Workshop Submission #5

This is a submission from Brian Higginson, for his work, KARL.

Here’s what Brian has to say:

I’m trying to inject some tension and sense of unease about what will happen. Is it too heavy handed? Also, the boy Karl is 8 at this point – does it need to be stated earlier? And what about the dialogue? Does it work? It’s set in England. Is this a problem?

And here’s the material!


Afterwards, everyone kept telling Karl it wasn’t his fault, what happened to his dad. But who do you blame if it’s not your fault? Couldn’t blame his dad.

I feel like I’m coming upon something in the middle of it. Like I’m walking into a conversation. It’s sort of jarring, which I think is helped along by the fragmented sentence. Also, it’s “afterward,” not the colloquial “afterwards.” But we do get something that happened and some tension right away.

The day before the soccer game, they were all at the train station in Manchester. Karl’s mum was going to Wales for a conference. She bent down and zipped his coat right to the top. She held his face in both hands and kissed him.

He liked that.

Now we’re getting grounded in a time and place. As the writer mentions, Karl is 8 years old here, so the details of the mother zipping his coat up seem age-appropriate. Since this is a third person narrator and somewhat removed, you could also mention what kind of conference so we get more context for the mom.

Months and years later when he woke sweating in the night, from the fear and loneliness of it all, that’s what he cried out for more than anything. Her hands on his cheeks; her kiss on his brow. His mother. Mein mutter.

Red flag! This has gone from an early middle grade (because of the very young protagonist) to a work of adult fiction. Why? In children’s books, the action is confined to a relatively small space of time (a school year) and the character is experiencing the story very immediately. In adult books about childhood, the adult narrator is telling a story that happens during childhood but they’re looking back on it from a place of experience. True kidlit that’s on shelves today lacks that kind of “looking back on it” feeling, since a lot of kids don’t have that perspective of life experience. You never see a 16 year-old reflecting on their 15th year with nostalgia and thinking “if only I knew then what I know now,” etc. Kids don’t have those self-reflective tendencies that crop up as we age. I’m starting to wonder a) how old the Karl narrator is in “real life” and b) how many years of childhood this manuscript is planning to cover.

“I’ll bring you back something nice for your birthday,” she said.


“I promise.”

Now she was hugging Hans, Karl’s dad.

Auf weidershen,” she said, then: “Enjoy the game.”

Nothing about the dialogue pops out at me. It seems pretty pedestrian. While that’s not bad for a beginning, it’s not ideal, either. This is the equivalent of small talk with a little backstory (re: the birthday) worked in. That doesn’t make for riveting reading.

She turned back to Karl, with a look of mock seriousness on her face.

“Look after Daddy won’t you?” she said. “And make sure he behaves himself. Promise?”

“I promise,” said Karl.

It was a joke, he knew that.

But later it wasn’t the joke he remembered, only the broken promise.

There’s a bit of dry language here that wouldn’t come naturally to a true 8 year-old perspective (“mock seriousness”) but there’s also some melodrama (“only the broken promise”). Still, this returns us to the tension of the story as we know it so far — what happens to the dad.

The tinny, garbled sound of the tannoy on the station platform announced Cara’s train – at least it must have been her train because she picked up her suitcase. Karl couldn’t understand a word: though he remembered the harsh, metallic sound of it in the dreams and nightmares that were to come.

Again, this faraway perspective of Karl (however old he is “now”) looking back on this scene distances us incredibly from the kid Karl who we’re supposed to be bonding with. It gives this scene an echoy, dreamy feeling, as intended, but that also makes it more difficult to grasp on to something in this scene and emote. I also don’t know why the writer called special attention to the fact that Karl isn’t sure it’s her train. Isn’t it? Or will this detail become important later? If it’s not, don’t mention it… it raises unnecessary questions.

Suddenly Karl’s mother seemed to be vanishing before his eyes. As he looked at her smiling down at him with her suitcase in her hand, it was as if she was at the end of a long tunnel. Karl was convinced at that moment that he would never see her again.

