This spring, I’ve been doing quite a few events at local bookstores. I began to plan ahead for a series of book signings back in January/February, since bookstores have limited space to host author events at any time of the year. Consequently, it’s advisable to book your promotional event as early as possible.
Over the years, I have shown the local store managers that I can sell books, so I am in good standing to some degree, but I still need to ensure that I get a place in the store at my preferred times.
If you’re with a large publishing house, they might set up a tour for you or perhaps arrange a launch or one or two events when your first book is published. However, if you wish to maintain momentum, you have to remain in the public eye as much as possible and do events on a regular basis.
I have done signings at various times of the year, with the fall and run up to Christmas being the busiest time, as a rule. In the spring of 2011, I’ve done around fifteen events, mostly at the weekends.
In children’s stories, adults certainly have a role to play. Parents often have to be featured, even if only at the beginning, to provide an exchange of dialogue, set the scene and so on, but should be removed as soon as possible once the action starts, unless its truly essential for them to appear at some point or another in the story. In The Emerald Curse, my fourth novel, Charles Kelly, Sam’s grandfather, is renowned as the world’s greatest comic book artist and writer, until his mysterious disappearance and presumed death. It is his imagination that created the stories on which the bizarre comic book universe is based, but although Kelly has a prominent role in the adventure, he turns out to be almost a burden and something of a liability to Sam once the story develops. It is Sam who solves the riddles, makes most of the decisions and finds a resolution to the conflict.
In The Sorcerer’s Letterbox, Jack is very much left on his own to figure things out in the dangerous world of medieval England in 1483. He teams up with someone his own age from the time period, but there is no help from adults and indeed the grown ups in the story are mostly villains to be avoided.
In The Doomsday Mask, the main characters also have to deal with things themselves, and although adults are featured in the initial chapters, they are taken out of the story at the first available opportunity, in order to place the children in a difficult situation, which they need to extricate themselves from as a result of their own efforts. Children’s stories are just that, stories for children, with the reader being around the same age as the characters within the pages. If the reader is to identify with the characters at all, they have to be able to relate to them not merely as people, but also consider how they themselves might react to the frightening situations depicted in the story, thus making the tale all the more enjoyable and believable.
Despite the need for children to be the chief architects of their own adventures in novels for middle grade readers, there is certainly a place for adults in children’s stories, and not just as villains either. In my first novel, The Alchemist’s Portrait, Tess is a young woman in her early twenties who works in the restoration department at the city museum where the infamous portrait of Nicolaas van der Leyden is being expertly restored. In the course of the story, Matthew, the chief character, does indeed receive a great deal of important information from Tess at various points in the narrative and her help is essential to allow Matthew access to the museum after hours, for example, by the means of her security pass. However, in the end it is always Matthew, rather than Tess, who is responsible for finding all the answers and ultimately winning the day.
In my third novel, The Clone Conspiracy, another adult character, Lisa Mackenzie, is employed at LennoxGen, where secret human cloning procedures have been carried out. Lisa, is like Tess, crucial to the plot, providing a number of compelling details, offering tantalizing clues and so on. In this way, she is able to point Luke and Emma, the main characters, in the right direction to expose a shocking international scheme. However, it is once again the young protagonists who formulate strategies and eventually find solutions as a result of their own efforts.
I have featured time travel in three of my books to date and have the children encountering considerable obstacles once they are seemingly trapped in the past. A lot of time travel stories for middle grade readers don’t do this. At the beginning, the character may find an old locket or another piece of jewelry, for example, open it and go back to the past. While there, they perhaps meet one of their heroes from history, act in a play by Shakespeare, witness an event like the signing of the Declaration of Independence, watch a major battle, observe da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa or view a royal coronation, but they are never in jeopardy and come home in time for dinner, miraculously without their parents realizing they have been missing.
I always like to think of time travel tales as where, by accident, someone is sent into the past, where the device or machine is broken, runs out of power or is stolen by the villains, leaving the reader in suspense, wondering if the heroes will get home safely. Although the reader may believe that its likely that the heroes will escape, the implication that they may have to stay in the past, or even be seriously hurt, has to be there. The kids also have to solve the problem, as I mentioned last week. If an adult is with them, you have a person who has more knowledge, can drive a car, have access to money and so on, so they could easily take care of everything. If parents have to be involved at all in the adventure, they should be removed early on, so that the children have to find a solution to the obstacles they face very much on their own.
In your children’s science fiction or fantasy novel, even if the setting is in a different time period, in outer space or in a world completely unlike our own, it is imperative that the young characters in the story overcome their adversaries through their own efforts and find solutions to the problems and obstacles that they encounter. Adult characters can certainly appear in the book, and even assume very large roles in the story, but the main character or characters have to succeed by using their own abilities, even if they are young children.
