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How To Create Imaginary Creatures For Your Fantasy Novel

Your character is sprinting down a dark tunnel, footsteps crashing against the hard stone and echoing all around. The tunnel opens wide, a ledge rapidly approaches – this is the lair! Your character slides to a stop and sees… what? Something awe-inspiring? Something terrifying? Perhaps both?  All readers, and indeed writers, love nothing more than seeing fresh and exciting fantasy beasts and mythical beings in their books. The presence of unique, creative monsters and imaginary races emboldens any fantasy, sci-fi, gothic or horror story. Their presence brings a book’s setting to life, inspiring questions of how they came to be, and how the inhabitants of that world interact with them - or not.   Imaginary literary creatures also massively inform a story’s plot and even enhance character, whilst being wonderful vehicles for symbolism and allegory.  So, as a writer, how do you get your monster right?   What Are Fantasy Creatures? Fantasy creatures are nothing new. Monsters made from our imagination have been around as long as the humans who created them.  When it comes to inspiration, the greatest place to start is in the past and studying the legends that have inspired many an iconic story and influenced human civilisations. Every country in the world has its own myths and legends, and in turn, its own fantastical beasts.  Take the Twelve Labours of Heracles from Ancient Greece. They are rife with legendary beasts based on very real creatures from our world, such as the Nemean Lion. What makes the Nemean Lion mythical is the small but important detail that its golden fur is impenetrable, so it could not be killed by conventional means. This elevates the labour of the hero by heightening the stakes and presenting a unique challenge for them to overcome.  Another of the monsters, the Hydra, has inspired many terrifying literary monsters. A highly venomous snake-like beast with many heads, it seems imposing enough upon first glance, but when we realise that its heads grow back after being cut off – then it becomes a true terror (anyone spot the similarities between the Hydra and Hagrid’s three-headed dog, Fluffy, in the Harry Potter series?).  Moving away from Greece, we find all sorts of mythical creatures in the infamous Chinese tale Journey to the West. Not only are there dragons, demon kings and ogres, but also a jade rabbit spirit, great white turtle and, above all, the protagonist is the cheeky, troublemaking Monkey King, Sun Wukong.  Norse mythology has frost giants, a giant wolf, undead Draugar, dwarves, elves and even the Mare – a monster that would give people bad dreams by sitting on them in their sleep (I wonder which Norseman’s sleep paralysis conjured that up!).   In Norse myth especially, the design of the creatures was directly used to inform their society and beliefs. Back then townsfolk would wear metal rings around their arms depicting Jormungandr, the great snake that represented the circle of life by biting its own tail. They would swear oaths to their gods, believing they would be protected. In those times, the creatures they created weren’t myths, but real monsters and deities that delivered cautionary tales.  There are mythical creatures in every culture – and all of them are exceptional in their own way. They are often reminiscent of terrifying or intriguing creatures in our real-world or derived from their mythical precursors. And almost all of these fantastical creatures have wound their way into unforgettable fantasy settings, both in our much-loved classics and modern storytelling.  But do these monsters make a difference? In short, yes.  Benefits Of Using Unique Fantasy Creatures In Your Novel As we excitedly plunge into the vibrant ocean of fantasy creatures, we should take a step back and try to understand what they bring to our stories.  Often a character’s interaction with a fantasy creature will form part of the plot. If we take the earlier example of the Hydra and Nemean Lion, Heracles daubs his arrows in the Hydra’s venomous blood and wears the impenetrable hide of the lion as a cloak. As you can imagine, both concepts have been used in numerous fantasy stories since.  A great deal of exploration of the human soul can be done with monster stories too. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we get an insight into love, abandonment and discrimination through the lens of a horrifying creature. The monster, as it’s known in the tale, receives its own chapters demonstrating how it thinks and feels. Shelley’s work was a remarkable forerunner for stories using fantasy creatures as a lens of symbolism and theme, such as Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling.  The existence of a unique fantasy creature, in turn, makes your story unique too. This extends to mythical races such as elves and orcs. Take Lord of the Rings as an example. Would Tolkien’s famous world have had half the cultural impact were it only filled with squabbling human races?  Even in a more grounded fantasy setting, such as George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (the series that conjured A Game of Thrones) - if we were to remove Targaryen Dragons and White Walkers, would it be the same?  So many mythical creatures have become iconic to the point where their world-building has become canon. Vampires, werewolves, dragons, krakens, and probably a dozen more you’re cursing me for not mentioning.  The truth of the matter is that what makes a fantasy tale stand above the crowd is the strength of its creatures, and how they are used. An unforgettable fantasy world is built of many bricks, but it is the consistency and uniqueness of its creatures that glues those bricks together.  So how do we bring originality to our own creatures?   How To Create Unique Fantasy Creatures As all writers know, creating something truly unique is a near-impossible task. But don’t be disheartened, as it doesn’t take much to mould something that already exists into something new and gruesome.   Let’s take a look at six ways of doing that:  1. Combine More Than One Magical Element  Let us take the story of the Nemean Lion mentioned earlier. The story uses a very real creature (a lion) but adds the small tweak of its golden fur being impenetrable.   We can do the same thing. What if we take a boar, but say its tusks can conjure lightning? If we want whimsy, what if a character has to catch a quite ordinary-looking mouse, but this mouse weighs as much as an elephant?  In a similar vein, many mythical creatures are mashups of two real creatures. The Chimera was depicted as a fire-breathing lion, with the head of a goat protruding from its back, and a venomous snake as its tail. What if we gave the horn of a rhino to a horse? What if we gave sharks wings? You get the picture… 2. Make Them Human  The term ‘uncanny valley’ (the relationship between the human-like appearance of a robotic object and the emotional response it evokes) is a wonderful tool to use when trying to understand what makes something scary. Taking something into that uncanny valley – that halfway point between familiar and unnatural – plays on some of the deepest shared human fears.  