An Online Interview With Yours Truly.

Fellow Writers of the Future winner – C Stuart Hardwick – over at Sputnik’s Orbit has been busily working on a series of blog posts about the winners of this year’s contest. My interview can be found at: http://cstuarthardwick.wordpress.com/2014/03/15/meet-fellow-writers-of-the-future-winner-shauna-omeara/

Do take the time to browse and meet all the other winners in their respective posts.

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Phonics stuff with regard to children’s books

This post was inspired by a masterclass I attended – held by the wonderful Dawn Meredith (you can find her at http://dawnmeredithauthor.blogspot.com.au/) – where she addressed some of the generalities and nuances of writing books for kids. Dawn has been a slush reader for Scholastic, has had some of her own children’s books published and is a teacher specialising in children with reading difficulties. She’s also a fantastic, generous person to boot and kindly let me post some of the notes I made.

During her talk on children’s books, Dawn made mention of phonics and the developmental stages of reading education and how knowledge of how children are taught to read can impact upon the choice of words used in children’s books – particularly the more junior-level books like board books and also some picture books. They are not hard and fast rules (all reading levels can be present in any one age-group of kids), but I found them fascinating as a potential guideline for authors looking to pair appropriate word choices to particular reading ages and so thought I’d share.

Disclaimer – I am not a teacher. These notes are based on a lecture I attended and may not be applicable to all primary school learning modalities. Methods of teaching reading can vary from state to state and according to new theories of teaching and with changing school curriculums. I would welcome feedback and comments from teachers if this post has missed something crucial.

1 Single Sounds

When children first start school (kindergarten to year 1), they are taught the ‘sounds’ of the individual letters of the alphabet. These sounds are frequently taught using common words that start with the letter in question, paired with a picture of something the child can recognise – as in “A” is for “ant”, “B” is for “bird” and so on.

2 Blends

By the end of year 1, the students are generally learning the sounds created when two letters (initially a consonant with a vowel) combine. These are generally blends whereby the student can figure out the sound of the pairing by sounding out each individual letter in the pairing (contrast point 8 – more advanced – where the sounds are not able to be determined just by individually sounding out the letters).

For example, “ha” as in “hat” or “po” as in “pop”.

3 Consonant Vowel Consonant (CVC) Words

These are simple three-letter words, generally a combination of the single sounds and blends of levels 1 and 2. These also start to appear during year 1.

Examples include: “cat” – combination of the “c” for cat and “at” blend. “Dog” – combination of the “d” for dog sound and the “og” blend.

4 Initial Consonant Blends

After year 1, blends of paired consonants get placed on the front of words, similar to the CVC words, to create slightly more complex words and sounds. “Frog” – which is a pairing of the blend sound “fr” and the vowel-consonant blend “og”.

 

Board books generally do not go above the level of complexity seen in phonics points 1-4.

 

5 Final Consonant Blends

By year 2, the students are generally starting to learn words where paired consonant blends come at the end of words. For example – “nd” as in “hand” and “lt” as in “salt”.

6 Double consonant blend words

In year 2, ‘initial consonant blend’ principles and ‘final consonant blend’ principles are combined to tackle words with paired consonant blends on each end. For example “stalk” and “truck”.

7 Long vowels (CVC words with an ‘e’ on the end)

These generally start in year 3. Here the child learns to transform a short CVC vowel sound into a longer vowel sound with the addition of an ‘e’ on the end. For example, the short-vowel word “hop” (an ‘o’ sound) becomes the longer sound “hope” (an ‘oh’ sound).

8 Consonant digraphs

These blends generally start in year 3 and are pairs of consonants that generally cannot be sounded out by sounding the individual letters. They are truly unique sounds made by particular pairings, for example “ch” as in “chicken” and “th” and “ph” (a ‘fff’ sound as in “phone”) and “wh”.

9 Vowel combinations

Double vowel sounds (“oo”, “oi”, “oa” “ou” “ai” “ee”) and certain vowel-consonant combinations (“ey”, “oy” “or”) also begin to be commonplace here.

10 Complex combinations

By the end of year 3 and onward, children should generally be able to recognise the sounds and appearance of certain complex ‘sight’ combinations. These include but are not limited to: “ould”, “ough”, “aught”, “eight”, “igh”, “ight”, “dge”, “oor”, “mb” and “air”.

 

Picture books (except those intended for very early grade-school) generally involve words falling in the entire spectrum – from 1-10.

