story summarized version of what the overall series plot arc will be. Obviously, this style of summary only works with a set series.
Like one paragraph and one page summaries for books, series summaries can be difficult to write. However, if you plan to do a series, at some point (unless you already have the entire series written and sometimes even then), you will have to do one of these. No one is going to contract a whole series without an idea of where it is going or the kind of books you are going to do.
So, over at the forum
I have set up a board for folks to practice their series summaries. And even if you aren't working on a series at the moment, this might be a good time to make one up. You never know when you might have characters you are so in love with that you want to keep writing about them.
For younger and older readers here are books that they will surely enjoy.
Series books are great, especially because if the readers enjoy the title they will want the next one.
For independent readers:
(Conspiracy 365 #8), Gabrielle Lord (Scholastic)
6 August, 148 days to go ....
Overpowering fear and worry about Gabbi had me pacing the room, desperately looking around for an escape. Together with the loss of the Ormond Riddle and the Ormond Jewel, and the long hours of boredom, it took everything I had not to start kicking the door and screaming my head off.
But the days I spent in this room had helped me get clear about one thing: I had to get away from this hospital .....
Callum is trapped underground, buried alive, and his friends Boges and winter are trying to find where he has been buried.
This is a fantastic read. The titles (and this is number 8 in the series, naturally) are absolutely absorbing reads. Kids - especially boys, love the adventure and the fast paced action. There is always a twist or a turn in every book and of course the reader is left wondering what is going to happen to Callum in September!
(The Dragons #2), Colin Thompson (Random House)
Hooray -- for the wonderful Days of yore have begun. Peace has settled and dragons are no longer at war with humans for
I like series fiction. Or, at least, I like the series fiction I like: Discworld; Jeeves and Wooster; Narnia; The Church Mice; The Sandman... It’s a lovely feeling when, browsing the shelves in the library, I come across an unfamiliar volume of a well-loved series.
And I like writing sequels. Zeus on the Loose and Zeus to the Rescue will next year be joined by Zeus Sorts It Out, and I’m currently working on a couple more ideas about the egocentric deity and his long-suffering high priest. Jack Slater, Monster Investigator returned last year in Jack Slater and the Whisper of Doom. Bansi O’Hara and the Bloodline Prophecy is soon to be followed by Bansi O’Hara and the Edges of Hallowe’en.
I would, however, hate it if someone decreed that from now on series fiction was the only legitimate form and no-one was allowed to read, write or publish anything else. Just imagine a world in which such a law had always existed: a world in which Hardy’s The Return of the Native came between The Native and The Native Returns Again; in which Watership Down was followed by Watership Up and Watership Left A Bit; in which Treasure Island was but one book in the Treasure Archipelago series. A world, in other words, which had no room for the stand-alone novel.
Of course, that would be ridiculous.
And yet... it would appear that something not a million miles away from this is happening in children’s books, or at least in books aimed at the newly-confident reader. It seems as if, no matter what I submit at the moment, the question comes back: “But does it have series potential?” A quick glance at my ‘recent rejections’ file comes up with this sort of thing:
“We all enjoyed reading this... The writing is really good... pitched at the right age range... very much like Roald Dahl... the main problem was that we can't see this working well over a series”
“utterly charming... truly very funny... loved the concept...What we’ve had a little difficulty seeing past is how to truly make this into a series.”
This can’t be right. I know there are economic imperatives to consider, but surely there are also cultural imperatives? Should we be teaching newly confident readers that all good things come ready-branded; that no story is self-contained; that one is never enough? Can’t we make children into readers without also turning them into consumers?
Worse, I suspect that for certain publishers the ideal is a series which can be pitched in a maximum of three words, and which combines two concepts from a limited and familiar range. Superhero Pirates! Football-playing Dinosaurs! Vampire Fairies! Ponies in Space! Better yet, slap some vapid c
I've been on the beach for the last few days for a little fun on the sun and a wedding. I had never been to Yelapa before, and it was a very neat little, secluded place.