When a werewolf is turned by a full moon, we can’t help but remember who they were as a human. Vampires are so tantalising but unnerving because they can present themselves as humans, but they kill in such a gruesome way. Creatures like Pennywise from Stephen King’s IT tap into that uncanny valley all the time. As would a human who crawls like a spider, or a woman who glides instead of walks, or a child with buttons for eyes (thank you, Neil Gaiman). 3. Give Your Monsters Motivation  Or better yet, an origin story.  Fantasy creatures and monsters are often the villains of a novel, so why not give them depth and complexity? It could be argued supervillains like The Joker, from Batman, or Thanos, from The Avengers, are monsters in their own rights.   Both have penetrated the modern zeitgeist thanks to their detailed backstory and purposeful (or anarchic) motivations. It’s often not enough to make your scary creature bad, if you give them a good enough reason it heightens the stakes and creates discomfort in your readers as they start to question their own morals (perhaps even the monster within themselves).  4. Give Them A Home Where does your monster live? In its own world? In ours? Or maybe both? Ask yourself what’s scarier, or a bigger challenge, for your characters.  Trans-dimensional monsters are cropping up more and more often in books, TV and film, providing great inspiration for writers. In the Netflix show, Stranger Things, the Demogorgon monster moves between a rural 80s US town and a mouldy mirrored world known as the ‘Upside Down’.  Having contrasting locations (much like foil characters) not only brings style to the story, but also provides parameters and boundaries for your creature. How the creature interacts with our own world will influence the plot, how it behaves, and ultimately how the hero will defeat it.  5. Ask Yourself If The Creature Is Even Needed (Or If You’re Just Having Fun) Is your creature simply another barrier in your hero’s quest? Are they an integral part of that world? Are they crucial to the plot? Perhaps they’re only there to deliver a message to your reader (or even character).  Whatever their purpose, how and why you have created this fantastical being will change the attributes you give it and how/where it’s featured in your story. We all love a great monster, but a monster for a monster’s sake doesn’t make for a great story. In fact, it may do the opposite, and detract your reader so much from the main plot they stop caring about your hero altogether. 6. Use Nature To Inspire You As the old adage goes, ‘fact can be scarier than fiction’. You don’t have to look far in the world of animals, plants and unusual habitats, to find inspiration. Mermaids have strong ties to manatees, vampires were inspired by bats, and even something as simple as Jaws, a shark that looks like a shark and acts like a shark but is just really big and really mean, was enough to make an entire generation scared of the water.   Fascinating creatures exist all over our natural world, especially in the depths of the ocean or in uninhabitable rainforests. So get searching and add some of nature’s wonders to your own monsters.  Our Monster Checklist Once you have come up with your fantastical concept, take a look at our checklist to ensure your creature is consistent within your world and story.  Here are some things to consider:  What are its strengths and weaknesses? Vital in any potential confrontation with a creature, we must know what makes it a threat, what makes it special and what might bring it low. Your hero has to overcome it after all.  What does it look like? Consider how many limbs it has, its facial structure, if it has skin or fur, its colouring and textures. A big one for me is eyes – missing eyes can be uncanny, beady eyes feels insectoid, large eyes feels cute (perhaps as a trap). How large is the creature?  A seemingly inane question, but an important one. If the world is filled with enormous titans, what is their food source? If there isn’t one, are they going extinct? Or, if a creature is tiny, how does it overcome larger foe? Does it exist in a swarm? How intelligent is the creature? In some stories dragons are devastating monsters that never speak a word and sleep on their treasure horde. In others, they talk and even participate in society. Has your creature learned to avoid mortal society? Or have they learned to infiltrate it…or rule it? How old is the creature? This works both for individual creatures and for a species. If a creature lives for millennia, how has it changed? What has it lived through? If a species has existed for only a few centuries, why? Did they have precursors they evolved from? Are they hunted? Particularly for dangerous creatures, are the societies around them large and advanced enough to undertake hunts to cull them? If yes, why has this particular creature survived?  How does it interact with other creatures in the story? Is it adversarial to your protagonist but buddies with everyone else? Does it forge a bond with your protagonist only? Maybe it’s not a scary monster but a kind and helpful one? Name? With some fantastical creatures the name can come first, but it’s always important to consider why it has the name it does. Did it claim its own name, or did others give it the name? Does it have different names in different cultures? Fantasy Generators If you want a jumping-off point for creating a fantasy creature, don’t be afraid to use an online fantasy creatures generator.  A few good ones include:  For generating names, story concepts, plot obstacles – it has a little bit of everything! A direct fantast creatures generator. For generating ideas and briefs for creatures. For help with fantasy creatures names’.  But do remember, when using these generators, you don’t have to stick to the ideas they give you!  Often the best way to use a fantasy creatures generator is to cherry-pick what you like and drop what you don’t. If you’re generating a name and like the suffix but not the main body of the word, keep the suffix and either come up with the rest yourself, or combine it with a body you like elsewhere in the generated list. Likewise with creature skills, weaknesses, looks and so on.  Conclusion Fantasy creatures have become truly iconic over the years. Having such a rich depth of reference points at our fingertips (from classic books and modern movies, to disturbing works of art and the internet) only makes our jobs as authors more fun.   Never has so much inspiration for such creatures been so accessible, across all cultures. And never before has such strong support existed for adventurous authors wanting to carve their own take on old monsters, as well as feature their own culture and legends into their own work.   So, when creating your fantastical monsters, remember that the sky is the limit. And for some truly horrifying creatures… there’s no limit at all as to how far you can go to make sure we never forget them. Jericho Writers is a global membership group for writers, providing everything you need to get published. Keep up with our news, membership offers, and updates by signing up to our newsletter. For more writing articles take a look at our blog page or join our free writer\'s community. 

