Introducing the lovely Kate Forsyth. Look out for the give-away of her new book at the end of the post!
I’ve written 23 books which range from picture books through early readers to older readers to young adults to adults. Basically, you can read me from birth to death!
I always know exactly who I’m writing for before I start a book. To me, the story demands its own shape, and that includes my ideal reader, the person in my head I imagine reading the book. That ideal reader is usually me, or someone very like me, but at different stages of their life. I wanted different things from the books I read when I was 8 than from what I wanted or needed as a reader when I was 13 or 24. So the type of story I tell changes according to the age of my reader.
Writing a novel is such a big and complex task, and so much of what we do is intuitive, that it can be hard to pin down exactly what we do and why. But there are a few things I always try and think about when beginning a new novel.
1) The age of my protagonist
Often this is the single most important determining factor in deciding the age of my audience. If my hero is 11, then I imagine my reader being 9 or 10. If my hero is 15, I imagine a reader aged 12 or 13. Children don’t like to read books about people younger than they are – I remember beginning a book once, when I was 8 or 9, and then dropping it as soon as I realised the hero was only 7. I’m too old for that baby stuff, I thought. We used the same rule in the magazine world and called it ‘aspirational readership’ ie the primary readers of ‘Dolly’ were tweens – the teenagers had already moved on to ‘Cleo’.
Often the age of my hero is predetermined by whatever god it is that sends us characters to bother us into telling their stories. Many of my characters arrive like that – other characters slowly emerge during the writing process and it is then that I might have more control over who my target market is. Other times, I just know – my character is not quite 13 years old and has red hair, and so I am writing for 10+.
2) The length of the book
Once I know I am writing for a certain age group, I know then how long my book will be. A picture book should be between 200 words and 500 words. A book for early readers (let’s say 6+) should be no more than 3,500-5,000 words, depending on the complexity of the storyline. A book for readers aged 9+ comes in between 35,000 and 70,000 words (though mine always seem to come in longer!). A book for readers aged 12+ can be as long as 80,000 to 100,000 words. Readers 15+ can sustain their interest for as much as 120,000 words. At this point, I should point out that I write fantasy books which are traditionally longer than other genres of fiction (so if you’re writing contemporary realism, I’d aim for the lower end of the spectrum!)
3) Length of the chapters
Knowing roughly the perfect length of the book makes it easier for me to plan. In general, I find that the younger the target market, the shorter the chapters. So when writing early readers (6+) each chapter must be under 1,000 words. This is a comfortable amount for a child to read before bed every night, and enough for a mother to read 2 or even 3 chapters before bed. With children’s fiction, (readers aged 9+) I aim for chapters of around 2,500-3,000 words which means I can have up to 32 chapters (again a comfortable length to read in bed for half an hour before lights out). In writing for YA, I will write longer chapters, perhaps as much as 4,000 words per chapter, while in writing adult fiction, the chapters are often around 5,000 words on average. If chapters are too long, the child reader gets tired or begins to lose interest – a death knell for a children’s writer!
4) Style and syntax
My style grows deeper, darker and more complex with each age group. My early readers tend to be light and funny and full of misadventure. My books for older readers have more introspection and a greater sense of danger. My YA books are more morally ambiguous, and my heroes often have to pay a high price for their triumph. I also think a lot about my diction and my syntax i.e. the type of words I use and the length and complexity of my sentences. Usually this begins as an intuitive process, but during the editorial process I really think about it very hard. On the one hand, I believe children love playfulness with language and love discovering new words. I worry about the diminishing of our literature and our vocabularies, and I love using the precisely right word. As Mark Twain said, the difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between a lightning flash and a lightning bug. On the other hand, too many strange and difficult words makes the meaning incomprehensible to the learning reader. It can break the spell you are casting, reminding the reader that this is a constructed artifice and not a ‘vivid and continuous dream’, which is what a good book should feel like. Finding the balance between these two is always hard and a matter for the writer to decide. In general, I try and opt for simplicity and clarity, with enough beautiful language and complex words to stimulate the reader and not so many that you weigh down the story and – horror of horrors – bore the reader.
5) Sex and violence
I think this is where we see the real difference beginning to show. Basically, I feel books for readers aged 6+ should have no sex or romance (yewww! Boy germs!) and very little violence. If there is any violence, it should never be aimed at the children i.e the kids can trip the baddie over and sit on his head, but the baddie can’t sock them in the jaw. For readers aged 9+, a little romance is fine, as long as it’s only a look, a brush of the hand, a gentle kiss on the cheek – but smouldering sexual tension or an actual sex scene can really horrify them (I know this from bitter experience, having a mother buy her 11 year old daughter all my adult books to read. She wrote me a letter saying she’s really enjoyed the book – all except for the disgusting scene on page whatever it was!) Different markets may have different places where they draw the line. For instance, with ‘The Gypsy Crown’ my UK editor didn’t like it when my hero was knocked down and blood was drawn, while my US editor didn’t like the use of a scold’s bridle on one of the characters because of the underlying sexual threat.
I love writing for different age groups. I think one reason why I’ve been able to do it is because I have such a strong idea of who my ideal reader is for each book. I remember myself as a nine year old or a twelve year old so vividly, and I remember the books I most loved and the ones that most richly fed my imaginative life, and I write the sort of book I would have loved to have read then.
We have two copies of Kate’s latest book to give-away. Correct answers will go into a virtual ice cream bucket and Kate will pull them out. Winners will be announced on Friday evening.
What earlier book of Kate’s is ‘The Wildkin’s Curse’ a sequel to?