This mixes the tension and, as a result, dilutes it. We’re supposed to be focusing on Karl’s dad in this ominous bit of scene, but now he’s worrying about his mom. Which is it? Be careful of ruining the effect by dividing our focus. (This is a note for the whole beginning actually. He starts talking about his dad, then he’s talking about how much he loves his mom. Then there are danger signals for dad again, then back to mom. Focus.) And we do still feel distant. If you use the same analogy of the long tunnel, that’s actually how the reader feels when we’re looking at the character of Karl. We’ve gotten little interiority (thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations that happen in the moment or as a reaction to the moment) from him so far.


The thing I want to ask the author here is — what perspective is this story told from? From Karl, the kid’s? Or from an adult Karl, looking back on his childhood? The thoughts and feelings an adult has about their childhood will be interesting to one group of people and one group of people only: adults. That’s where these types of stories are shelved in the bookstore. They are not kidlit.

If you want to write a children’s books, first, raise Karl’s age. This seems like a heavy story. Readers want main characters who are one or two years older than they are, so right now, you’d be targeting 6 to 8 year olds. That doens’t seem appropriate. Make Karl 12 or 13 to get the middle grade audience, or 15-17 for the YA audience. And tell the story through his experience of it IN THE MOMENT, not looking back from adulthood. Really get into Karl’s head then and there.

Even if Karl “right now” is 16 and looking back on when he’s 8, that’s still splitting your audience. You’ll always be alienating half of them. Eight year-olds won’t want to read about 16 y.o. Karl because that’s far outside their experience. Sixteen year-olds will think 8 y.o. Karl’s experience is babyish. That’s why you don’t see books with a wide age gap between characters in kidlit, because kids like to read about characters who are close to their own age. Where would booksellers shelve a book with both an 8 y.o. and a 16 y.o. version of your character? MG? Then you lose YA readers. YA? Then you lose MG. Bookstores won’t build a special shelf just for you.

So pick one age, bring the reader close to it and really delve into that person — at that age — and their experience of the story.

If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, you’re writing an adult book with a retrospective on childhood instead of a children’s book.

37 Replies to “Workshop Submission #5”

  1. Oof, it’s tough this children’s writing malarky. Seeing all these workshops is so unbelievably enlightening. Thanks so much, Mary, for taking the time to do this. There are so many pitfalls. Thanks too to Brian!

    Mary, I have a question. If a person is British, and so writes things like ‘afterwards’ instead of ‘afterward,’ (and would also usually put the quote mark in front of that comma after the ‘afterward’ – as per British style), would it behoove them to opt for all-American style when approaching US editors/agents? Even things like writing ‘mom’ instead of ‘mum’? If the character is British, can we stick to British style? ie mum, trousers instead of pants, chips instead of fries, biscuits instead of cookies, rubbish instead of trash etc. But should we re-style the rest of the copy to suit a US audience?

  2. I have the same concerns about the narrator’s age and perspective. This does read more like a flashback to childhood in an adult book. I feel too removed from the action to really connect with the character, like this scene is a memory rather than something happening in real time.

    I wonder about that, though. (And this is more a question for Mary than a concern about your book, Brian.) Take Markus Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF. Technically a YA book, and yet it has a very grown-up feel, in part because of Death’s looking-back narration. What is it about THE BOOK THIEF’s narrative structure that works for YA? Or is that book just the exception to the rule?

  3. Krista — THE BOOK THIEF is quite an exception. The main character is a child but the narrator is himself a character with a very active voice and role in the story. The same is true with the LEMONY SNICKET series… the children are the stars, in third person, but the narrator’s voice is so distinct that they are part of things, even if they are probably an adult.

    This kind of really intrusive narrative voice is EXTREMELY DIFFICULT to pull off and balance with the story you’re telling. That’s why I urge most writers to focus on telling a story in first person or close third and focusing on the main character instead of the narrator.