I had intended to get lots of reading done, but the place had such a high, never-ending humidity, that I was afraid to get my reader out. It ended up spending the entire vacation hiding in a dry bag in my luggage. On the plus side, it still works. On the negative side, I didn't get much done.
Instead I read the first two books in Pullman's Sally Lockhart series. I had read them before, but I couldn't remember them. I also knew that I never read the third book, and I wasn't sure why.
Now I know. After reading the first 2 books, I don't feel any need to read the third book. I had it with me, and I tried to start it, but I just didn't get into it. In fact, I went and bought an adult mystery at the Borders in the Phoenix airport.
I hate that I don't want to finish the series (especially since I already bought all the books). I'm a completist and dislike not finishing what I've started. It's going to have to join the ranks of series like the Ulysses Moore series or the Warriors of even the Gossip Girls where I just didn't feel the need to read after a certain book.
What series have you not felt the need to get past the first, second, or third book?
Hank Zipzer is billed as the "world's greatest underachiever," because he has learning differences that make school more difficult for him than it is for other kids. This is actually #11 in the series and I can't wait to read more of these middle grade novels. Hank reminds me of several boys I've known including one of my sons. Based on the true-life adventures of Henry Winkler, Hank and his adventures are brought to life by the talented co-writers Lin Oliver and Henry Winkler - both accomplished story tellers. They write with humor and absolute veracity about something that didn't even really have a name or a diagnosis 30 years ago.
We know a lot more about how the brain works now and conditions such as dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and various kinds of information processing challenges. We have a vocabulary, diagnostic tests, and teachers trained to recognize symptoms of learning challenges in the early grades. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to being "labeled," but whether there are actually more cases of learning differences now or we are just getting better at diagnosing them, it is rare that teachers don't have at least one student in their class and in some cases, several students struggling with a learning disability of one sort or another.
Brain research has helped us learn much more about how and when human beings learn. Even without learning challenges, everyone has a preferred learning style and our optimal learning occurs in a multi-sensory way - by reading, listening, doing, reflecting.
What is great about this novel is that the characters, situations, and dialog all resonate. The story is skillfully told and the situations and characters are believable. Certainly, anyone who has helped a child struggle with learning differences will see that story reflected here. And, it's not just about the learning difficulty itself, it's also about self-perception, and coping with other people and their expectations. And for "tweens" there is the social aspect of not being perceived as different that is still as important as it's always been.
With his lead in the school production of "Anna and the King" at stake, Hank must score a B+ on the math test or his father won't let him stay in the play. Hank works with his peer tutor, Heather, who always acted "like her braids were pulled too tight." Hank's typical dance-and-duck response to uncomfortable situations is to be the class joker. But by using stacks of library books, Heather finds a concrete way to explain long division so that Hank finally gets it. We are as happy as he is at his "Eureka" moment.
"Seeing the answer to the math problem right there in front of me was like a door opening and letting light into my big, dark brain. My head couldn't visualize the numbers on the page, or understand the fancy math words. But I could see the books, count the books, and figure out the answer that was right in front of my eyes!" This AHA moment is what every teacher lives for. It's why they put up with everything they do to stay in the classroom. And good teachers, even a "peer" teacher in this case, will figure out what they have to do to convey the learning in a way the student can understand.
Series fiction allows writers to develop a character over time and multiple stories. For kids captivated by a character, it is almost impossible to have too many stories. I inhaled Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Cherry Lane, Black Beauty and other series when I was a tween. For kids who see their story reflected in Hank Zipzer, there are many opportunities to see him react to different situations throughout the 14 books of the series - so far. Visit Hank's website and share his stories with some of the learners in your family.
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Consumer choice and publisher dilemma in the era of Google Book Search
Google announced plans a few months ago to roll out “100% online access” in Google Book Search (GBS).
Currently, Google (and Microsoft with its Live Book search) have full book contents on their servers which are indexed for the purpose of discoverability (See the ABC’s of GBS – Part 1) (more…)