BEHIND THE BOOK: How to write for a children’s or teen book series – Part IV (sample chapters)

Yesterday, we talked about cover letters, outlines, and synopses. Today we’re getting to one of the most important parts of a proposal. THE SAMPLE CHAPTERS.  Here’s where you’re going to prove your worth.  And for series writing, it’s not necessarily about flaunting your style of writing, it’s about showing that you know how  to write in the style of the series.   This means that if you’re a highly literary writer, you might have to adjust your way of doing things to fit the commercial market, and vice versa. You will find the most popular series books for teens on the shelves today tend to use varying degrees of commercial writing.  (Middle grade books have more literary series books because these kids will eat up everything.)  But anyway, teens series books are usually fun and fast reads that’ll target mass consumers at a cheaper price. This also explains why many of these books are popular in paperback form.

Now … let’s figure out how we go about determining the style of a series. Here’s what you do. You crack open several books in the series and study them closely. You can also compare them to other series books to discern the key differences.

Let’s look at a few books from different series so I can show you how the styles differ.

From THE IT GIRL series, created by Cecily von Ziegesar:

Somebody’s plaid Jack Spade duffle slammed into Jenny Humphrey’s shin and jerked her out of a dream. The 10 A.M. Amtrak Empire Service to Rhinecliff, New York, had stopped in Poughkeepsie, and a tall, twentyish, stubbly chinned boy in dawk brown square Paul Smith glasses and a Decemeberist t-shirt was standing over her.

What’s striking about this sample? Let’s point out a few things. A lot of adjectives for one. A lot of brand-name dropping. And some very long sentences. Note third person.

From the A-LIST series, Zoey Dean

Anna Cabot Percy was very good at a wide variety of things: Conjugating irregular French verbs. Putting together the perfect understated outfit. Memorizing the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Ballet. Any and all forms of analytical left-brain thinking. Looking tan and gorgeous in her white racer-back Polo Ralph Lauren bathing suit. So okay. She was not without talents.  Bust as she shivered on her surfboard in the ocean at Zuma Beach, Anna realized the surfing was not going to be one of them.

Here you’ll notice that the writing is descriptive in a different way. The opening is a bit “artier” than the first sample, for lack of a better term.  There’s still mention of a name brand, but it’s also interesting to know that they are targeting a similar audience as the THE IT GIRL series. Both of THE IT GIRL books and the A-LIST novels are produced by Alloy Entertainment. So it’s not that surprising they are somewhat similar to each other.

Now let’s look at one more YA series.  The S.A.S.S. series. I’ll pick the opening lines from GIRL OVERBOARD by Aimee Ferris.

Marina cringed as her monstrous purple suitcase slid down the baggage ramp and landed with a sickening thud on top of a small carry-on. A petite girl standing next to Marina wailed in dismay.

In this one, we’re seeing a simply written opening. The writing is not highly stylized in any way. It’s also 3rd person.

When I researched the S.A.S.S. books, I probably read about 6 or 7 of them to figure out what was similar about the writing.  Here are some more openers from the series. From NOW AND ZEN by Linda Gerber.

Seventeen hours. That’s how long it takes to fly from Columbus, Ohio, to Narita, Japan, when you make three stops along the way. Seventeen long hours stuck on a plane with a bunch of losers. Not exactly the experience Nori had envisioned when she signed up for a summer abroad.

From GETTING THE BOOT by Peggy Guthart Strauss

Turbulence jolted Kelly Brandt out of a deep sleep as the captain announced their initial descent into Rome’s Fiumicino Airport. Almost there! She looked at the view out the airplane window, expecting a fairy-tale scene below her. Instead, the neat squares of fields looked surprisingly like the Illinois farmland they had passed over on their takeoff from O’Hare.

Starting to notice something?  Doesn’t it seem like all of these books could have been written by the same person? Do they all start out in a similar way, too? Simply. No flash.

So that’s what I had to do for my sample chapters–adapt my writing style to the S.A.S.S. series.  What do you mean by adapt? This is a sample from PARIS PAN TAKES THE DARE, coming out in June 2009.

Where should I start? The first time I felt my life hanging in the balance? Or the moment I believed the deceased had a way of talking to me? Or maybe I ought to begin with the second I walked into that school.

Looking back I should have been suspicious from day one, but now I know that if you want something bad, you’ll do anything to get it.

You’ll lie to your friends.

Steal from your family.

Eat a whole box of orange Creamsicles.

The writing is in first-person! I usually like to write in first over third. Don’t ask me why. It just comes out that way. Second, the writing is more deliberate (stylized) . There is even a somewhat direct address to the reader in the narration. If I did this for the S.A.S.S. proposal there would be no way I would have won the book. So you need to pay attention to how the series are written. Do your best to replicate the overall style and tone of the writing.

For THE GREAT CALL OF CHINA, this is the opener.

Cece and Alison flipped through a pile of jeans at Macy’s. Cece was looking for a pair to replace her worn-out boot-cuts. She needed something new and fresh for her trip to China.

So it’s not Printz-award winning material, but these books aren’t aiming for that audience. The. S.A.S.S. series is billed as fun books for teens about travel, adventure and romance. That’s what you need to deliver, not a literary masterpiece per se.

Also, I know I only talked about YA series, but you can apply the same analysis techniques to middle grade series books as well.

Yeah? So now you’ve got an idea of what to look for as you study the writing. Tomorrow, I’ll discuss even more about those sample chapters to make sure you nail that proposal.  Stay tuned!  To download this entire series of articles to your Kindle in one fell swoop, click here.

Happy style-analyzing,

Cynthea and Snoop!

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