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Emirates LitFest Writing Prize Writing Tips

As you begin to prepare your manuscript so you can enter the Emirates LitFest Writing Prize competition, here’s some advice from the judge of our Children’s Fiction Category.

Writing Advice from Louise Lamont

This is a hugely exciting time to be launching a prize category with the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature to celebrate writing for children. Over the last 20 years, the children’s book market has transformed into what Costa-winning author Frances Hardinge called ‘a beautiful jungle’ – here you’ll find rich, enthralling, playful story-telling for all ages. I am hugely excited to be taking part as a judge – and I’ve been asked to offer some insight into writing for young readers. So here are some general observations and advice:

Children are the best readers
They’re wildly curious; they’re open to anything; they know the rules of a story, but also love to see those rules being tossed in the air. Above all, they know that a story exists to entertain its readers – and they will let you know as soon as a story stops doing that. Children won’t stick with a story that is boring or patronising to them – and that makes them the most ruthless and the most rewarding of readers. If you can write well for children, you can write well for anyone – nothing hones the writing mind quite like the prospect of your work being thrown across the room with the devastating verdict of ‘BORED NOW’!

I can’t find the exact quotation, but I’m sure I read somewhere that the legendary Puffin editor Kaye Webb said that children’s authors should bear in mind a child’s two favourite questions: are we there yet? And what’s for tea? The first question speaks to that child’s fear of being bored – they want to get somewhere as quickly as possible, so don’t let your story dawdle. And the second question might seem more frivolous, but it’s perhaps the reason why children’s books have such glorious food descriptions – so treat yourself (and your reader) to some real feasts.

Make sure you’re writing for kids nowadays – not for the kids you grew up with, and not for the parents. Think about the voice in which you’re telling the story – is it aimed at a young reader, or is it aimed over their heads at an adult?

Read lots
Steep yourself in the books that your likely readers are enjoying at the moment – read widely around the children’s department of your local bookstore, see what other authors are up to. Look at contemporary writers, but also consider why some of the classic children’s authors have endured.

Keep it snappy
Attention spans and literacy levels have been affected by the huge disruption of the last few years, so keep your story tight and lean. Not only will this ensure your plot is zipping along, but it will help reading feel more accessible: longer books can appear daunting to nervous young readers.

If you think ‘but I absolutely NEED at least five chapters to set up my story’, please find a copy of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and see how swiftly CS Lewis gets Lucy into Narnia (spoiler alert: it’s by page 3). If Clive can be that quick about it, so can you.

That said, make sure you give your readers enough time to settle in before your story makes its first turn. Often, writers are told to begin ‘in medias res’ – in the thick of the action. But I think it’s more accurate to say you should begin on the EVE of the action, on the BRINK of change. So even though it doesn’t hang about, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe also doesn’t open with Lucy stumbling through the wardrobe into the snows of Narnia. Instead, those first three pages provide us with all the information we need to understand Lucy and the world as she knows it (she’s been evacuated with her brothers and sister; they’re in a strange old professor’s house and have been left to their own devices; the siblings are getting on each other’s nerves and Lucy is the youngest) so that we feel the shock of her discovery on page 3. Look also at the first paragraphs of Northern Lights by Philip Pullman and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: they both take place on the eve of something momentous and give us just enough time to meet our main characters (Lyra and Katniss) before the real action kicks off.

Read your work aloud
Whether you’ve written a picture book or a YA novel, reading a manuscript aloud is a really effective way of catching things that you might not spot on the paper. You’ll hear the rhythms of your sentences and paragraphs, you’ll hear when you’re excited by what you’re narrating and you’ll hear when things start to flag.

Word Count Guide
Some very rough word count guides with equally rough age guides:

  • Picture book: 500-800 words (0-5 year old)
  • Younger fiction: 10,000-30,000 words (5-8 yo)
  • Middle Grade: 30,000-50,000 words (9-12yo)
  • Teen and YA: 60,000-80,000 words (13+)

I haven’t gone into any detail about what is working in the market at the moment, because I want you all to focus on telling the story you are most excited about – by the time you’ve written it and lined it up for publication, the trends we see in today’s children’s market may well have changed. But there will always be an appetite for strong story-telling – and I very much look forward to reading your entries! Happy reading and happy writing (and re-writing) to you all!

Good Luck!


Enter the LitFest Writing Prize

If you’re considering entering the Adult Fiction Category, make sure you read Luigi Bonomi’s advice.

And finally, if you feel ready to enter the Children’s Fiction Category of the competition, make sure you review the guidelines and pay the entry fee so you can submit your application!

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