The Den: A blog about children’s and YA genre fiction

The Den: A blog about children’s and YA genre fiction

Obstacles and goals in Sex Education
1024 576 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

You’ve probably noticed editors and writing teachers are always banging on about the importance of obstacles in fiction. That’s because if you give your characters exactly what they want right away, they won’t have anywhere to go from there. Characters need to have clear goals and it’s your job to dream up conflicts that stop them achieving those goals (you big meanie). Obstacles create tension, increase excitement, force characters to make decisions, reveal their personalities and give your protagonist the chance to change and grow. I watched Netflix teen comedy Sex Education earlier this year (such an excellent show) and the main romantic plot jumped out at me as a perfect example of goal vs obstacle. Here’s the timeline of this particular plot thread [Spoiler Alert!] which focuses on lovely, awkward teenager Otis and his bad-girl crush, Maeve. Protagonist Otis’s goal is obvious: get the girl. Otis and Maeve start…

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The Magic Words by Cheryl B Klein
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I adore reading books about writing and I have several favourites that I always recommend to everybody. When I read them for the first time, I cover the pages in pink highlighter (sorry to the sensitive book preservers amongst you) and write up the best bits in an Evernote notebook so I can search for them later, and I thought I could share some of my favourite highlights with you here. I decided the best way was to give you one excellent tip or quote from each chapter of each craft book, so you can lap up some of these fabulous experts’ advice but also get an idea of what the book is about and whether you should buy it yourself. I hope you find these useful! I’m starting with my number one favourite craft book, The Magic Words by Cheryl B. Klein. Introduction Klein, an editor at Scholastic Inc., lists…

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Lessons from R. L. Stine’s Masterclass #1: No moralising
1024 548 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Last year I took R. L. Stine’s masterclass on writing horror for young readers and it was utterly fascinating. I was a huge Point Horror fan as a teenager and still read a lot of middle grade and YA horror now, so I knew I had to sign up for this course. Just minutes in and I’d completely fallen in love with him. I wholeheartedly recommend the class to anybody remotely interested in writing kidlit because Stine is such a joy to listen to and hilarious to boot. There’s so much good stuff in his webinars that I’m going to take this one post at a time, looking specifically at his writing values and the advice he gives writers of middle grade and YA horror. This week, he answers a question he gets asked a lot.

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The Shining as a romcom: notes on genre conventions
1024 576 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

When I use examples to talk about writing craft, I really try to stick to books, TV and films that are aimed at a middle grade or YA audience, but I am such a huge horror fan that it was inevitable some grown-up movies would sneak into the blog eventually. Sorry about that – regularly scheduled programming will resume shortly, honest! One of the reasons it’s important to know your genre is so you can get to understand the conventions and reader expectations of those types of books. If you’ve never read or written a mystery, for example, you might not know that readers expect the riddle to be solved by the end of the book. And if you’re not familiar with cosmic horror, you might not know that readers actually expect an unhappy ending. It’s absolutely fine to subvert conventions and give readers a surprise but you need to…

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Analysing The Tale of the Phantom Cab
1024 684 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Welcome back, genre authors, to what is quickly becoming one of my favourite blog series ever! In the last post I explained that I’m going to be analysing each episode of Nickelodeon’s 1990s Are You Afraid of the Dark? TV series, exploring the horror tropes, themes and techniques the show uses to scare and captivate young viewers (and, ahem, slightly older ones). You may have noticed that I started the series with The Tale of the Lonely Ghost, which is the second episode of the show, and today’s episode is actually the pilot. There’s a very good reason for that: I don’t love The Tale of the Phantom Cab as a story, and I wanted to kick off with a gem. But despite my personal misgivings, The Phantom Cab is actually a fan favourite and the antagonist, Dr Vink, returns in a further four episodes across four seasons. He’s a great example of…