How To Write A Wonderful Picture Book

From Allan Ahlberg to Dr Seuss, picture books matter because they create the foundations of a child’s reading life – and you never know what a difference your own book could make. Once upon a bicycle, so they say, a jolly postman came one day, from over the hills and far away. Or: I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-am! Or:  Silly old Fox, doesn’t he know, there’s no such thing as a Gruffalo. These are just a few of the all-time classics, quotes that stick in your head long after you\'ve stopped reading the books yourself only to come back around when you hear them read to children later in life or even read them yourself to your kids. As such, there’s a timelessness to children’s picture books, which makes them great to write – and a picture book draft is a draft like no other. Read on for valuable tips on how to create a picture book that children will love for generations to come. Tip #1: Write Memorable Characters A sure-fire way to delight children of all ages is to populate your book with joyful characters like the Enormous Crocodile, Winnie the Witch, the Highway Rat, Sam-I-Am, Sir Charlie Stinky Socks, or Spot the Dog. Start by asking yourself if there\'s an animal or idea you feel an affinity for. Then, start to create connections from there! Let’s say you’ll write about a puppy. Maybe from there you’ll think up a chewed-up toy he’s attached to. Or a child (maybe his owner) he wants to follow to school. There’s all sorts of links to be mind-mapping from this. Sometimes, a simpler story is what works best, too. An enormous crocodile who wants a child for dinner (The Enormous Crocodile). A postman delivering letters to the Big Bad Wolf, to the Witch, to Baby Bear, Goldilocks and Cinderella (The Jolly Postman). Aliens who come to earth to wear underpants (Aliens Love Underpants). Also, who will meet who? The jolly Postman meets fairy tale characters. Max meets the Wild Things (Where the Wild Things are). Jemima Puddle-Duck meets a fox (The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck). Mouse meets Gruffalo (The Gruffalo). The very hungry Caterpillar meets chocolate cake, ice-cream cones, pickles and cheese (The Very Hungry Caterpillar). Most children remember iconic characters like the Cat in the Hat as they grow up, long after all the rhythmic intricacies have faded from mind (vital as these are; much as the rhymes of Dr Seuss or Julia Donaldson linger with us, too). Try to give your characters a quirk – a Cat with a hat, Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit with his blue jacket, Aliens who love (and wear) Underpants, or the more unusual fairy tale characters from Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. Create vivid characters to linger in children’s minds, whom they’ll want to return to. Tip #2: Repetition Speaking of returning, repetition might be discouraged in fiction writing -- but not in picture books. Repetition is a source of huge fun and suspense for children, reeling in attention and building anticipation. In Funny Bones, for example, Allan Ahlberg opens the story with relish: In a dark, dark town there was a dark, dark street, and in the dark, dark street there was a dark, dark house, and in the dark, dark house there were some dark, dark stairs, and down the dark, dark stairs there was a dark, dark cellar, and in the dark, dark cellar … three skeletons lived! By the time we get to those skeletons, we’re very ready to meet them and spend time with them! In The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, a caterpillar gets hungrier and hungrier. Each day, ‘he was still hungry’. We’re told (and want to know) about his increasing amount of foods and what’s eaten each day, until the caterpillar gets stomach ache. There’s a rhythmic quality to repetition, too, e.g. descriptions in The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson, where the Gruffalo, in Mouse’s descriptions, has ‘terrible tusks and terrible claws, and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws’. Later he has ‘knobbly knees, and turned-out toes, and a poisonous wart at the end of his nose’. After the build-up, it’s an exciting moment when we and Mouse get face-to-face with the Gruffalo in the woods. Tip #3: Strong Beginnings And Fun Endings It\'s true for any kind of writing, but with children it\'s even more-so: if you don\'t grab the reader right away, they\'re gone. So be sure that your beginning comes out of the gate strong and exciting, giving a sense of the story and the character and the world all in a few lines. And then, when you get to the ending, keep in mind that kids are smarter than they get credit for. Don\'t be afraid of a surprise ending, something that might make them (or their parents) laugh -- because that positive last experience will be the thing that keeps bringing them back to your book over and over again. Tip #4: Rhyme And Rhythm Rhyming in picture books means additional care and work – and you can still create wonderful rhythm in prose without rhyme – yet rhyme is still worth exploring if you’re confident or just passionate about doing this. If poetry is something you\'re familiar with, crack on! If it\'s new to you, let\'s take a moment to explore: The most common rhyme style, the one Shakespeare often used, is called \'iambic pentameter\' -- a line of ten syllables, alternating stressed and unstressed. Think about the sound of a human heart and you\'ve got it: Da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM. That’s all it takes! Ten syllables or five iambic \'feet\' to create your framework. There are other forms of poetic styles you could also try writing, and Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled is a good book to invest in if you’re keen to be exploring this. You may also like to invest in a copy of The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary to help you. Children’s publisher Nosy Crow has written a great blog post on rhyming in children’s books, well worth a read, too. Tip #5: Writing A Good Baddie Not every story needs a villain, but if you\'re thinking about a story that includes one, the best way to write ‘baddies’ and darker elements in picture books is to make these elements comic. Take the scariness out so that children laugh instead. For example, Roald Dahl’s comic gift lies in the mischief of books like The Enormous Crocodile, about a thwarted crocodile looking for a yummy child to eat (before he’s smacked into the sun). Dahl’s crocodile is only funny because he\'s painted as an object of fun. The rest of the jungle hates him, and after the crocodile finds the children, jungle animals appear in turn to warn them to look out. Finally, the elephant hurls the crocodile by his tail up into the sky – where he’s ‘sizzled up like a sausage’. A similar thing happens when the Mouse makes the scary Gruffalo convinced he’s the monster, and ‘now my tummy’s beginning to rumble – my favourite food is – Gruffalo Crumble!\' -- and off the Gruffalo runs. Don’t Eat the Teacher by Nick Ward is also hilarious, even if it wouldn’t very funny in real life. Sammy the Shark happily eats everything on his first day of school because he’s so excited, which translates into hilarity. Skeletons (Funny Bones), witches (Winnie the Witch), monsters (Where the Wild Things are), or vampires and werewolves (Well, I Never!) are absolutely ‘writable’ in picture books. Just remember to translate that darkness into something funny and silly. You need to make your readers laugh. Tip #6: Thinking About Illustration Are you wondering if you need to illustrate your own picture book? A picture book is often a collaborative book between writer and illustrator. Sometimes writers are also illustrators, like Maurice Sendak -- but often, we think of the great duos like Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake, or Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. If you can\'t draw a lick, don\'t worry! You don\'t always need an illustrator to write your picture book, and a good publisher can match you to the right artist for bringing your story to life. Keep in mind that you should keep the in-text descriptions sparse where you know pictures will be conveying details, too. A reasonable word limit for your picture book should be about 700 words – but that should be enough to give illustrators an idea of what they need to depict. Tip #7: Read It Aloud Whether you\'re writing in rhyme or not, you should read your work aloud as you\'re working on it! After all, most children\'s books are read aloud at one point or another -- by parents, by teachers, by librarians, even by precocious children themselves -- and you\'ll know when you read it what\'s working and what\'s not. If you have them available, it\'s worth it to read other picture books as well. Consider it market research: you\'ll get a sense of what works to you, what excites your ear -- and if your inner child is into your work just like it was into Dr. Seuss or Maurice Sendak (or whomever else!), then you\'re on the right path for sure. Happy writing!! If you\'re looking for a bit more support, consider our picture book course and peek at our interview with Pippa Goodhart. If you’re further along than that, and in need of editorial feedback for your picture book, you’ve come to the right place, too. We can\'t wait to read your tale (aloud)! Jericho Writers is a global membership group for writers, providing everything you need to get published. Keep up with our news, membership offers, and updates by signing up to our newsletter. For more writing articles take a look at our blog page or join our free writer\'s community. 

