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Advice for Authors On Writing

On Writing: Characters in Children’s Fiction with Kim Slater

Writing with a voice that feels authentic and distinctive is one is one of the key elements of a great book. It’s something that all writers strive to hone and need to nail in order to hook the reader.

It’s a long process and that process becomes more complicated when you are writing for a younger reader and, perhaps, even harder when your protagonist is also a younger character.

On the publication day of her new novel The Boy Who Lied, multi-award-winning YA author Kim Slater gives advice On Writing younger characters for a younger audience. Kim has been nominated for the prestigious CILIP Carnegie Medal three times and has won and been nominated for numerous other awards for her outstanding novels Smart, A Seven-Letter Word and 928 Miles From Home . As someone who clearly knows what she’s talking about, we asked her how she manages to create such authentic and convincing young characters and voices.

BoyWhoLiedHBWIP (1).jpg

How do you write a teenager that feels authentic?

I use the same method as I do to get inside any character’s head; I imagine I am that person. I think about challenges they may face and how it might feel. And after all, most authors are at an advantage when it comes to writing for children and young adults . . . we have all been there! So, for me, it is taking some time to think back, to put myself in that younger mindset once more and think how certain issues or events might feel.

So in my latest book, ‘928 Miles From Home,’ there is a character called Sergei who comes to live in the UK from Poland with his mum. I invested some thinking time and put myself in Sergei’s shoes; he didn’t care about making a better life in another country . . . a detail that was important to his mum. Sergei was more concerned and upset about leaving his best friend, his pets, his grandfather.

I think these things would be uppermost in any young person’s mind and I think the reader would agree that these considerations would be authentic to young people leaving their home.

 

Are there any touchstones you use to make your characters come alive first for you and then your reader?

I’d say thinking time is my first rule of writing a new story. I always begin by setting aside some space to become the character and I begin by thinking in first-person, even if ultimately I know I’ll be writing them in third-person POV. I begin by free-thinking and then graduate to free-writing where I just write about anything at all but from my main character’s POV.

That really finds their voice for me and once I have the voice, everything else – like back story – soon follows. I like to get to know my characters well and, even if I don’t use all the information I ‘know’ about them, I feel it gives a depth and authenticity to the writing which the reader can somehow sense.

 

Do your characters appear three dimensional with a story in your head immediately, or do you have the character then work on their story, or vice versa?

The character voice always comes first for me and the main character is usually strong from the outset, although I wouldn’t claim they are immediately three-dimensional. That takes extra thinking time, ‘simmering’ as I call it, prior to starting to write. Once I feel I have a handle on the character, the next stage, for me, is to think about some of the things that might happen to them.

In my second book, ‘A Seven-Letter Word,’ Finlay, the main character, has a debilitating stutter. When I felt I had a good sense of his character, I began to think about some situations he might find himself in.

The only way you can hide a very bad stammer is to not speak, so I asked myself, what would be the worst place you might have to go? And the answer came; school. Because it’s a very difficult not to speak at all. So I have lots of scenes in school with challenges that Finlay is forced to face on a daily basis; stuff that most young readers can identify with.

 

Your protagonists are all around 14 years old – what is significant about this time of life?

I think it’s quite a profound time in a young person’s life. It’s an age when they begin to form their own opinions and maybe question others’ opinions too. Maybe they start to think about what they’d like to do in the future for the first time when choosing subjects to study at school.

Without doubt, around this age can also be a frustrating time; difficult relationships at home and school and feeling more grown up but still getting treated like a little kid. For an author . . . very interesting material!

There is also the consideration that younger readers tend to like to ‘read up’ a couple of years. I’d say my books are probably most popular with 11-12 year olds, so having a 14 year old protagonist fits just about right.

 

Is it important for the reader to like the main character in a children’s book?

For YA, I think that ultimately, the answer is yes. I tend to naturally write flawed characters who often have facets of their personality that are not so likeable – on the plus side, I feel this makes them rounded and more realistic.

I want the reader to understand the protagonist, empathise with them; even if they don’t necessarily condone or agree with some of their behaviour.

But one should remember that young readers tend to place themselves in the shoes of the main character. So, for this genre, there must be a lot to like in the protagonist, I think.

 

The Boy Who Lied is published by Macmillan Children’s Books today. Follow Kim on Twitter: @Kimslater01

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Newsletter

Agency Newsletter

Hello!

There’s always a lot going on at the agency, with authors, rights, submissions etc. but we always want to keep you in the loop.

The newsletter is, again, packed with news. August is usually a quiet month in publishing – but not for the DA Agency.

Our debut authors are enjoying immense success around the world, our much-loved established authors continue to grow from strength to strength and we welcome new faces to our DA Children’s Book Agency.

We have a brand new Twitter account for DA Children’s so make sure your following (and on Facebook too).

Enjoy the rest of sunny summer days!

Kristina

 

  • Make sure you download as a PDF for the best quality.

 

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Newsletter Uncategorized

Agency Newsletter

Hello, Readers!

Here’s the roundup from the agency for June, and this really is one for all you Jack Reacher fans out there.