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Can I include edgy content?
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Welcome back, authors, to the YA Fundamentals series, where I talk about the common problems and points of confusion I see in my clients’ manuscripts most often. Next up is content: can you talk about mature topics like sex, violence, drugs and alcohol in YA novels? This is one of those blurry areas that doesn’t have totally clear-cut rules and you’ll sometimes have to go with your gut when making choices (which is one reason to read lots and lots of YA fiction so you can build a good overview of what other writers are doing and what seems acceptable in the current publishing landscape). Those pesky grownups Although YA is for young readers, there are adult gatekeepers that have a say in what books those young readers are exposed to. Sometimes that’s the parents, sometimes it’s librarians or teachers. YA isn’t regulated by gatekeepers as much as middle grade,…

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How long should my story be?
1024 587 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Welcome back to the YA Fundamental series, lovely authors! Today I’m talking about word count in YA manuscripts, which is something I see my clients getting in a muddle over all the time. And for good reason! There’s lots of conflicting advice out there, and just when you think you’ve got a handle on the ideal book length in your demographic and genre, you pick up a bestseller that’s 50,000 words longer! So, what is the magic number? As always, the rules about book length aren’t set in stone but there are conventions and expectations for each age bracket so it’s important to understand these before making choices about your own manuscript. If you’re seeking traditional publication, you want agents to see you as professional and well-informed about your industry, and submitting a YA book that’s short enough to be middle grade or needs cutting in half can indicate that you…

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A guide to middle grade and YA genres and subgenres
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Middle grade and young adult aren’t genres, they’re audiences. If a reader, editor or agent asks what genre your novel is, they’re asking what type of story it is. Where does it sit on the bookshop shelf? What should readers expect when they pick it up? Underneath the MG and YA umbrellas lie all the usual fiction genres, although some don’t crop up often in children’s book because they’re inappropriate or inaccessible for a young audience, like police procedurals, splatterpunk and erotic thrillers! It’s important to know where your novel fits in, because genres come with conventions and expectations. It’s not always easy to stick a label on a story since categories and subcategories overlap and can mean different things to different people, but understanding what these industry terms typically mean can help you focus your ideas and point you in the direction of similar books so you can study…

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How old should your main character be?
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Thanks for joining me, YA genre authors! Next up in my YA Fundamentals series is character age, something that trips up a lot of my clients. Does it really matter how old your main character is? Yes! For a start, your protagonist’s age is one of the key factors that tells readers your book is YA and that it’s been written especially for them. So, how old should they be? Let’s get stuck in! As a general rule of thumb, YA protagonists should typically be somewhere between 13 and 19 years old. Young people like to read up, which means they usually prefer protagonists who are a year or two older than them. As always, there are lots of blurred lines when we talk about age categories but main characters aged 12 and under are almost certainly the domain of middle grade; most teenagers don’t want to read stories about…

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Which age group is YA for?
1024 683 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Oh hey, YA authors! Are you struggling to work out the difference between middle grade and YA, or between YA and adult? Wondering what mistakes you need to avoid if you don’t want to turn agents off or disappoint readers? You’ve come to the right place! In this ‘YA Fundamentals’ series I’m going to be exploring some of the most common issues I come across when editing manuscripts for young readers, so you’ll be armed with all the facts you need to make the right choices when writing your YA story. I know how confusing it can be; the lines are sometimes blurry and lots of novels are referred to as both middle grade and YA (or even New Adult) depending on who you’re talking to or what bookshop you’re in. But don’t panic, you’ve got this! Who is YA aimed at? So let’s start with the basics: YA stands…

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Analysing The Tale of the Lonely Ghost
1024 684 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Hi, horror fans! I’m really excited about this blog series and I hope you will be too. I was a big fan of Are You Afraid of the Dark? as a child; I even analysed the opening credits in great detail for my media studies GCSE coursework. For anybody who hasn’t seen AYAOTD? before, the show’s concept is simple. A group of young teenagers called the Midnight Society meet in the woods at night and take it in turns to tell scary stories around a fire. This blog is aimed at authors, not screenwriters, but there’s a lot to learn and unpack in this children’s TV show and I bet you’ll pick up some tips and inspiration if you’re writing horror (or anything with scary bits) for young readers. The intended viewership was around middle grade level although I was still watching well into my teens so there’s something here for…

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Sweet dreams! Should your middle grade horror have a happy ending?
1024 576 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

