Guest blog: Ian Irvine – writing for children and young adults

We are delighted to welcome highly acclaimed Aussie author Ian Irvine to the FableCroft blog, for a guest post on writing for children and young adults. Thanks Ian!

Tehani asked me if I could post about writing for children and young adults. Though I’ve written a lot of books (27, in fact) and most of them are read by young adults, I’ve never written a book specifically for that age group, so this post will focus more on what I know about writing for children.

I’m best known for a long epic fantasy sequence set in the Three Worlds, though in recent years I’ve also written three quartets for younger readers – the Sorcerer’s Tower, Runcible Jones and Grim and Grimmer series’. However, writing for children covers a vast range of ages, abilities and interests, and each of my children’s quartets has been aimed at a different audience. I always keep the audience in mind while writing, and each series had to be written differently.

The Sorcerer’s Tower books, published in 2008, were part of Scholastic’s illustrated Fantastica series for mid-primary readers (the other quartets in this series were written by Kim Wilkins, Fiona McIntosh and Richard Harland) and were only 10,000 words each. My books were illustrated by DM Cornish, incidentally, and he did a magical job. For such a young audience I restricted the stories to a handful of characters, linear story lines, only one viewpoint, simple language, and of course concepts suitable for this age group.

You might think that such little books would be easy to write, but I found them a real challenge. In one sense they were easier – being much shorter, I could keep the whole story and all the characters in mind while writing each book. This isn’t possible in an epic fantasy quartet which can total 800,000 words or more, and where every editing task, even getting all the inconsistencies out, is a cosmic labour. On the other hand, big fantasy novels offer the writer more freedom, because readers are more tolerant of diversions and many fans love huge, complex plots. For children, however, the writing has to be tight, focused and clear.

Because I was used to writing the epic Three Worlds novels, it wasn’t easy to adjust my writing style to small, simple books. Simple can be surprisingly difficult to write – you have to create engaging characters, with a degree of complexity, and tell an exciting, fast-paced story, within a very small canvas. However reviewers and librarians have said that the Sorcerer’s Tower books are ideal for reluctant readers in primary school, and I’m delighted that they’ve encouraged some children to read who might otherwise have not done so. In doing these books I also learned a tremendous amount about writing economically, and that’s changed the way I’ve written since.

My first children’s series was Runcible Jones (published 2006-2010). These are much longer works, written for 9-14 year olds but also read by YA and adults. Here I could write more complex stories with strongly developed characters, though I still simplified the language, used a single viewpoint character and avoided ‘adult concepts’ such as sex, graphic violence, crude language, and strong crime and horror. These are okay in YA literature (with some limits) but rarely acceptable in children’s books. I spent a long time developing the story world for this series – an Earth where magic is illegal twinned with the world of Iltior where science is banned but magic routine – though in retrospect I think the canvas was too broad, the story world too large. Also, at 105,000 words each, these books were a bit long for the target audience. 60 – 80,000 words is the ideal length for younger readers, because a lot of children are daunted by the size of big books.

Why did I want to take time off from my very successful epic fantasies to write for children anyway? Good question. The eleven books of the Three Worlds sequence run to 2.3 million words and, though I love doing them, they’re mentally and creatively exhausting. At the end of each series I need a writing escape and after the last, The Song of the Tears, was finished in 2008 I longed to write something completely different. And much shorter.

Another reason – if a writer only ever does one kind of book, he or she tends to become typecast by both publisher and readers. Readers are reluctant to read something quite different by that writer, and publishers understandably reluctant to publish it. For this reason, all my writing life I’ve alternated epic fantasy with other kinds of books, to give me the flexibility to write whatever I feel like (within reason).

After finishing Song of the Tears, I wrote a proposal for a series of relatively short, humorous adventure stories called Grim and Grimmer (published by Scholastic in 2010 and 2011). Each book was to be around 25,000 words, and aimed at readers 8-13. This was going to be a real challenge because I’d never written humour before – well, not intentionally! – and wasn’t sure I could do it. It would be highly embarrassing if my attempts were unfunny.