 

Again, these phonics guides should not be considered as hard-and-fast rules for writing picture books or children’s books. Part of the fun of reading is for children to encounter and learn new and more advanced words and ‘dumbing’ down a book to suit a certain level may not ultimately be helpful. At the same time, knowing a little about how the process of learning reading in Australian schools works can help you to guide your individual word choices more effectively towards the age group you are writing for.

Notes From a Panel – Children’s Book Nuances.

This post was inspired by a cool masterclass I attended – held by the wonderful Dawn Meredith (you can find her at http://dawnmeredithauthor.blogspot.com.au/) – where she addressed some of the generalities and nuances of writing books for kids. Dawn has been a slush reader for Scholastic, has had some of her own children’s books published and is a teacher specialising in children with reading difficulties. She’s also a fantastic, generous person to boot and kindly let me post some of the notes I made.

There will probably be a few children’s book posts forthcoming (I will list them in my writing craft page) as a lot of ground was covered in this class! This one is about the kinds of children’s books out there; since not all children’s books are picture books.

Board books.

These are deceptively simple-looking hardback books intended for the very youngest of readers (toddlers). They are mostly made up of pictures, but for all their simplicity, they still have a theme and purpose and even a simple story arc. The few words they do have must be chosen very carefully because they are one of the first avenues whereby a parent can introduce new words to their child.

Picture books.

These are the books people usually think of when someone says ‘children’s books’. They are not, however, merely short stories with illustrations. In most cases, the illustrations add a whole new level of context and meaning to the book that would not generally be understood from the words alone. For example, you could have a story about a girl being stalked by a tiger in the forest, but the drawings show two children in their bedroom – one playing the tiger and the other the girl – making the overall story not so much about a tiger and a forest, but the joys of siblings and make-believe.

Picture books are usually hard-cover, but soft-cover options and electronic options are also available. They can be fictional or non-fictional and, according to Meredith, historical fiction is presently quite popular.

Picture books are usually not more than 800 words long and about 32 pages in length and the story generally begins around pages 4-5. Most will aim for a ‘centre spread’ in the middle of the book where things are heating up in the story.

Picture books can vary greatly in their complexity (think of Graeme Base’s Sign of the Seahorse, which is almost an epic) because they are intended for audiences ranging from kids who are being read to, right through to those who are fully independent readers (6-7 years).

Word choice is still really important and varies depending on the age-range a book is intended for, with simpler sounds and word-structure generally used for the younger reading ages and more advanced sounds and word-forms and multiple-syllable words coming in as the reading age increases. For those interested in writing picture books, it’s helpful to read a range of picture books to get a feel for the words that are used.

Things to know about getting picture books published:

  • As a first time author, it is unlikely you will get to choose the artist for your book
  • Unless you are Shaun Tan or Graeme Base, you won’t generally get to do the artwork for your own book – though you are always welcome to offer to show a portfolio.
  • The first line (and all the others, but especially the first) of your book needs to be perfect to win over a big publishing house like Scholastic or Penguin. These guys get many thousands of picture book manuscripts a year (everyone thinks they can write a picture book), but don’t actually publish all that many. Therefore, just to make it past the slush pile, your story must grab them straight off.
  • Getting ‘test readers’ (kids from the target age group of the book you have written) to read your work before submission can be a useful way of gauging if a book works for your intended market.
  • Getting professional feedback from professional editors who read and edit and work in the genre and age-group you are targeting can also help.

Chapter books.

These are for middle-to-upper primary school kids and set at about a 8-12 year-old reading age. They are often stories of high adventure set at around 1000-5000 words in length (a common length for short stories in general).

Again, they can be fiction or non-fiction pieces and some are based on specific topics taught as part of the school syllabus (curriculum). For example, Dawn wrote her non-fiction Sir Donald Bradman chapter book (which ended up in schools) because there was such a big demand for information about him by children doing school projects on famous Australians.

A cool tip – Australian children in years 3, 5 and 7 (and 9) are required to sit NAPLAN tests in order to gauge their overall literacy and numeracy. As a writer and member of the public, you do have access to past papers online. You can, therefore, see what kids in the past have been tested on. This can provide great insight into the kinds of books and topics and word-choices a school might be looking out for in terms of reading materials, especially if you are into writing non-fiction.

Things to know about getting chapter books published:

  • Your manuscript format must be perfect and it must comply with the specific manuscript rules of the individual publishing house you are going for.
  • Getting ‘test readers’ (kids from the target age group of the book you have written) to read your work before submission can be a useful way of gauging if a book works for them.
  • Getting professional feedback from professional editors who read and edit and work in the genre and age-group you are targeting can also help.

