WRITING FEATURE Switching between age groups and genres

Why do some children's authors stick firmly within one age group or genre, while others vary? And which path should pre-published authors follow? Kate Walker investigates. 


Big hitters in the world of children’s publishing release books across the age ranges. Cressida Cowell and Lauren Child have published picture books, chapter books and middle grade novels, while maintaining their unique style across each age bracket. In contrast, Jacqueline Wilson predominately writes for 8-12s, but covers a wide array of genres, from contemporary Tracy Beaker to historical Hetty Feather


Is it a good idea for new authors to cast a wide net or should they focus on one genre to gain representation and the dream, a publishing contract? Luckily, there are many helpful agented and published authors happy to share their experiences. 


Firstly, what are the rules of switching between age ranges? 


Emma Finlayson-Palmer is represented by Laura West and created #Ukteenchat on Twitter. Emma writes picture books right up to YA.

Photo credit: Emma Finlayson Palmer
Each book is the same to write in terms of structure but for chapter books you definitely have to simplify, with minimal subplots. Outlining is helpful to have a clear overview of the story before you start. Being able to draw out each character's unique voice is a universal skill for all age groups and genres.

Victoria Woolfe is represented by Joanna Moult, was shortlisted in The Times Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition and longlisted in Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition. She writes MG and adult.

Photo credit: Victoria Woolfe
As a rough guide, use the three O's, Objective – Obstacles – Outcome, to structure your chapters. This approach can work for all age ranges. Try to see life through the eyes of your main character. Your writing needs to reflect their age, tastes, habits, attitudes and beliefs. Shifting between age groups can be extremely challenging. One agent rejected me on the grounds that, ‘there was a complete mismatch in age between the voice of the main character and the plot of the book’. I was devastated! Getting it right is really hard.

Lindsay Galvin’s debut novel The Secret Deep is contemporary YA, while her second book Darwin’s Dragons is historical MG. Lindsay is represented by Laura Williams and published by Chicken House.

Photo credit: Lindsay Galvin
It doesn’t matter what story I’m telling, for MG, YA or adult – the character development is the most important aspect. My characters must drive their own story forward with story events happening because of them and the unique choices they make, rather than passively responding to events that happen to them. I think the worst thing we can do is talk down to our readers. Young people of all ages don’t want to learn a lesson from the books they read, they want to be immersed in a world and characters, to find stories that show them unique and diverse situations, and enable them to explore their own ideas and feelings through the characters.
Cover art by Helen Crawford-White
Cover art by Gordy Wright

Matt Killeen, author of Orphan Monster Spy and Devil Darling Spy, winner of the SCBWI Crystal kite awards and shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards.

Photo Credit: Karen Chappell / Mark Lediard
For YA you need a teenage protagonist that young readers will find engaging and identify with in some way. Keep it concise and get to the point. You should, on some level, write for yourself – if you are not enjoying the story, you’re wasting everyone’s time. Do not think you can write a 'crossover'. That’s like trying to make a 'cult film' or a 'viral video'. The audience decides that.
Cover art by Will Steele

While most children’s books across the age ranges require a structure led by character, what are the pitfalls of switching genres? Matt says:

Contemporary requires a thorough understanding of teen culture and the skill to ensure that the book doesn’t become anachronistic in a year or two. You’ll probably spend a couple of years completing your debut, then wait another two for publication – the contemporary references of four years ago will likely be lost on your readers. Teenage experience doesn’t actually change – it’s why historical works – but how it is experienced does. It’s one of the reasons that I write historical YA. You need to be fascinated by the period, see the magic there and how it relates to the present.


I certainly learned how much research is involved in historical fiction, but luckily I also found out I enjoyed it! With contemporary, you have the get the voice perfect because actual kids will read and smell a mile off if it isn’t authentic. With historical fiction you have to forge that authenticity yourself – but once you find the voice it gets easier. But you can’t just listen out at the skatepark for how kids spoke in 1837!

But is it a good idea for writers to switch between multiple age ranges and genres? Can you be successful across the bookshop shelf divides? While this seems to work for best sellers with a proven track record, is it a help or a hindrance for debut authors? Writing multiple story types could strengthen your appeal to an agent, proving versatility, but it could also dilute your author 'brand' and make you a confusing sell to publishing houses. 


Matt Killeen, has followed his hugely successful debut with a book set in the same universe.

Now I’m a published author, I’ve lost a lot of the latitude I had beforehand. I’ve some middle grade ideas, but that’s not what my publishers bought into. Obviously, you can write what you want, but if you want to be paid for it, that’s a different matter. If you’re looking to traditional publishing, I don’t think that establishing a brand yourself is important – having 'a voice' is. That’s what your agent will recognise. Let them get on with selling you to the industry. Once you are published, you will find yourself with a brand, which hopefully you’ve had a say in because understanding it is vital. These days you do most publicity yourself. Also, your publishers will have invested in it and will want you to stay in that lane subsequently.

Victoria has also experienced this.

Agents have mentioned in the past that having a brand is really important. Some authors can get away with writing anything from picture books through to YA and be awesomely successful. Most mortals need to mine a consistent seam. In a nutshell, you're more marketable if you stick to one age group and one kind of story.

Emma has a solution.

I find it liberating to be able to write across age groups and genres. If you get a publishing deal for one age group you will need to follow that up with a similar theme. If you deviate you might need to have a different pen name.

All the authors stressed the importance of reading!  


Read widely in the age range you are writing. More than anything this really helped me find my voice and to know the sort of stories I wanted to tell.

Whatever genre and age you choose to write for it’s important to love and champion the stories you create. Victoria raised an important point to remember as you navigate your writing journey:

Watch out for boring the reader. I guess that's the worst sin a writer can commit. But you can't please everyone. There's no such thing as a universal crowd-pleaser.


 * Header image credit: Kate Walker

Find Matt on Twitter @by_Matt_Killeen

Find Lindsay on Twitter @LindsayGalvin

Emma's Twitter is @FinlaysonPalmer and look out for her #UKteenchat 

Victoria's Twitter is @VictoriaWoolfe 


Kate Walker is a feature writer for Words & Pictures. Find her on Twitter @KatakusM

No comments:

We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.