Think about some of the stories you are familiar with. In Peter Pan, the children are taken from their London home to Neverland and face grave danger, but there are no adults to help them solve the issues that they face. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the two brothers and two sisters find themselves in a strange land in the grip of evil and are even expected to act as kings and queens. They do get help from Aslan, of course, but Peter still has to command a large army and also faces the possibility of death at the hands of the evil witch. Harry Potter frequently confronts grown ups who wish him harm and his relentless enemy throughout the series is an adult. He gets help from Dumbledore, certain teachers, his godfather and others at various stages, but usually works things out for himself or in partnership with people his own age, even against the deadly Lord Voldermort. In any number of children’s stories you are familiar with, the pattern will be similar, if not identical. To maintain the tension and hold the reader’s interest, the main character or characters have to be in some form of danger, even if the reader strongly suspects that the heroes will win in the end.
It’s important to remember that not all ideas make a novel, since some may be only suited to short stories, pictures books or even poems. Some ideas may turn out to be separate stories, as happened with The Alchemist’s Portrait and The Sorcerer’s Letterbox, which became two different books. If your dog or cat does something amusing, and this may seem fascinating to you, your family and friends, you have to ask yourself not only if this is sustainable as a story, but if people would actually want to read about it. That being said, writing what you know can be a lot easier too, if you are not prepared to do lots of research into a totally fresh topic. Perhaps you are a dog owner? Or are into sailing, rock climbing, hiking or antique vehicles? Do you have an interesting hobby or occupation? Or do you own property that has been in your family for several generations and has spooky stories attached to it? Creating a story about what you know, admittedly with embellishments as you build the plot, is still easier than starting from scratch. And even if it is a totally fresh idea, make sure that you really like the premise, since you will be immersed in the writing, editing and revising while you live in that world for months, or even years, at a time.
For a writer, having ideas in some ways is the easy part. If all that was needed were a good idea, everyone would be a writer. What takes time, dedication and effort is actually turning these ideas into stories.
You may have the general premise, but it must be able to sustain the reader’s interest for over a hundred and fifty pages or even three hundred or more for YA, teens or adults. You have to sit down and think about it, determining if it is actually feasible as a story.
I have a lot of ideas that may never become full blown stories, but I always keep a record of them, since I never know when I might get another piece of the puzzle. On several occasions, I have had part of the story, but haven’t been able to put my finger on some element that would make the plot work really well. Then one day, something comes to me out of the blue, an overheard conversation, a song on the radio, when I am working on some other story entirely and so on.
Keep everything you get as an idea, no matter how insignificant it may seem at the time. Create ideas files, either on paper or on the computer, character names you like the sound of, even if you don’t have a story yet to put them in, a title for a story or whatever it may be. Keep notepads handy, or even use a voice recorder, if you have ideas while driving.
SIMON SAYS has been a regular column at the National Writing for Children Center for several years. But starting this month, it will appear here at the Children’s Writers’ Coaching Club instead. You can still read back issues of this column at the National Writing for Children Center, though.
Although Lord of the Rings is set in a fictional world, many of the characters have some basis in history. Aragon as a reluctant hero, who shuns power for himself and merely seeks to free his people, has echoes of Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace, the hero of Braveheart. The wise counsellor is also a recurring character throughout history. Gandalf in Lord of the Rings is not ambitious for himself and only has his king’s best interest at heart. He thus tells the king what he should hear, not want the king wanted to hear. Queen Elizabeth I had several such wise counselors throughout her long reign. Conversely, in The Two Towers, King Theodan is ill served by Wormtongue, an excellent example of an evil adviser. In history, Rasputin wormed his way into the affections of the Russian Royal family in the First World War. He told the Tsar and his family what they wanted to hear, especially about their invalid son Alexei, even when qualified doctors told them the truth. Many factors drove Russia to revolution in 1917, but Rasputin certainly had a major role in the downfall of the Tsar.
Often books can be said to be very much a product of their time. Tolkien was writing during the Second World War, when it seemed very likely that Hitler and the forces of evil might triumph. The entire world appeared to be headed for darkness in the early 1940’s before the tide of battle eventually turned in the Allies favour. The fact that the often competing forces of the shire, Rohan, Gondor, elves and dwarves all put aside their differences for the common good has echoes of how Britain, the USA and the Soviet Union worked together to defeat the Nazis. In Lord of the Rings, the heroes are up against overwhelming odds all though the story. Sometimes there is good and sometimes there is evil and sometimes to save your civilization you have to be prepared to fight and die for it. Optimism runs through the tale. There is a refusal to give in, no matter what and to always have hope. In the end, its message is that it is possible for good to triumph over evil and the victory is worth all the blood that had to be spilt.