What Is Middle Grade Fiction?

How aware are you of the market you’re writing for? Despite the MG label being reserved for readers aged 8-12, defining Middle Grade literature is tricky. Many young gifted readers will move out of picture books and onto Middle Grade fiction before aged 8. Other readers aged 12 or older still happily peruse Middle Grade books. This is no ‘one size fits all’ age group. (Just as for adults, there’s no ‘correct’ genre, only taste.) Books are all being tested, tried out, at Middle Grade. This outlines some things worth remembering if you’d like to write for the loose label of this age range and find out more about the world of Middle Grade fiction publishing. 1: Read All The Middle Grade Fiction You Can – And Make Sure It’s Relevant Read the popular fiction you know is being read now by this age group. Perhaps you’ve heard of L.M. Montgomery or Lewis Carroll, Anne of Green Gables or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but have you heard of Jeff Kinney, author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Katherine Rundell, author of Rooftoppers,  or R.J. Palacio, author of Wonder? If not, and you want to write for MG readers, start learning these popular authors writing in the market today. Begin reading their books, especially, the sorts of books you’d like to be writing yourself. Children aren’t hypocrites, and they won’t wait for pace to pick up or give a book a chance if they’re not gripped immediately. Agents, librarians, and Middle grade fiction publishers – the curators and ‘gatekeepers’ of children’s’ fiction – will be thinking along these lines. You’ll need to know what books prospective readers are reading, so understand these titles to understand your audience. Popular books are reflective of tastes. What common themes are there? Which characters seem to appeal, and which common elements do you sense are enjoyed, and which could you emulate yourself? You’ll need your novel similar enough and yet entirely original. You must create a book that fits into the market, but is different enough to pique readers’ curiosities. There are many books published about animals, for instance, like The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo, or The River Singers by Tom Moorhouse. There are many books about dragons, like Eragon by Christopher Paolini, Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke, How To Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell, or The Dragons of Kilve Court by Beth Webb, to name a few more. If you are writing a book about dragons, animals, or anything else, how will you differentiate your story and make it authentic, whilst still similarly appealing to all these books readers enjoy? It’s a difficult balance to find, but reading currently popular Middle Grade titles will help. 2: Engage With Complexity Certain tropes – animal stories, fairy stories – will likely hold appeal always and be revisited by authors and publishers time and again. All the same, don’t take this to feel that anything will do, or that writing for children is easier than writing for adults. It isn’t. As Joan Aiken, author of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, has said, a good children’s book ‘should not be perfunctory, meaningless, flat.’ Again, reading and developing your awareness of the market is key. Look for richness. Whilst some children will always be more sensitive than others, most can handle the thrills and scares of Middle Grade fiction. Yours aren’t picture book readers, where any darker elements need to be sillier, funnier for very small children to read about. The success of books like Lauren Oliver’s Liesl and Po, or Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book shows that MG readers are often braver than adults may credit. In Liesl and Po, Liesl is held captive in her attic room, whilst The Graveyard Book’s macabre premise is set chiefly in a cemetery and about an orphan raised by ghosts, yet is still moving and punctured with hilarity. You’ll need to (gently) indicate to these children the world isn’t simplistic. Your readers are flexing and growing their imaginations. Jacqueline Wilson is just one writer exploring children’s issues sensitively through the eyes of her characters; like Andy facing parents’ divorce in The Suitcase Kid, Mandy facing bullies in Bad Girls, or Tracey facing foster care in The Story of Tracey Beaker. The voices of her protagonists are authentic, her stories never condescending. ‘If I write about a problem, I’d like to find some solutions,’ Wilson has said of her fiction. She shares hope. There’s no need to worry you’ll be dampening moods by engaging with complexity, either. You might be writing the book someone needs. Children look for literature tying in with their experiences, as well as exploring new experiences outside their own. A book could just help change a life. Alternatively, engage in pure, unbridled imagination to enhance and help build children’s imaginative faculties, like Haroun leaving this world on the back of a mechanical bird in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, or Colin Meloy’s Prue and Curtis discovering Wildwood. Whatever you write, you should always find means to convey that the world is a sprawling, dark and complex place. Children are growing, but they’re tough, sharper than some adults allow, and this audience mustn’t be underestimated. 3: Leave Room For Diversity Whilst there are topics which might not be appropriate for younger children, there’s no need to render books didactic, and many things are writable for younger audiences if they’re written with grace and deftness. Again, to have an idea of what this deftness may look like, you’ll have to read around. Read David Walliams’ The Boy in the Dress, Donna Gephart’s Lily and Dunkin, or The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman. Children needn’t grow up with adult prejudices, biases that perhaps otherwise wouldn’t occur to them. Another means of handling issues, of course, is to dress them up in fantasy. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets are the only clear Middle Grade titles of J.K. Rowling’s series. The series, from an early point, has helped increase tolerance in young readers, dealing frequently  with the stigmas attached unfairly to groups (i.e. to Muggles, and to house-elves in the case of Dobby and the Malfoys). These themes are implicit early on, unpacked later; but at the close of the second book, Harry has compassion on Dobby, rescuing him with ‘clothes’. Stories can therefore lay the foundations of empathy and acceptance in the real world – and this is a big thought. You have some responsibility as a writer. Beware overt morals, beware didacticism, and write a story with implicit themes that explores, questions, shines a light and encourages contemplation. (Yes, they’re young. They can handle it.) 4: Remember What Children Are Reading For Know your audience. You can’t write about living in a child’s shoes unless you know or can remember well. If you can’t remember or don’t care, find someone else to write for. Middle Grade readers are reading to explore, to flex imagination, and to discover the world. They’ll be open to new worlds and dynamic characters, to hilarity and thrills, adventure and enchantment. Write to appease these traits and to open minds (as opposed to informing them, unless you’re writing non-fiction, which is very different). If you need more advice on your novel, a manuscript assessment can give you invaluable feedback with insights into commercial perspective driving Middle Grade publishing. It’ll help you harness your own voice in a way that sounds both raw and compelling in Middle Grade fiction. Or for more encouragement and inspiration, take a look at more free advice. Happy writing! Jericho Writers is a global membership group for writers, providing everything you need to get published. Keep up with our news, membership offers, and updates by signing up to our newsletter. For more writing articles take a look at our blog page or join our free writer\'s community. 