There’s also exciting news about our authors’ successes overseas as well as events and awards on home turf.

Be sure to download the newsletter for the best quality read and to follow all of the links we’ve given you to interesting interviews and Hollywood blockbusters…

DA Agency said nothing.

A very happy weekend to you all.

Kristina

 

Categories
Darley Anderson Authors Meet the DA team

14 Pictures You Need to See from the Launch of Kim Slater’s Debut Novel SMART

1. This picture of all these beautiful copies of Smart at Waterstones in Nottingham:

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2. This picture of our own Mary Darby and Clare Wallace (respectively) marveling at the brilliant turnout:

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3. And this one of the live music performed by Jake:

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4. This fantastic reader recommendation from the staff of Waterstones:

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5. This picture of Kim’s editor Rachel Kellehar of Macmillan Children’s Books introducing her:

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6. Especially this picture of Kim Slater taking the stage:

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7. This one of Kim reading an extract from her debut novel Smart:

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8. And this one of her taking questions from the crowd:

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9. This picture of Clare queuing to get our copies signed by the author herself:

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10. This fan telling Kim he liked the opening line of Smart so much that he’d like her to include it with her autograph:

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11. Kim making good use of the perfect space left for her signature amongst the illustrations on the title page of Smart:

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12. These fans excitedly clutching their signed copies:

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13. This photograph of a debut author and her agent:

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14. And finally this picture of Kim Slater and her Darley’s Angels – Vicki Le Feuvre, Mary Darby and Clare Wallace:

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SMART is on sale now at all good bookshops. To find out more about Kim Slater and her tips for new writers read our interview with her here.

Categories
Darley Anderson Authors Interviews

An Interview with Kim Slater

Kim Slater is the debut author of SMART, an uplifting young adult novel about an extraordinary boy’s struggle to be understood.

In celebration of SMART’s publication day Kim has stopped by the Darley Anderson Blog to talk to Vicki Le Feuvre about everything from finding her agent (that’s our own Clare Wallace) to SMART’s book launch (that’s tonight).

Kim Slater - debut author of SMART
Kim Slater – debut author of SMART

Vicki Le Feuvre: First of all, your debut novel SMART is out now and getting great reviews. How has your week of publication gone so far?

Kim Slater: It’s been so exciting! I’ve been overwhelmed by the reviews that have been coming in from both children and adult book reviewers. I’ve been busy doing interviews with local press, a blog tour and making preparations for my book launch party at Waterstones, Nottingham.

VLF: Knowing how prolific you are on Twitter, we wondered if you would be able to summarise the plot of Smart in the form of a tweet for us?

KS: When brilliant artist Kieran finds a dead body in the river, he vows to uncover the truth but reveals well-kept secrets much closer to home. 140 characters

VLF: Kieran is such a great character with an utterly compelling and unique voice, I know I fell in love with him the moment I picked up your submission. How did you create his character? Was there any sort of process to this or did you find his voice came naturally to you?

KS: Kieran’s voice literally jumped in my head and within a few days, his character felt almost fully formed. Within days I could tell you how he would react to certain things, what he would say in certain situations. It felt like a gift as a debut author!

VLF: A lot of the reviews have already compared Smart to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon and have commented favourably on how you never force Kieran into any particular category or label the specific learning difficulties which require him to have a personal teaching assistant at school. Was this a conscious choice for you? Did you not want to pigeonhole Kieran’s character by giving him a label?

KS: I’m very flattered by comparisons to Curious Incident but I never set out to label Kieran in any way. I just knew that he thought in a different way to most boys his age and that he was on the Spectrum – as I personally think many of us are!

I didn’t want to define him in terms of that, the only thing I felt quite strongly was that he was high-functioning and that his particular way of thinking was going to be an advantage in investigating the mystery and also holding a mirror up to the reader in terms of human behaviour through Kieran’s eyes.

VLF: I have heard this rumour going round the agency for a while now and I wanted to ask – is it true that you wrote the first draft of Smart in eleven days?

KS: Yes, this IS true. Initially, I sent Smart out to three agencies who all asked for the full manuscript. The trouble was, I had only written about eight-thousand words of it . . . I know, I know, agents HATE it when writers submit like that!

Thankfully it was half-term and I was off work so I just buckled down and wrote the remainder of the manuscript, averaging 4-5k words a day. I would not recommend this, it was very stressful! But because of Kieran’s character being so well-rounded in my head, the book really did almost write itself.

VLF: Do you have any particular writing habits or requirements? Do you write in any one particular place, for example? On computer or by hand?

KS: I do nearly all my writing sat on the bed and I’m very fortunate to have a lovely view of the River Trent, where Kieran found a dead body.

Pictured: Kim's favourite writing spot
Pictured: Kim’s favourite writing spot

I can touch-type so using a laptop is definitely the most efficient way for me to get words down.

I am self-employed and work full-time in schools managing budgets, so I set the alarm each morning and write between 6-8 am. On weekends I write Saturday and Sunday mornings until lunchtime.

As you might have guessed, I have discovered that mornings are my best creative time!

