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Create a Glow-in-the-Dark Story

Create a Glow-in-the-Dark Story

You’re poised at the post box. You take a deep breath and give your manuscript one last squeeze for good luck. 

You’ve sweated over this story for months, maybe years, and you have high hopes for its success.
You run through the checklist in your mind. Your story has…
a dramatic beginning, an intriguing middle and a surprise ending.
Check
believable characters with interesting problems to solve.
Check
good pacing with plenty of twists and turns.
Check
close editing to weed out those jangled tenses, grammatical bloopers and typos.
Check
copybook presentation with wide margins, double-spacing and clear crisp ink.
Check

Great. You can’t lose, right?

Wrong.

The sad truth is that these story elements alone will not win you an editorial second glance. Sure they’re important but there is one more ingredient that is an absolute must-have if you want to achieve publishing success. This ingredient has the power to transform a competent, well-structured piece of writing (ho hum) into a crazed beastie that leaps about in the slush pile screaming Pick me. Pick me.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

This essential ingredient is, you guessed it… sparkle. And in today’s highly competitive publishing industry, it is the one key element that can make the difference between success and failure, acceptance and rejection.

I’ll have three crate loads please

It’s a shame there’s no recipe for sparkle. If I could find one, I’d clone it by the truckload and sell it at every writers’ festival in the known universe.

The fact is that sparkle is as elusive as stardust.

When I first began writing for children (and the rejection slips were mounting up) I spent a lot of time reading and rereading best selling children’s books. My goal was to track down the magical essence of these successful publications and it didn’t take me long to discover some of the ways sparkle manifests.

Here are a few examples…

Rhythm and flow

Sparkle is in the way language sounds. This subheading could have been entitled Flow and Rhythm but that sequence of sounds somehow jangles. Picture books – the really magical ones – sparkle from beginning to end through the melody created in each carefully chosen word sequence.

A classic example is the beauty found in the simple rhythms of Mem Fox’s Possum Magic (published by Omnibus Books).

She looked into this book and she looked into that.
There was magic for thin and magic for fat,
magic for tall and magic for small,
but the magic she was looking for wasn’t there at all.

Creative language

Successful children’s authors understand how to manipulate words to elicit a response from the reader. They take ordinary every day words and stretch them into new shapes or use them in unexpected ways. While picture books authors utilise the rhymes and rhythms of language to enthral pre-schoolers, older readers are captivated by word play.

Here is an example from Cocky Colin (written by Richard Tulloch and published by Omnibus Press). Cocky Colin is a cockroach who wants to leave the mundane life of the kitchen and see the world. He lives with his extended family in a cramped place called Back Off Ridge. Back off Ridge? Say it sl..ow..ly. It took me a moment to realise that Cocky’s family lived at the back of the fridge. This clever addition to the story had me smiling.

Another example of creative language is taken from an early chapter book in the Jets series published by HarperCollins. The story (Nora Bone and the Tooth Fairy by Girling and Blundell) is aglow with sparkle and fun.

In one scene, the police dog, Nora Bone, is chasing a criminal. She goes:
I must admit, (pant) that at this point, (pant) I was feeling, (pant) a bit puffed. (pant) (pant, pant)
A speech bubble under the last two words says: “A spare pair of pants.”
Pure unadulterated sparkle.

Note that in both these examples, the authors utilise word play to create clever names for their characters.

A touch of quirk
How many times have you read publishers’ guidelines that include a request for ‘quirky fun stories’ - especially for middle-grade novels? Quirkiness is almost as hard to define as sparkle but let’s just say it’s a skewed worldview that is a little left of centre. Most middle primary children love quirky stories which is why Paul Jennings (the king of quirk) is so popular at this level.

One way of achieving a quirky feel is to be alert for the chance to surprise your reader with the unexpected. Toss a fairytale character into a horror story, view an everyday scene from an unfamiliar angle or, more simply, throw in an unexpected turn of phrase.

For this example, I’ve chosen to eschew the king of quirk and use a scene from my forthcoming junior novel The Creeping Cave Monster (Otford Press).

The main character is unnerved by rumours of a blood-sucking monster creeping through the bush:
My brain whirls into fast forward.
If the Monster was in our camp, then…where is it now?
I stare into the shadowy bushes. The trees huddle together in the grey mist. Their leaves rustle faintly like they’re telling secrets.
I shudder. This place is definitely Creep City.
“Ouch!”
Something scratches my bottom. And it isn’t me.

The last line always gets a giggle when read to any class containing 8 – 10 year olds.

Unconventional structures

New writers tend to adhere to conventional formats for their manuscripts (consistent font size with standard paragraphing, numbered chapters and so on); however, many popular writers challenge these boundaries to bring a freshness and originality to their work.

Gretel Killeen (yes, of Big Brother fame!) has an enormously popular series with titles such as My sister’s a yoyo and My sister’s an alien. These books have no chapters at all, they have sentences that go on and on and on and they use a variety of font sizes. One entire page consists entirely of a string of e’s. As in:

eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Strange? Yes
Challenging? Yes
Offensive to our literary snobbishness? Possibly.
Full of kid appeal? You bet.

Originality

One of my favourite books for 10-12 year olds is The Eighteenth Emergency by Betsy Byars. Although this novel was first published in 1973 (by The Bodley Head), it is still a great favourite with children.

The main character, known to his friends as Mouse, has a bad habit which triggers the problem that drives the main storyline. Mouse likes to write signs. Everywhere. Next to the cobweb above the daybed, he writes UNSAFE FOR PUBLIC SWINGING. Beside a crack in the apartment building where he lives, he writes TO OPEN BUILDING TEAR ALONG THIS LINE and so on.

Betsy Byars often uses these signs as a subtle guide to her protagonist’s emotional state. After a fight with the school bully, Mouse draws an arrow to himself and writes ALIVE AND WELL BY A MIRACLE.

This piece of sparkling originality is loads of fun and brings the novel to life.

Hard work

Sparkle is rarely achieved via the proverbial bolt from the blue. More often than not, it is the result pure unadulterated slog. Betsy Byars was once asked how long it took her to write a book. She replied: ‘It takes me about a year to write a novel - six months to get the rough draft down on paper and another six months to make it better.’ (From her website BetsyByars.com). Most of the final six months is no doubt spent in adding the sparkle that makes many of her novels so memorable.

And so…

Remember that manuscript you were about to slide down the post box chute? Before you let it go, ask yourself these questions:

Does my story glow in the dark?
Will the editor be reaching for her sunglasses before the second paragraph?
Could my story host its own Guy Fawkes night?
 
If you’re not sure, then your novel may not be ready to face the fierce competition of the slush pile. Sparkle can’t guarantee you publication – after all, the publishing house may be looking for a story on aliens and yours is about polar bears – but it will definitely give you the edge.

So if your manuscript doesn’t sparkle fit to explode, you might as well take it on home and save the editor the trouble of posting it back to you.

Then you might consider buying yourself a pair of sunglasses to keep by your computer!


© Jill McDougall 2007
  

 
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