How To Write A Children’s Book: All You Need To Know

There are some people who will tell you that writing a children’s book is really easy. I mean – they’re shorter than books for adults, right? Wrong. Writing children\'s books is actually a lot harder than it looks! In this article I will be explaining what it takes to write great children\'s books, how to avoid classic mistakes and how to get your book published. How To Write A Children’s Book In 10 Steps: Know the children’s book marketRead contemporary children’s booksHave a unique ideaCreate relatable charactersPlot using character arcsFind a captivating voiceUse settings and experiences kids recogniseWrite and re-write!Avoid classic mistakes all new writers makeGet an agent Writing books for children isn’t an easy alternative to writing a long adult novel - in fact writing a book in fewer words is harder than churning out a lengthy tome. There are a whole host of new things you have to consider when writing for children that wouldn’t cross the mind of an adult novelist. How do I know? Well, I’ve been writing books for children and young adults since I was just a kid myself. When I began, I thought it was going to be easy, too. Three dead books, over fifty rejections and fourteen years later – I realised that it was a whole lot harder than it looks. Writing Your First Children\'s Book Sometimes, in the world of writing, you need to stop. Take a deep breath. And change tactics. And that\'s exactly what I did. Instead of giving up after so many set backs I sat down and I followed a set of rules to write a book for Young Adults called ‘Outside’. I sent it to an agent, who offered me representation within forty-four minutes of receiving it. And in January 2019, it was published in the UK by Penguin. Writing for children is hard. But you’ve got this. And this blog is going to tell you exactly what you need to write a book that children (and publishers) will love. And even though it’s going to be a difficult ride, I think you’re secretly going to love every minute of it – just like I did. So, where do you start? 1. Know The Children’s Book Market ‘Children’ isn’t a very defined audience. Within that category, you have babies and toddlers (board books and picture books), young children (early reader, chapter books, and middle grade), all the way through to teenagers - from those starting secondary school to those about to leave for university (teen and young adult books). Children’s books are as rich and diverse as children themselves, so it’s absolutely essential that you know exactly what kind of children you are writing for. The market tends to shift every few years, but in general, the categories within children’s books look a bit like this: Picture Books (0 – 5 years) Between 300 – 1000 words, depending on who the book is aimed at (babies 300, toddlers 500, pre-schoolers 1000).Early Readers (5 – 7 years) Less than 10,000 words. These books can be illustrated and are divided up into chapters.Lower Middle Grade (7 – 9 years) Between 10,000 – 30,000, depending on the reading age they are best suited for. The lower the reading age, the lower the word count.Middle Grade (9 – 11 years) Between 30,000 and 60,000. There is a bit more room in Middle Grade to push the boundaries of wordcount and theme, within reason.Teen (12+ years) Usually around 60,000, but there are books in this category as low as 40,000 and as high as 90,000!YA / Crossover (14+ years) Over 60,000 words. Fantasy books in this category can push the wordcount to more like 90,000, but usually around 60,000 – 70,000 is the magic number. As you can see, books for younger children are much shorter. To write picture books, you don’t have to rhyme, or even know an illustrator (in fact, some agents prefer writers to submit text minus any artwork, as they find it easier to match these with their own illustrators later). You do need to be able to tell a story that will make adults and babies feel all the feels though, within a very short word count. If you ask me, writing picture books might well be the hardest of all of these to perfect – and is one of the most competitive, too. Between ages 7 and 11, the reading ages start to shift. You might have an 8-year-old reading a book written for an 11-year-old, and that is okay! At this point, it’s worth thinking about things in terms of ‘Reading Age’ rather than actual age. Early Readers are for children who are just learning to read, and Lower Middle-Grade tends to be lighter, funny reads. Middle-Grade books are booming at the moment and are often read for pleasure by adults, too (myself included). They can be darker and you can push the wordcount a bit further. You can perhaps take a few more risks, providing the heart of the book is with the characters (more on that later). Then we have Young Adult (YA) fiction. I like to think of this as two categories: Teen and Young Adult / Crossover. Teen fiction tends to focus on topics affecting teenagers around 12-13 years old. They are lighter, sometimes funny books. Young Adult or Crossover fiction can be anything where the protagonist is under 18. They can be romances set in a school, or dark, chilling tales. You can find out more about average novel word counts in this article and how long chapters should be, these aren’t specific to children’s books, but make for an interesting read! Whatever age you choose to write for, ensure you know that market back-to-front. Which leads me to tip number two: 2. Read Contemporary Children’s Books The best way to know your market is to read everything you can that fits into it. Yes, adults can read children’s books for pleasure too, you know! Some of the most delicious and astounding books I have read have been for children. Don’t fall into the trap of re-reading the books you enjoyed as a child. The market is constantly evolving and what was publishable ‘way back then’ may not be marketable now. Keep your eye on books that are coming out this year, particularly debuts (as you’ll hopefully be one of those yourself soon!) When you are reading, make notes on things like sentence structure, characters and plot arcs. Is the language simple or sophisticated? What age are the characters? And what twists and turns appear in the story? This will help you no end when it comes to write your own. 3. Have A Unique Idea So, now we come to your own book (woohoo!). And I have some bad news, I’m afraid (boooo). The world of children’s books is incredibly competitive and only the absolute best books stand a chance of getting published. But that’s okay. Because you can make your story into one of those books using this blog post. And it starts with an astounding idea that will make an agent stop scrolling and forget to breathe. Think of your favourite stories. You can usually sum them up in one, hooky line, can’t you? Something like: “Death narrates as a girl steals books in WW2 Munich, as her foster parents conceal a Jewish fist-fighter in their home.” – The Book Thief “A girl has been trapped Inside her whole life, until one day she finds a hole in the wall.” – Okay, so that’s my book, but you get the idea. Your concept needs stakes. It needs to be different. It needs to pique interest. Nothing else will work for this market. Need some help developing an idea like this? Try this free Idea Generator – it comes via an email. You can also learn a lot from this post on How to Get Book Ideas. 4. Create Relatable Characters Okay, so you have your amazing concept that will hook an agent, then a publisher, then eventually a reader. Want to keep them? Then you’ll need to create characters that children can relate to. The first rule for this is to think about their ages in relation to the categories we outlined above. Usually, children like to read about characters a couple of years older than them. In Young Adult fiction, I usually make my characters between 15 and 17. 