VLF: Smart is an excellently challenging read for young adults which engages with a lot of real-world issues. It’s definitely a book that I would have devoured at Kieran’s age. I wondered what sort of books you read at that age and whether these had any influence on you when it came to writing Smart?

KS: I have always been a prolific reader even as a child and I read far and wide from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia to Roald Dahl and his Tales of the Unexpected. I think I was definitely influenced by these amazing authors because it taught me the value of great characters and a strong storyline.

VLF: Saying that, I did actually devour Smart as an adult, I think that Kieran’s story works brilliantly as a crossover novel. Was this something that you had in mind while you were writing? Did you have any particular reader in mind?

KS: Smart began life as a short story for my Creative Writing assignment. One of my specialist modules was Writing for Children & Young Adults, so I did intend it to be read by a YA audience. But as the book grew, I sensed adults would also enjoy reading it, too because Kieran’s observations about the world seem to ring true to people of all ages.

VLF: For the budding authors who frequent our blog I wondered if you could give us your top three pieces of advice for new writers?

KS:

  1. Spend some time getting to know yourself as a writer.
    Identify your best time for working and carve out some time around it. Do you work best writing from a rough plan or without one? Are you more productive writing in one particular place? These things are important because when you get them right – and everybody is different – you’re giving yourself the best chance to get down to writing without distraction.
  2. Learn what you write best.
    If you’re not sure, experiment. Try writing lots of different pieces with different points of views and in different genres. I’m still using ideas I developed for MA assignments – writing courses of all descriptions are great for building a base of ideas/short pieces. Your first instincts are often a good indication to what comes naturally – nine times out of ten my character voices come to me in first person.
  3. Make good beginnings.
    Agents, publishers, readers all like an exciting, grabbing beginning to any story. Below, I talk about how I redrafted Smart a new beginning following independent edit advice. There’s no need to get hung up about this during the first draft, you can always come back to it any time, in fact sometimes it’s easier to have a better overview of what it needs once you’ve reached the end of your novel.

VLF: And how did you go about getting an agent yourself?

KS: The three agencies I mentioned earlier all passed on Smart when I sent in the full manuscript. Of course, I was very disappointed but still, I really believed I had something with this book. I had sent submissions out before embarking on my degree and MA and never moved from the slush pile, so to get three requests for the full manuscript was a big step.

I’d finished my MA module by then so I decided to pay for an independent edit. Sometimes, when you’ve worked really closely and intensely with a manuscript, it’s difficult to stand back and evaluate what you need to do in order to improve it.

I would say the two most important developments that came from this redraft was that, on the editor’s advice, I cut the first three chapters so Smart began in a more exciting place and I lightened up a little on some of the difficult scenes and issues so the book was not too bleak for its intended YA audience.

The editor believed in Smart so much she recommended it to several agencies she worked with. Amazingly, I got five offers of agency representation – of which the Darley Anderson Literary Agency was one!

VLF: Kieran is an avid fan of L S Lowry’s paintings which is mirrored beautifully in the fantastic cover art by Helen Crawford-White. What was it about Lowry that made you choose his work in particular as the object of Kieran’s adoration?

KS: I agree, the illustrator Helen Crawford-White and the Pan Macmillan art department have done such a fantastic job with the cover, I still can hardly believe how apt and beautiful it is when I hold the book in my hands.

Helen Crawford-White's cover art for SMART
Helen Crawford-White’s cover art for SMART

I had just started to develop Smart the short story into Smart the YA novel when my fiancé Mac and I went to a Lowry exhibition one weekend, at the Lakeside Art Centre in Nottingham where we live. Mac already really liked Lowry’s art and although I wasn’t massively fussed, I was happy to go along as I’d seen his matchstick people and dogs and thought it all looked quite pleasant.

The exhibition was organised into time periods of Lowry’s life and I was knocked off my feet when we got to the paintings he’d done after the death of his mother. All the people and animals were gone, the paintings were bleak and lonesome and they touched me deeply. The fact it was so unexpected made it even more poignant for me.

That influence translated directly into the Smart manuscript when I got home. Suddenly, Kieran was given a lifeline in his troubles; Lowry’s art inspired and helped him cope.

My great hope is that some of Smart’s young readers might seek out one or two of the paintings online that I’ve named in the book and see how they feel about them.

The exhibition at Nottingham was temporary but I’d absolutely encourage anyone to pay a visit to the permanent Lowry art gallery at Salford, Manchester, it really is excellent.

VLF: And finally, if you had to pick, what would you say was your favourite Lowry artwork?

I have two Lowry framed prints (sadly, not originals!) in our apartment. One is Coming From the Mill, 1930, which depicts hoards of mill workers leaving at the end of a long, hard day.

L S Lowry's Coming From the Mill
L S Lowry’s Coming From the Mill

The other is At the Seaside – people and of course, dogs having fun on the beach – impressively, Lowry still manages to include a smoking chimney in the background!

L S Lowry's At the Seaside
L S Lowry’s At the Seaside

It’s a personal ambition of mine to own a Lowry original. Who knows – maybe one day!

Kim’s stunning debut novel, SMART published by Macmillan Children’s Books, is out today and you can follow her on twitter: @Kimslater01 for more updates.