Five ways to make your book better – right now!

Friends, I have some tips. Many of these tips I have gleaned from hard life experience:  for example ‘don’t cut your own fringe when you are in a bad mood’ and ‘don’t try running a 5k shortly after eating a Terry’s chocolate orange’.

Other tips come from the hundreds of children’s and Young Adult books I have been lucky enough to work on. These are simple, easy to apply, and will improve your book immediately.

1. Know Your Audience

I say this very often to first-time writers, many of whom have wonderful ideas but haven’t quite nailed the right style for the age group they want to write for. When I say ‘style’ I mean things like word choice, sentence length, and how complex or straightforward the characters’ inner thoughts or dialogue might be.

If you’re writing your first book, or trying your hand writing for a new age range, please go to your local bookshop or library and leaf through a few books aimed at this age group. The most common mistake I see: writers have a younger idea with an older, more sophisticated writing style.

2. Introduce Us!

Make sure we know your main character well. The opening pages don’t need to give us lots of backstory, but they do need to give us a character we can visualise, someone we are happy to commit to following for the next 20,000 or 40,000 or 80,000 words. You can help the reader here.

What makes your main character tick? What do they look like? If you’re stuck and don’t know how to describe them: what are they most afraid of? What motivates them? Can you thread through some of this detail so your readers really get to know this person?

3. Be Extremely Brutal

Almost every book I edit ‘flags’ somewhere in the second half. The pacing drops, or there are unnecessary scenes that don’t further the plot, or there are pages of beautiful description that don’t really serve a purpose.

Be brutal. Does every scene earn its place? If the scene doesn’t move the plot along, does it help develop the characters, or set up something important later in the novel? Cut where you can.

4. Lose the Frilly Bits

OK, ‘frilly bits’ is not an official publishing term. But it is something to be aware of! What is a frilly bit? For example, instead of ‘he said’, I might find ‘he pondered’ or ‘he stipulated’ or ‘he mused’. They have a place in some books, but very, very often, and especially when writing for younger readers, ‘said’ will be fine. Or ‘shouted’ or ‘yelled’ or ‘cried’ if someone is upset.

5. Tell Us How It Feels

‘Emotional response’ is something I ask for a lot, especially in any story that involves a protagonist on a quest or a voyage of discovery or experiencing something odd or mysterious. You must make sure your hero or heroine responds to things. Too often, someone will time travel / find a monster in their cupboard / turn into a unicorn / something equally surprising, and then just – go about their day as normal?

Your readers will want a relatable response to the weird thing that has just happened. It’s also a very effective way to recap and solidify a story twist; your protagonist could be talking to a school friend and go ‘you won’t BELIEVE what happened this morning’ – and then you can explore the strange happening through dialogue. Easy-peasy.

Thanks for reading!

I hope these tips help as you write. If you need feedback on your children’s book, are trying to find an agent, or need help getting published, The Lighthouse is here to help.

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Whether you have a brand new idea, or have been fiddling with a text for years … we’re here to help.

About Sarah Stewart

Sarah Stewart is a Director at Lighthouse Literary. She was previously Fiction Editor at Scholastic Children's Books and a Senior Editor at Floris Books, and she writes the Elspeth Hart series, published by Stripes.