90% of books for children have children as their central protagonists. The other 10% is usually made up of animals and magical beings, but they will nearly always speak and act like children in that age group. They are hardly ever adults. The next thing is to think about the qualities that children of that age look for in a protagonist. Usually, this is bravery (although this doesn’t mean all characters need to be sword-fighters – there are many different kinds of bravery). Usually they are kind (although not always to everyone all the time). And usually they are quirky in some way – they have some interest or ideals that colour their world and make them interesting. Let’s take an example protagonist. ‘Charlie’ from ‘Charlie Changes into a Chicken’. This is a funny Lower Middle-Grade book, and the main character is a boy who suffers with anxiety. Whenever he gets anxious, he turns into an animal. And with his brother in hospital and the school play coming up, there is a lot to worry about. Although Charlie has something going on that I would hope most children can’t relate to (eg: turning into a pigeon), there’s an awful lot about him that readers want to root for. His anxiety is one – and the book does a lot to normalise this and teach the reader how to deal with it. He’s also a classic ‘good guy’ – always one to attempt to smooth things over with his bully, and worry about his brother. He is brave, kind and quirky. In terms of secondary characters, this book is great at busting stereotypes, and that’s really something to keep in mind when writing (more on this later). You’ve got a smart, scientific friend, as well as those who provide some comic relief. You’ve got an antagonist bully, who we understand. And other grown-up antagonists such as grumpy teachers, and parents who have the ability to be ‘disappointed’. In short, these are all characters that children around 8 years old will relate to and enjoy reading about. (As well as grown-up writers who have the mind of an 8-year-old, too!). It’s worth spending time getting to know your characters using something like this Ultimate Character Builder (downloadable via email). This worksheet asks hundreds of questions about your character that forces you to think of answers. Something else I quite like to do (mainly because it is wonderfully fun procrastination) is to use personality tests. Try getting into the mindset of your characters – including secondary characters – and taking the House and Patronus quizzes on Pottermore, for example. You might find out that your protagonist is a Slytherin with a rare winged Patronus, which might affect the way they behave in your plot. Another great tool can be found at 16 Personalities. This asks you a lot of questions and gives you a Myers-Briggs personality type at the end, with pages and pages of information about how that person would react to things like relationships, family and difficult situations. It’s worth spending some time doing some further reading on characterisation. Good places to start include learning about the theory of character development and spending some time making realistic antagonists, alongside your protagonist. 5. Plot Using Character Arcs When it comes to plotting a children’s book, it is useful to keep one bit of advice in mind at all times: Plot is driven by character. Never the other way around. If your characters are at the centre of your story, then you need to ensure that they are the ones driving it forwards. If you shoehorn them into a twist that goes against everything that your character stands for, then readers will be left cold. This is why the primary step to writing a children’s book is to get to know your characters back to front and inside out as we discussed earlier. Once you have a good idea about who they are, you can start using this information to plot your story. There are a number of ways you can plot a book, including methods like the Snowflake Method or using this guide on writing a plot outline. For me, I like to start with something my character wants. This can be simple, like perhaps they are looking forward to an upcoming school trip. Or it can be much bigger than that – like perhaps they want to keep their family safe from being picked for The Hunger Games. Next, you throw something in their path that means they can’t have what they want. They get framed for something they didn’t do at school and are banned from the school trip. Their sister is picked for The Hunger Games and they must volunteer as tribute to protect her from almost certain death. What comes next is a series of incidents that raises action and keeps your character on their journey. They try to sneak onto the school bus, but end up on the wrong one, going instead to France. They get off the bus for a wee and it drives off without them. They try to buy a baguette with their lunch money, but it gets eaten by a dog (which they are afraid of) etc etc. Within this middle point are highs and lows. They meet friends and helpers along the way – usually children their own age, or animals. There might even be other grown-up helpers or antagonists (think about Haymitch and Crane in The Hunger Games). Usually around the mid-point of the story, what your character wants has now changed. The boy on the school trip now wants to find a way to go home. Katniss in The Hunger Games wants to stay alive. This all leads up to the climax of the story – where all the issues you have dropped in before come to a head. There is usually a small battle to be won first – perhaps that is getting over the fear of dogs to save a friend in France, or it is beating the other Careers in order to stay alive in The Hunger Games. Then there is a small dip in action before the big beast is slayed – maybe that is as simple as finally asking for help to go home in France, or it is tricking the makers of The Hunger Games so that they can live. To finish off, we have the resolution. This is where you tie up the questions you set up earlier in the story and resolve differences between characters. Maybe we see the boy return from France and ask his parents for a pet dog. Or Katniss returning home to her family as victor (whilst also leaving something unresolved here with a larger antagonist for book two in the series). Even if you’re not traditionally a plotter, it is worth spending time thinking about the main beats in your story and how this relates to your character’s central journey. Thankfully, there’s loads of help for useless plotters (like me!). Some useful blog plots for further reading: this one on the seven basic plots. There are also some brilliant masterclasses on the subject by the brilliant Jeremy Sheldon and this one from C M Taylor, all free as part of the Jericho Writers membership. 