I’d also noticed that, while there are plenty of humorous books for children, and plenty of adventure fantasy too, there aren’t many books that successfully combine humour with a strong, compelling plot. The really successful series that do both, such as Artemis Fowl, Skulduggery Pleasant and Bartimaeus, are for older readers. A gap in the market, I thought, ha!

I originally planned six of these books though, in the middle of the global financial crisis, my publisher could only commit to four. However when it was time to write them, Scholastic wanted longer books, 40,000 words or more each, and I was happy to make this change because the added length offered more scope for the stories I was developing. Such is the give and take in developing a series.

There’s oodles of fantasy adventure around for this age group and, for the Grim and Grimmers to succeed, I had to find a way to make them stand out. This wasn’t going to be easy, since they’re set in a fairly traditional world of children’s fantasy, with stock characters like goblins, trolls, dwarves and so forth. Don Maass (a top NY agent) wrote, in The Fire in Fiction, that most stories his agency sees fail because they’re too familiar, too bland, and too much the same as all the others. It’s the same with characters – most characters fail not because of too much exaggeration, but too little. And exaggeration and hyperbole is particularly important in writing humour, so I decided to indulge my zany side for once. I also acknowledge the assistance of John Vorhaus’ The Comic Toolbox here. It’s not just the best book on writing humour, it’s better than all the others put together.

To make stereotypical characters fresh, I twisted the stereotypes. My goblins are still greedy and calculating, but in Grim and Grimmer the entire goblin nation is under an enchantment that drives their flaws out of control – they’re so obsessed with gambling that they neglect their homes, children, personal hygiene and even the kingdom itself. The mournful goblin king, Dibblin the Doughty, constantly accepts responsibility for everything that’s gone wrong in his kingdom, then turns back to the gaming table without doing anything. The villainous Aigo bets on whether Useless Ike (the hero of the series) will survive various deadly ordeals he puts him through.

The dwarf Con Glomryt (all the dwarves are named after rock types), who challenges Ike to a contest, isn’t a typical dwarf warrior with an axe and chain mail, but a gold-toothed, smirking conman who resembles the lowest form of TV game show host. The huge, handsome demon Tonsil is as dumb as a doughnut and sweats crude oil by the barrel – he’s a real fire hazard at a party! The apparently kindly old lady, Fluffia Tralalee, who lives in a cave carpeted in pink shag pile, with fluffy bunny wallpaper, turns out to be a bloodthirsty old bat with an armoury big enough to start World War 3. And Tonsil’s sister, the demon Spleen, specialises in psychological pain. She doesn’t just get inside Ike’s head, she actually puts her head inside his head (via another plane), to identify his secret terrors and see how to best torment him. And so on for the entire cast of characters.

But were the books funny, you ask. Well, they had lots of reviews and all the reviewers thought so. Writing these books was the first time I really let go, and it was worth it. Grim and Grimmer is the most fun I’ve ever had writing, and I’m sorry that the series is finished.

However, epic fantasy calls. I’m presently doing the final edits for Vengeance, book one of a brand new series, The Tainted Realm, out in Australia in November and the UK and US in 2012.

Ian Irvine is a marine scientist who has developed some of Australia’s national guidelines for the protection of the marine environment and still works in this field. He has also written 27 novels, including the internationally bestselling Three Worlds fantasy sequence, an eco-thriller trilogy and twelve books for children. Website: http://www.ian-irvine.com/

On his Facebook author site, Ian is giving away three sets of his trilogies and quartets every week for the whole of 2011, plus other great prizes. To celebrate the publication of Vengeance, there’ll be another iPad2 giveaway later in the year.

To enter any of the comps, go to http://www.facebook.com/ianirvine.author.

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2 Responses to Guest blog: Ian Irvine – writing for children and young adults

  1. Maree Kimberley says:

    thanks for the tip about The Comic Toolbox – have to look that one up.

  2. Ian Irvine says:

    The great thing about The Comic Toolbox, Maree, is that it shows, very simply, the different kinds of humour and how they work. A lot of the other books I’ve read on the subject emphasise humour’s complexity and unknowability.

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