Novellas (middle-grade books).

These are books of between about 15000 to 50000 words. They are making a comeback, particularly in the e-book market where books falling outside the picture book and novel-length ‘norms’ are now able to be released inexpensively by the publishing houses and priced appropriately.

Novels.

These are books of between 55000 to 110000 words (55000 – 80000 words is what most writers of young adult novels aim for). Young adult books are booming right now. Dawn’s tip was that, with the centenary of Gallipoli coming up in 2015, war stories, particularly those focusing on the human element of war and the impact on families, will have a ready market.

Young adult – This is the term for the ‘more sanitised’ books for teens and young adults. They still often contain a fair bit of violence and sexual innuendo, but sex (certainly not gratuitous, descriptive sex) is rarely described. There is also no swearing.

New adult – This is a new term for those YA novels with all the gory bits and swearing and descriptions of sex left in. If you are going to write this stuff, however, be aware that, as with any good story in general, detailed descriptions of sex and violence should only ever be used sparingly and when it is appropriate to the context of the story and not simply for controversy or shock-value.

Things to know about getting young adult and new adult published:

  • YA stories (new adult) with lots of sex, violence and swearing are often harder to get published that those without.
  • YA stories with lots of sex, violence and swearing can be very hard to get into school libraries (the gatekeepers of school libraries are adults and they often won’t buy books seen as ‘inappropriate’ for school-age children), which is important when you consider that school and public libraries do still account for a big percentage of where kids get their books from (and, yes, writers do get royalties – PLRs and ELRs – from books borrowed at public and school libraries).
  • Teens really like to buy sequels (books in a series) so if you can make your YA or new adult book a series or trilogy; then do so.
  • It is good to give the publishing house the ‘option’ of a series so make the world and its mythology big enough to support a series, but at the same time, it is important that the first book in a series be capable of standing alone, just in case the publishing house does not go forward with the next volumes.
  • Teens will also buy books from the same author, even if the series is new, once they are familiar with the author. A good example is Scott Westerfeld – the popularity of his writing has tipped over into quite a few YA series that are unrelated in genre and characters.
  • Getting ‘test readers’ (teens from the target age group of the book you have written) to read your work before submission can be a useful way of gauging if a book works for them.
  • Getting professional feedback from professional editors who read and edit and work in the genre and age-group you are targeting can also help.

General tips for improving your chances in children’s writing and writing in general:

Be connected to the writing community.

  • Facebook
  • Blog
  • Tweet

Subscribe to buzzwords and Pass-it-on which are sites that scour the net for the latest children’s book news and writing comps and so on.

Become a book reviewer – occasionally a publishing house will want someone to review a book. Do this – you can make good friends and contacts that way.

You can even offer to write/contribute ‘teachers notes’ to kid’s books, especially chapter books.

Thanks again to Dawn Meredith. If you get a chance, be sure to catch one of her master-classes. She is a fountain of knowledge and if you come prepared with questions about ‘the biz’ she will give you some really handy tips! I have caught her twice now at Conflux in Canberra and she is also appearing at the Conflux Writer’s Day in April 2014.

Also, check out this article from Writer’s Digest – which pretty much spells out what to do with regard to word length.

Volume 30 of L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future is now available for Pre-order.

My short story – Beneath the Surface of Two Kills – will be out in April with the release of Volume 30 of L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future. It’s the story of a hunter searching for the ‘last meal’ of a convicted murderer and how he deals with the moral conundrum of killing for a killer.

Each L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future anthology pairs the winning stories from each year’s Writers of the Future Contest with illustrations by the winners of its sister contest: Illustrators of the Future. The contests are a fantastic way for up-and-coming writers and illustrators to get their work out there and receive mentoring by some of the best writers and artists in the speculative fiction community and the anthologies are where you, the reader and fan, can experience all of their great work in one place!

You can pre-order Volume 30 from Amazon here.

 

Be Professional, Artist.

This page follows on from a recent post I wrote about behaving professionally as a wannabe writer and most of the general stuff (like not being a dick, not bad-mouthing other professionals and being appropriate when attempting to approach and contact your heroes and so forth) applies here as well.

Note that the artistry I am referring to in this post pertains mainly to the artwork used in books – both cover art and interior art – but many of the points are applicable to other forms of commissioned artwork as well.

Cover art for In Fabula-divino - edited by Nicole Murphy

Cover art for In Fabula-divino – Nicole Murphy (editor). Available on Amazon.

Agree to do what you say you will.

