Friday 29 September 2017

Why Writers Should See Reading as Research by Kathryn Evans

As part of Book Trust's Time to Read campaign, I've been looking out old photographs. So many of them feature members of my family and friends reading to my children.  I  clearly felt like these were important images to capture - intimate times,  moments to treasure.

Dad, Daughter and Pingu - nothing else matters.
The  campaign expressly encourages people to find time to read with a child  and I'd urge you to get involved. Not just because it matters to the child but because, if you want to be a writer,  it matters to YOU.

My reading history has, without doubt, influenced my writing - a genre mash-up of  family drama and science fiction with a little splash of horror.  Or this:

(Hardy5+ Bronte3 ) x (Asimov2 +Wyndham2)x Orwell5 + (King/Rennison) = Evans

Nowadays, I mostly read Young Adult fiction.  So much of it, that I've absorbed its constructs without really having to think about it. I've still had to learn about structure (from courses and books - I particularly recommend James Scots Bells Plot and Structure) but pace, technique, that feel for what makes a good YA novel - I've mostly absorbed by reading.

 I recently took a Book Bound course on writing Series Fiction. It really inspired me. In fact, I came away with an idea for a potential series, but it was clearly an idea for younger children. I knew the bones of how to tackle the basic structure and word counts for different ages, but there is only one way I know to really get a feel for the kind of book you want to write and that is, to read.

So I went to the library.

What did I learn?

Tone: There is a vast landscape of tone in  chapter books  but it seems to me that you set the tone at the beginning, and you stick with it. Here are some opening lines:
Ding Dong. 'I'll get it!' shrieked Horrid Henry - Horrid Henry's Bad Present by Francesca Simon
Horrid Henry  consistently delivers short, snappy stories of a badly behaved boy who never learns and never changes in his alliterative world of school and home. The books are full of exclamation marks and outrage - my son adored them, he would listen over and over again - their familiarity is part of their appeal. Horrid Henry would be Horrid, Perfect Peter would be Perfect. There is safety in Henry's anarchic world because the tone is set at the beginning and it doesn't falter.

 In total contrast, Helen Peter's has created a wonderful new series  with Nosy Crow - these books are a joy to read,  I loved A Piglet Called Truffle and  A Duckling Called Button.  They have some life and death situations in them but they're so carefully handled that, although the peril is there, you feel safe reading them. How? I think they have the confident style of classic writing and classic children's books rarely end badly so we relax into the rhythm of the story telling and I think you learn that in the first line:

Jasmine was lying on her bed  with her cats, reading her favourite magazine, Practical Pigs - Helen Peters, A Pig Called Truffle
The tone is set and it's cosy. It's going to stay cosy even if it's a bit worrying along the way.

And if your tone isn't going to be cosy you still need to set it at the beginning of the book.

If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book - Lemony Snickett, A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Pace: The most successful series fiction  seem to whip along.  Puddle the Naughtiest Puppy is a Working Partners Series attributed to Hayley Daze -it has short chapters with a tug at the end of each to keep you turning the pages.  I actually dissected these books because the structure is so neat  I wanted to see how it was done - it's a  basic three act structure and in the middle, the rule of three is used again - three mysteries to solve, three objects to find.  It's neat and it works.

Language: The general rule seems to be to keep it simple...ish. A friend told me about the Lexile counter,  You plug in a section of your book and it gives you a count that you can match with reading ability or similar books. It's a useful tool to get a feel for  whether you're hitting the mark for your age range but, unless you're writing for a reading scheme or aiming at a particular market,  there seems to be a bit of flexibility on this. Lots of younger books introduce historical characters or scientific ideas - your average  seven year old may not know what  tuberculosis is but a little context will make it obvious. That's an example. I'm not writing about tuberculosis.

Humour: Every one of the books I read has humour in it to some extent - it's a great way to counter peril! Philip Ardagh does it to perfection in his Eddie Dickens books - poor old Eddie is beset with problems but the books are laugh out loud funny so it never feels threatening. Dave Lowe's Stinky and Jinks series is another great example - there's threat laced throughout My Hamster s a Spy but it's hilarious so it's safe.

Of course my idea may turn out to be rubbish but at least I feel equipped to tackle it properly, plus, I got to read a lot of fabulous books and call it work.

Can't lose really.

Now, got to go, reading to do...

 Kathryn Evans is the award winning author of More of MeA gripping thriller with a sinister sci-fi edge, exploring family, identity and sacrifice. She loves faffing about on social media: find her  on Facebook and Instagram @kathrynevansauthor and tweeting @KathrynEvansInk 


  1. Thank you, Kathryn. I love having permission to read! And it's true, it IS work for an author.

  2. Thank you for a lovely post, Kathy. There's nothing better than getting to read and being able to call it work - as writers ALWAYS can. And thank you so much for the mention!!

  3. Your brain may be mashed with cold but you still make good sense. Excellent stuff.

  4. Oh, yes, I consider all my reading to be research! You can get the Lexile counter in Word. Well, it's called something else, Fleisch-Kincaid, but it works pretty much the same. Only thing is, you have to be aware that it counts the number of syllables in each word, so if you gave longish names, the count comes out higher than it really is. For example, I was commissioned to write a piece about the story of Zperseus and the Gorgon for Grade 2 level, but the characters' names all had about three or four syllables, such as Medusa, Andromeda, etc. so it came out far higher than Grade 2. I had to explain it to the publishers.

  5. I so agree with it all but particularly about tone. I had such trouble not slipping into a darker tone until Agent Amber came up with the phrase Romp At Witch School. Now I pass every idea through that and if it doesn't fit it doesn't get in.


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