Undiscovered Voices Masterclass: Creating fiction for young readers with hook, heart and longevity

On Saturday 6th May 2017, SCBWI members gathered in London for a special Undiscovered Voices masterclass with Catherine Coe, Sara Grant and Benjamin Scott. Here, Marianna Reed Barber shares what she learnt and offers some excellent advice on creating fiction for young readers with hook, heart and longevity.

Catherine Coe, Sara Grant and Benjamin Scott, committee members of Undiscovered Voices, delivered a fast-paced Masterclass, packed with tips and information about writing for younger readers, specifically with the aim of encouraging more submissions for the 5-9 age group to the competition.

Catherine started the class by telling us younger readers have voracious appetites. ‘Once they fall in love with a character, they will want to have more adventures with them!’ Most Young Fiction stories are developed as series, which are planned and published in sets: pairs or threes, or sometimes more. Retailers prefer small batches, due to shelf space, and the books in each set arrive at intervals of a few months. Publishers are prepared to spend sizeable sums on marketing in bookstores to support the space they want for each release, reflecting the recent upturn in Young Fiction sales.
For readers aged 5 to 8, there are various formats: illustrated short stories between 2,500-5,000 words with illustrations on every page, and a single colour to bring the pages to life, such as Alex T. Smith’s Claude series, or Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre. Slapstick humour and anarchic animals feature strongly here. Then there is the ‘heartland of Young Fiction’, chapter books of 4,000-10,000 words with black and white illustrations, such as Zoe’s Rescue Zoo, Magic Kitten, and Dinosaur Cove, where the gear shifts into adventure and magic.
For the upper end of Young Fiction, 7-9 years, stories are longer, from 7,500 to 20,000 words, with black and white illustrations, such as Mr Gum by Andy Stanton, Baby Aliens by Pamela Butchart and Barry Loser by Jim Smith. These books contain strong voices and often feature topics to support the boy reader who might linger longer than girls at this reading level.

Catherine’s keys to success in series fiction: an obvious concept, usually contained within the title; and combining a familiar idea with a new edge, along with a large dash of humour.

Young fiction front covers. Photo Credit: Marianna Reed Barber

Having defined Young Fiction, Sara took over and moved us through a writer’s consideration of how to hook the reader, infuse the story with heart and create longevity for the series. ‘Each book must be amazing,’ she said. ‘So spend time with your idea, decide if it is big enough for a series, yet small enough for each book.’ Start thinking about the pitch, ‘to shake free the concept’, which will help with selling the book. Ask yourself, how is it unique? What’s at the heart? Why do you want to write this? ‘If you write what you love, it will show on the page.’
Turning an idea into a series requires thinking about what readers will expect, what is going on in each book, and planning an overriding arc. Once you’ve established characters, setting and your storyline, write one amazing book and know how it will expand into more. It’s important to know why readers continue with a series: unfinished business, a mystery, a cliff hanger, compelling characters.

Event organiser Alison Smith with attendees. Photo Credit: Marianna Reed Barber

During the final session of the day, Benjamin shared numerous tips on bringing stories to life. For children to enjoy reading, authors must give them strong stories, engaging characters and tight writing. Using two cups attached to a piece of string – the trusty cup phone – we learned how a long string equals loss of clarity, and therefore loss of a child’s attention; a short, tight string – fewer, well-chosen words - delivers a clear line of communication. If we clip bits of paper onto the line – unnecessary exposition – again, we lose clarity. And a slapdash ending is like cutting the string and losing connection entirely.

Benjamin demonstrates cup phone technology with helpful volunteers! Photo Credit: Marianna Reed Barber

For Benjamin, ‘character comes alive in action.’ Great scenes move the story forward and actions show the characters’ attitudes. Include easily identifiable conflict and make things progressively worse until the character solves it. Engaging characters show us who they are through both action and dialogue. Flaws are good – a character’s mistakes and unrealistic expectations create conflict. What they care about is integral to the story and wrapping it all up satisfactorily at the end is the character’s – and reader’s – reward.

Can you hear me? Can you hear me? Revisiting the fun of the cup phone!Photo Credit: Marianna Reed Barber

Having written the first draft, it is time to, ‘make friends with the editing process. Writing is like a piece of music, it’s about getting the right speed.’ Benjamin suggested you take out enough words to keep the sense and remove details that distract.

With 90% of previous Undiscovered Voices submissions consisting of MG and YA, it’s time for Young Fiction to expand its horizons. Publishers are actively looking for new voices in Young Fiction! So, what are you waiting for?
For more information, visit www.undiscoveredvoices.com


Marianna Reed Barber is completing the Writing for Children MA at the University of Winchester and is currently working on a YA contemporary novel. As an English tutor for homestay students from other countries, she is ever curious about the human experience, especially where the inner and outer worlds collide. Twitter: @createwrite


A M Dassu is a member of the Words & Pictures editorial team, she manages the Events team and SCBWI BI events coverage.
Contact her at events@britishscbwi.org
Twitter: @a_reflective

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