6. Find A Captivating Voice Okay, so you now have the bones of an exciting story down. Excellent. Now – we need to talk about the way you are going to tell this story. The first thing to do is consider what point of view you are going to choose, and then stick to it entirely. The most popular ones in children’s books are either third person (He/She/They), or first person (I/We). You do tend to find books for younger readers tend to be third person, and teen and YA are usually first person – but this isn’t a rule. Try writing a scene using both and see which one feels more natural for you and this story. It’s worth noting that children’s books in second person (You) are few and far between. This is because it’s a difficult thing to do well, and to relate to as a reader. But nothing is ever out of bounds in the world of children’s books, so if you are confident about using this POV, then go for it. Whatever POV you choose, you must, must, MUST have a captivating voice. By ‘Voice’, we mean the way the story is being told – the language and sentence structure used to tell it. In first person, we need to believe that the person telling the story IS a child. In third person, we need that to a lesser degree, but we still need that sense that we are close to a character and understand who they are through their language. Let’s take first person as an example to start with, because it’s a bit easier. A first-person voice can contain any one of the following things to make it a bit different: An accent or dialect (eg: Southern American).Short, matter-of-fact sentences, or long lines with little or no punctuation.Complex language, or simple words.A ‘Frame of Reference’ for understanding the world. For example, if your character loves painting, then you would expect their language to be a fountain of colour, using terms that painters would love. My favourite article on voice is this one from Annabel Pitcher. Do give it a read – she is the master. When creating your voice, it is worth making a note of all the things that might influence the way your character speaks. So, think about where in the world they come from, and the different words they will use. Think about their age. Think about their personalities. Think about their passions and interests. And use all of this to create a voice that is unique to them. This becomes a bit harder when writing in third person. You can use some of this to colour the voice of the narrator, which can be particularly important when writing for younger children, who need to be reading ‘simple’ words along with the protagonists. You can also give the narrator their own voice altogether, as done in The Book Thief and Charlie Changes into a Chicken. Whatever you choose to do, ensure that it is striking and work on it until it feels like ‘you’. It took me around four books to realise what is ‘me’ about my writing – I think sometimes it is one of those things that you need to write to realise! You can find out more about finding your voice here. 7. Use Settings And Experiences Kids Will Recognise So, now we come on to the setting of your book. There are no real rules here when it comes to setting. Books like The House With Chicken Legs is set all over the world, within a rickety old house with the legs of a chicken. But even in this book, there are still things included that children will recognise as similar to their own experiences. A feeling of loneliness from travelling all the time. A parental figure. A feeling of being bored when trapped inside the house. With contemporary children’s books, the settings tend to be focused on home, school and other familiar places, such as parks and after-school clubs. If you are writing a book set in the real modern world, then you will probably need to include a school in there somewhere. Some authors do this really well, but I personally hate writing schools. If you’re like me, then setting a book in the summer holidays, or having protagonists who are over sixteen can sometimes be a way around this. For fantasy writers, it’s worth thinking about things like education and home-life when you are world-building, too. Your character may well be going on a huge quest that will take them to the ends of the earth, with no time for school. But even The Hunger Games had lessons in flashback. As I’ve said before, there are no rules here as such. Children’s books can take you to all corners of experiences. But ensure you think about your settings and how a child reader will recognise them. And if you choose to include things like school, then ensure you get that experience right! 8. Write And Rewrite Okay, so now we’re getting to the part where you have to put pen to paper. You’ll read a lot of articles all over the internet that will tell you rules here like “write every day” and “don’t look back on your first draft”. But I don’t want to tell you any of those. Because honestly – writing a book is something every writer does differently, and that’s rather wonderful. Try writing every day, but if you can’t because you have your own kids to worry about, then that is perfectly fine. And maybe try not to spend years perfecting scenes before you get on to the next one (only because you will probably have to delete it later), but if you do need to make something perfect before you can move on, then that’s fine too. Do whatever you need to do to keep writing. I will however say this. First drafts suck. They do. And that is okay. Books aren’t made on the first draft. This is where you let your characters drive that plot, and sometimes they don’t really know what they are doing. Books are made in the next stage – the re-writing. The editing. By getting feedback and working to make something shine. In fact, I personally don’t even do first drafts any more. I call all my first attempts the ‘ditch draft’, because I know that chances are, I’m going to have to bin most of it and start again. I know that sounds a bit long – but again – do whatever you need to do to keep writing. When it comes to re-writing, I personally like to open up a new document for my second draft and copy-paste the bits I like over and write the rest from scratch. There’s something freeing about not having words already there in front of you. For editing, you can try these tips on self-editing your work, and an editor called Debi Alper runs a life-changing tutored course on Self-Editing here. You can also try getting feedback from other readers – either friends and family, or a writing group. Or perhaps through something like a Manuscript Assessment, which are particularly useful if you know something isn’t quite working, but you can’t quite pinpoint what. If you’re confused about the different types of editing, this post is quite useful for navigating. Books are made in the self-edit stage, so keep going until you have something that is really quite something. Because nothing much less will be good enough when it comes to the next stage… 9. Avoid Classic Mistakes All New Writers Make But first – I want to pause and look at some common mistakes. Because these are the things you need to watch out for before you even think about sending out to agents. Avoid Stereotypes The cry-baby little sister. The dysfunctional dad. There are certain stereotypes we take for granted. So think when you make decisions about every character in your novel – can they be subverted? Can you show that boys can cry too, and that dad’s can do all the housework? This goes for race, gender, sexuality, disability and pretty much everything else. Write characters, not clichés. If You’re Writing What You Don’t Know, Get To Know It This is becoming increasingly important in children’s fiction – and so it should. If you are writing about a character with an experience different to your own, then you need to ensure you do copious amount of research – including speaking to people who live this experience. This especially goes for anything to do with race, gender, sexuality and disability. There are things you can do to help ensure you are not portraying these lives in a way that is stereotypical or harmful. Sensitivity readers are now becoming a mainstay in children’s publishing and authors can even hire their own if they feel the need to check their facts. You should know however that no amount of research ever makes up for the real experience and you should learn from any feedback you have from readers, rather than challenge it. Don’t