I picked up this book, Writing A Children's Book by Pamela Cleaver, way back when I started working in the bookshop. We’d ordered it in especially for our Reference section, and I just bought it straight out. I didn’t read it. The sticker on the back says it came into three and a half years ago. So, bear that in mind, then also bear in mind that the original publication of this book was in 2001. This is an old book (as far as books go, yes, this is old). This book will be filled with inconsistencies in how we do things these days. It uses words like Postcard instead of Email. And it has a couple of errors in it that some wonderfully helpful YA authors helped me deal with. The corrections are at the bottom of the review, so you don’t get caught out.
What did you think of the book?
Okay, two things: it was easy to read (I got through it in a day... a day I was also in work for six hours with only a half hour break for eating!) and it did contain lots of helpful advice on writing fiction for children. It went through the basics of what different stories there were to be told (genres, etc) and it warned against a number of different things when submitting (like looking at the current market and thinking it has to be the same... or avoiding the market completely and thinking you’re revolutionising it; My book is so much better than every other book on the shelves at the minute, even the stuff you commissioned. That’s a big NO. If you take anything from this book it’s that you should read more. I advise checking out my reviews, which split Kids books up into categories – you might not have heard of some of them.) In saying both of those things, I will also advise you to check out the corrections department at the end of this review to make sure you don’t do the very, very stupid things Cleaver advises. 2001 or not, she was just wrong, and it almost spoiled the book. Twice.
Have you found the book useful?
Like all books I read about writing, it has given me an idea. Or three. So, yes, I found it useful. I have yet to actually write anything on these ideas (I’m still waiting for a way to start them to work its way to the front of my brain, which is currently on backlog with various other types of fiction), but the book has given me a way of sorting through the ideas easily enough. And, in researching the faults in the book (one in particular), I have a better idea of how to plan these books properly. The tips Cleaver gives are actually quite useful, and not just for children’s books (just especially for them.)
Who would you recommend this book to?
The obvious target market is the large group of people who think they want to write for children because it’s clearly so easy. Let’s smash that illusion right now, shall we? It’s not easy. It’s damn-well difficult. Picture books, despite their size are hard to write. YA books, despite being closely related to the more advanced books in the adult section (i.e. general fiction, Sci-Fi, Fantasy and occasionally Crime Fiction), are even harder to write than their adult counterparts, because they have to limit themselves to the maturity of the audience and, if they’re really daring, try to teach the reader something without being preachy (think John Green and every one of this books!) and entertain without being too creepy (think Twilight, minus Stephenie Meyer making a guest appearance as Bella Swan and the 120 year old stalker looking at the minor...)
As well as that, though, anyone who wants to write any sort of fiction can benefit from this. Nowadays, many adults are reading books from the children’s section without realising it such as Twilight, The Hunger Games and His Dark Materials, to name but a few. Getting to grips with how stories are aimed at different ages and interests can help with developing ideas for different markets in the adult world.
Now, what were those dreaded corrections?
Cleaver makes two big mistakes that I saw: one on the word count of teen fiction, and one on submitting to publishers/agents. Nevermind the outdated use of the word ‘postcard’, we’re talking stuff that will really change the way you use this book. And this is bad change, we’re talking about.
My problem, in tweet form: What's the average length of a YA book? @realjohngreen @maureenjohnson @barryhutchison - a book I'm reading says 35000 words.
Ken Armstrong's response: It's a piece of string question - 35k sounds awful short to me. Would guess 50-60k min. I know nothing obv. You could flog that length as a novella perhaps
Barry Hutchison’s response: As long as it needs to be. Fiends are all about 45k. Horseman is 60k. Think Dept 19 is 120k+. Depends on the story.
John Green’s response: I'd say 60-100 thousand. (Alaska is 228 pages--very short--and it's 65,000 I think.)
Maureen Johnson’s (hilarious) response: YOUR BOOK IS WRONG!
So, that was kind of vital. Hutchison’s books are aimed at slightly younger readers, hence the lower word count on the Invisible Fiends books when compared to John Green’s book (Looking For Alaska). If someone followed Cleaver’s advise, the result would be a book that is far too short for publication. Do not follow her advice. Mine is clearly better (and that is to listen to Hutchison, Green and Johnson, even if the latter isn’t so much helpful as comical – that’s helpful in its own way!)
But Cleaver wasn’t done ruining your career. So, without further introduction:
My problem, in tweet form: On submitting the MSS: book suggest putting the copyright notice at the end. Thoughts? @realjohngreen @maureenjohnson @barryhutchison
Barry Hutchison’s response: I've never done that. The fact you wrote it means you have copyright and pub knows that.
Brendan McLoughlin’s* response: I think if u [sic] submit to agents, they'll be able to make the copywrite [sic] decisions
Maureen Johnson’s (hilarious) response: Okay, what is this crazy book?
*Brendan went on to make the point of this all being pretentious, particularly for unknown authors such as myself and him. The last thing we need is to insult the publishers we're submitting to.
Again, follow my advice: leave out that nasty copyright symbol (©). Publishers are not thieves nor are they stupid. If you really feel that insecure about your work, you shouldn’t be submitting it anywhere. Get over your insecurities about someone stealing your work by doing the smart thing: print a copy for yourself and put it in an envelope. Go to the post office, a very old form of email for those of you who find the concept alien in its entirety, and send that envelope with your complete book (and your name, details, etc...) to yourself or a trusted friend. Hold on, we’re not done. When it arrives, DO NOT OPEN IT. Look at the top of the envelope. There is a postage date. This is government approved. This is guaranteed, 100%, proof that this envelope was in existence at this date. When you submit, no one can steal your work, because if they do they’ll have a nasty law suit on their hands for breaching copyright – you have a date to prove when you had it, they don’t. No matter how big they are, you win.
A word on that, before you go mad: ideas can’t be copyrighted, and someone may have had an idea very similar to yours that was accepted when yours wasn’t. This does not mean the publisher stole your work. Do not sue everyone who publishes something similar to what you wrote. Do the mature and smart thing: write a book that is even more unique and amazing than your other book, and keep writing to get both published.
A further note on copyright: once you write it, it’s yours. The copyright symbol (©) is just clarification of the year of copyright. The envelope in the post is just your proof that you are the author. They do not seal the deal. They are essentially irrelevant, until someone challenges the authorship of the book. (This also applies to music, paintings, and pretty much everything that people create, though products require patents to prevent theft – I am not a patent expert, ask me no questions on it.)
So, what next?
Again, lots of reviews to come from me. And lots of writing. I have to catch up on Camp NaNoWriMo. It’s not a children’s book, though. I couldn’t figure out how to start Brilliant Idea 1 or Brilliant Idea 2. I’ll figure them out while I’m writing my fantastic Science Fiction novel. (They say self-praise is no praise. That’s stupid. It’s just not worth anything to anyone else, which is why modesty is preferable.)