I’m often asked whether children’s horror novels should end on a cheerful note with the threat fully defused, giving young readers the closure they need to drift off happily to sleep. In adult horror fiction and film, there’s no guarantee things will turn out well for the protagonist. And even if the final girl does skip off to tell the tale, or the traumatised family finally sells that haunted house and moves far away, their lives have undoubtedly changed for the worse. Think of famous scary stories with a relatively happy ending – The Amityville Horror, The Haunting of Hill House, The Shining, Scream, The Exorcist. The protagonists all escape the threat and good wins out over evil, but could you really call those endings happy? As adults, we don’t expect to walk away from a horror story feeling warm and fuzzy. Many of us love horror precisely because we want to…

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You've finished your first draft – let's celebrate!
You’ve finished the first draft of your MG or YA book! Now what?
1024 578 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

1. Party like it’s 2020! You’ve written a novel – you rock! This is such an enormous achievement and you deserve a big night out on the town, or at least a really good milkshake from one of those places that blend up Twixes and Terry’s Chocolate Orange bars. Pat yourself on the back, do a little skip and remember how it feels to finish that first draft, because it’ll feel even better to finish the final one. 2. Sleep for a hundred years Once the champagne hangover – or milkshake brain freeze – wears off, relax and forget about your manuscript. You’ve got lots of hard work to do if you want to get your novel in the best shape, but it’s best to take a break for a few weeks and come back to your story with fresh eyes. Don’t read it, don’t edit it, don’t think about…

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Children’s book writing prompt lucky dip #1
1024 576 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Over the course of my Novel Writing MA, I produced thousands of words of creative writing in response to weekly assignments, all of which were workshopped and critiqued by tutors and classmates. I invented characters, scenarios and locations every day and thought hey, these ideas are just oozing out of me! What’s writer’s block again? But when it came time to sit down and start writing my middle grade story (which I had to submit as part of my dissertation) I completely clammed up. I didn’t like any of the characters or ideas I’d come up with previously, and I just couldn’t find inspiration no matter where I looked. Maybe it was the time pressure – I had a hard deadline to hit if I wanted to graduate! – or maybe I just hadn’t been taking the writing process seriously enough until that point. Either way, I had to fix…

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How to write a creepy graveyard in middle grade or YA
1024 576 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Hey, horror fans! Not much beats the eerie atmosphere of an empty cemetery in the middle of the night. They’re dark and shadowy, spookily silent and totally empty – you hope! Everybody knows cemeteries are a breeding ground for ghosts seeking closure (you did know that, right?) but they can make a fantastic setting for your middle grade or YA story even if you’re not writing supernatural horror. There’s a literary and cinematic heritage attached to graves that acts as shorthand for terror – think Pet Sematary, Night of the Living Dead, Carrie, The Woman in Black – so they can get people shuddering from the offset, even without a paranormal encounter. But that doesn’t mean you should be lazy about it; a flimsy graveyard backdrop isn’t enough to build atmosphere and tension on its own. First you need to be sure it makes sense as a setting in your story…

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Welcome to The Den!

Hello! I’m Siobhán, a developmental editor of middle grade and YA genre fiction. This blog is aimed at indie authors who write for a young audience, particularly those working on horror, sci-fi, fantasy, mystery or anything with a dash of magic or macabre.

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Things my lovely clients say

Wow, an excellent middle grade manuscript critique! I’m really impressed with your critical eye and what you’ve picked up on here – your comments are very astute and your feedback has been very valuable, as always. I agree with almost everything! Thanks a lot for this – I can’t wait to send you another.
John Lomas-Bullivant, Story Producer @ Kickback Media
Siobhan is absolutely brilliant! I’m trying not to sound too gushy, but her work truly is astonishing — the best editing I’ve ever received. She is immensely creative and able to help solve a manuscript’s problems. She is generous, bright and fun – an absolute joy to work with. I’ve never felt so quickly understood and supported by an editor.
Sara Cassidy, Children's Author

Siobhan has not only been a breath of fresh air, breathing new life into my first ever draft manuscript, but she’s also provided me with the impetus to get it finished. Her comments and feedback led me to make some hard decisions but these have resulted in a much better book. Here’s to the future!

David Rogers, MG sci-fi author