let this put you off writing diversely as this is incredibly important for all children’s writers to do, whatever background they are from. But ensure you do it sensitively. Don’t Start A Story Where The Character Is Waking Up If I had a dollar for every story I have read that starts with this, I would be a very rich author. Don’t do it. Your opening scene should grab a reader by the hand and pull them immediately into the action. Think about what the inciting incident is, then give your readers an idea of what life was like for the main character before then. If the inciting incident is about to send them on a big adventure, then show the contrasting quiet life they had before then. If the big character arc is that they become braver, show them being scared early on in the story. Don’t Start A Story With A Scene That Has Nothing To Do With The Rest Of The Story Alternatively, don’t go the other way and start your story somewhere that has nothing to do with the rest of the story, just because it is more exciting than waking up. Your opening scene should excite, but it should also introduce the reader to the world that will appear in the rest of the story. So, if you’re story is about a girl’s relationship with her mother, then don’t start your story in the middle of a fist-fight unless that very quickly turns into something to do with the mother. Of course, this changes if you are writing fantasy where the beginning of the novel is set in the everyday world before the magic is let loose. Still here though, ensure you are spending time introducing us to the characters and situations that will be important throughout the rest of the story. Don’t Mix Tenses Or POVs Pick one, and stick to it (flashbacks permitting!). There’s nothing worse than reading a story that switches heads or propels us back and forth in time. Try reading this article on Psychic Distance if you need more clarification. Depending on the the age of the children you may want to stick with one or two points of view so they find it easier to follow, but once you are writing young adult novels for teens, then don\'t hold back from pushing boundaries and being brave with format and structure. Teens are no different to adults when it comes to following a more complicated plot! Don’t Tell Us – Show Us (For The Most Part) This is one of the biggest mistakes I see writers make – including myself. When you are trying to explain a world or situation, it can sometimes be easier to just dump that information on the page. And some of that is fine, but too much can slow action and feel amateur. Try showing certain things within your writing whenever you can. For example, if your character is angry, have them shout, rather than putting ‘he was angry’. Don’t Rhyme For The Sake Of Making It Rhyme This one is particularly for the picture book writers amongst you. Rhymes are wonderful when they work, but I’ve seen writers fall into the trap of sacrificing sentence meaning to shoehorn in a rhyme. If you are struggling to make a sentence flow because of your rhyming structure, then try something else. Or try no rhyme at all! Some of my favourite picture books don’t rhyme – it’s all about the characters and the story you are telling. Don’t Overuse Adverbs And Adjectives All new writers seem to fall into this trap. Perhaps we want to show off how beautifully we can write, so we pen long, languid sentences that dazzle and glitter with sparkly splendour. Unfortunately, they also weigh down your words. Keep your sentences to the point and I promise that those metaphors and similes that you do scatter in, will be all the more breath-taking because of it. Avoid Clunky-Sounding Dialogue Usually this happens when we want to try and ‘show’ something and not ‘tell’ it. And we might end up with a scene a bit like this: “Why are you so upset Billy?” Mum said. “Because my game was cancelled again, like it was last week.” “Do you mean when you kicked the ball over the fence and it had to be called off?” “It wasn’t my fault. A dog came onto the pitch.” “And we all know you’re afraid of dogs.” This doesn’t feel very realistic, does it? That’s because people don’t tend to spend their time reiterating things they all already know. Avoid doing this in your own book – especially with parents and their children, which tends to be where the clunkiest dialogue comes into its own! Try these tips on writing realistic dialogue. Don’t Have An Adult Save The Day Finally, we have the ending. There is nothing worse than rooting for a child protagonist all the way through a book, only to have a grown-up step in and save the day at the end. Children want to see themselves as having the power to change the world. Sometimes, that might mean asking for help from a grown-up, but the decision to conquer should always come from the child. 10. Get An Agent And Get Published So that leads us to the last point – how to get this wonderful children’s book you have written, published and on the shelves. This could be a whole other blog article in itself, and indeed there are plenty around. The more comprehensive overviews are things like this article on how to get a book published, or this one on how to find an agent. However, the most important things to know are that you will nearly always need an agent to get a publisher. And getting an agent is very, very difficult. Agents will receive around two-thousand submissions every year and will only have space to take on one or two. Out of these one or two, a third then never find a publisher. So the odds are perhaps not in your favour. But that’s okay. Because the fact that you have read all the way to the bottom of this blog post tells me that you are serious about writing a brilliant children’s book. And brilliant children’s books are the only ones that get published. The other alternative to getting your book published is self-publishing. This shouldn’t be seen as a ‘last resort’ option. In fact, plenty of authors create lucrative careers from publishing independently and it is fast becoming the number one option for a lot of writers. It can be a little harder to self-publish in the world of children’s books. Illustrated books don’t always transfer to eBook easily and the market tends to favour print in general. However, there are authors who are doing really well in the YA genre fiction market, particularly for things like paranormal romance. If you are interested in this option, then you can find plenty of free information here. Writing For Children: Conclusion Being a children’s author takes an incredible amount of hard work and dedication, but it is the most fulfilling thing you can do (in my biased opinion!) Children don’t like books, they LOVE them. And once your book is published, hearing from those readers makes every step of this whole process completely worthwhile. I’ve mentioned the Jericho Writers membership a few times in this article, and it is something to think about if you are serious about carving a career for yourself as a children’s author. Reading and writing will take us so far, but sometimes we need a helping hand from the experts to create something at the level it needs to be to get published. You can find out more about that membership here. I do hope you have found this article useful and wish you every luck (and enjoyment!) in writing your own children’s book. You’ve got this. Jericho Writers is a global membership group for writers, providing everything you need to get published. Keep up with our news, membership offers, and updates by signing up to our newsletter. For more writing articles take a look at our blog page or join our free writer’s community. 
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