This is common courtesy and also good business. If you say you can deliver a piece of art by a certain date, then you need to deliver. This is especially important on the artwork side of book creation because art takes time to create and tweak and if you bail at the last minute, the publisher may not easily find someone who can fill your shoes at a pinch or who has the perfect piece of original artwork on hand and ready to go.

If at all possible, submit your artwork in under the time allowed – so long as doing so has not been achieved through a drop in quality. Publishing is all about deadlines and time is money. Getting projects completed allows a publishing house or editor to move onto the next money-making thing more swiftly, so they like it if you can have your work submitted ahead of schedule. It also gives them and you more time to make edits. It also means that they have a piece of cover art available on hand to get the early promotions-work rolling.

Do your best work every time.

Any book that manages to make it through to publication does so after a whole lot of work and collaboration has taken place by a whole lot of passionate people (not just the author/s and/or editor/s who wrote the book, but literary agents and the staff of the publishing house as well – editors and subeditors, as well as marketing, publicity and finance folks). All involved have a vested interest and pride and, in the case of the publishing house, money, in the outcome of the book, so it is very important that the book be given the best chance it can of being noticed in the marketplace and one way it can do that is by having a really good, eye-catching cover.

A good cover may not necessarily ‘sell’ a book (though I have personally bought books based on their cover art), but it will make a potential buyer pause to pick it up and browse it – which is the first crucial step a book needs to overcome on the path to being bought.

Be prepared to decline work.

Because it is so crucial that cover art be delivered on time and that it be the best piece of work possible to promote the book, you should be prepared to be honest and decline an offer of work if:

You think there’s a high chance you won’t make deadline

or

You’ve read the brief and do not think you are going to be able to do justice to what is being asked.

One thing I’d like to say about this second point, however, is not to mistake “inability to do the job” with “fear of failure”. Artistry often co-exists with a good dollop of self-doubt, which can only be overcome by having a go.

If you honestly can’t do the job (you don’t have the requisite gear, you truly don’t think you can create what they’re asking for in a weekend), that’s one thing, but don’t turn work down purely for a lack of confidence or because “you’ve never drawn a camel before” (or whatever it is they’ve asked for). Quite a few of my art commissions have started out with me having no idea how I was ever going to meet the brief and ended with a product the client has been happy with.

Once you start to mull over the brief, particularly if you’ve read the novel or anthology the cover or artwork is intended for, ideas and images will begin to form.

Read the brief carefully.

The brief tells you what the client wants you to create and what the artwork is intended for.

The cover art might not be solely intended as a printed-book cover, but also as an e-book cover (e-books are generally displayed in online shops as small thumbnails and, therefore, the simpler and more eye-catching covers tend to work better) and even a Facebook banner. This is important to know because printed covers are generally presented in CMYK format, whereas covers to be displayed on the internet (e-books and banners) are generally formatted as RGB.

Sometimes the publisher will be very specific about what he or she wants on the cover. Respect that, but trust your instincts as an artist and be willing to offer suggestions of your own (if your suggestions aren’t taken, however, don’t be offended – just move on and deliver what the publisher has asked for).

Technical things you really want to know before you start:

  • Dimensions – how big the cover is to be, including the dimensions of any bleeds. You do need to know the dimensions for e-book covers – e-book sellers (e.g. Amazon, Smashwords) often have strict specifications for the dimensions of e-book covers, as well as the minimum dpi resolution needed and the sizes of image files accepted.
  • If you are to meant to design the spine and back cover as well (this may not be needed if the book is to be e-book only). If you are doing front and back covers, don’t forget to include the width of the book’s spine. If this is not known, find out the maximum it is likely to be and give yourself the extra room (you can always take a little away later)
  • Whether the art is to be CMYK or RGB or greyscale (black and white – often used in interiors).
  • Image resolution in dpi
  • If the image is to be photographic or non-photographic (some publishers opt for a photographic style, while others prefer original drawn/painted or purely digitally-designed art).
  • If you are going to be doing the type-setting as well – placing the titles, author/editor names and blurb – and the publisher’s specifications for that (e.g. font, colour).

So as to not lose the effect of both artwork and type, always be sure to set places in the artwork for titles and author/editor names to fit, which won’t obstruct the visibility of important elements of the art.

Have a portfolio of your work.

Having a portfolio of your work is a good way to show prospective clients and publishers what you can do. Sites like Flickr! and Tumblr and Deviant Art are good places to get your art out there without fees.

You can visit my portfolio on Flickr at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/117588964@N07/