    Another thought re: your observation that TBF feels very “grown-up.” Well, I’d also argue that it’s a bit tough to give WW2 a lighthearted, naive and childish feel. 🙂

  4. Thanks, Brian and Mary! I’m wondering about Karl now Brian; I hope you keep working and I get to read about him one day.

    I recently read an agent’s guidelines that said “read 1000 books in your genre before submitting” and I thought, sure I must have read a thousand at least — I’d been a voracious reader as a kid. Then I admitted I’d read many of those books nearly 40 years ago (oh dear) and went to the library. Sure enough, I learned a whole lot. I worked over my whole manuscript and the feedback has been much better.

    “Bookstores won’t build a special shelf for you” is a line I’ll remember. Thanks!

  5. Susan, I have a question for you – how did you get your picture along with your comment? I’m a little jealous (don’t get me wrong, I love a pretty pattern, but I want a super-cool photo too!).

  6. I just wanted to say that I felt a strong connection to Karl. Perhaps I misunderstood, but I got the distinct impression that this was a teenager looking back on his childhood. While certainly not all teenagers are this reflective, I have known a few (and was once one) who did reflect in this way. I connected with the character’s change in voice, something that, to me, reflected a character whose style of thinking has regressed during an emotional moment. The “pedestrian” dialogue of the promise popped out at me as being almost heartbreaking because of what we expect will happen soon.

    So, this may not be the start of a commercial hit but you did grab one reader (albeit an adult), for whatever that might be worth.

  7. Elan Cross says:

    Thank you Mary and Brian! You two are today’s rockstars!
    I find the third person narrative of Brian’s piece very refreshing. I know that much of today’s kitlit is first person, and don’t get me wrong, I have fallen in love with several books written in first person. But third will always be my favorite. Sometimes, not always, first person feels a bit whiny. Anyone else think so?
    And Brian, I love the second paragraph. The one where we get all that delicious motherly love. Made me feel cozy reading it. Of course, that was a passing feeling, replaced by worry about both of Karl’s parents. I want to know what happens to Karl’s dad and where his mother goes. Keep working this piece!
    Mary: I am wondering about using American versus Canadian or British spellings too. If we are submitting to an American agent, but live elsewhere, is it expected that we go through and adjust the MS? Thanks!

  8. Remember that The Book Thief was not written as a YA novel, but as mainstream fiction. It was the US publisher who first decided to market it as crossover fiction. An understandable move, but I wonder how many teens will actually read it all. Just because it has child protagonists doesn’t make it suitable for a YA audience, and Liesl is only 10 when the book starts out.

    For another exception see The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. Bod is a baby at the beginning, and grows through childhood to his teens during the story, which is nevertheless MG fiction.

    Another excellent workshop post, by the way. Is the author British? ‘Soccer’ rang an alarm bell, since it’s more likely to be ‘football’ in the UK, though ‘soccer’ is also sometimes used (mostly when Americans are present;-)

  9. Joseph Miller says:


    Thanks for sharing your story’s beginning with us. It reminded me of my first attempt to write a children’s book. I had just read Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events and tried writing my book from an adult’s retrospective POV on their childhood. I scrapped the whole thing after I realized adults were enjoying the book far more than younger readers. After that, I spent months and months reading more children’s stories and re-discovering my child-like perspective. I still occasionally slip into my adult voice, but now it’s easier for me to notice and when i do I immediately try to rephrase things in a younger voice. Now my story is much more appealing to young readers.


    Thanks for another great wrokshop. I can’t wait to see the rest. 😉

    Best Wishes,

  10. Thanks, Brian, for sharing your work, and thank you, Mary for the critique.

    I think it’s absolutely true that this manuscript seems unsure of its target audience. The backward reflection feels like adult reflection, not teen reflection, and it’s hard to tell when the story is going to take place, and why we’re not simply grounded in the beginning at its own time.

    But Mary, I have to play devil’s advocate here. I can’t think of an example of an MG book that bounces around in time very much, but there are quite a few YA examples. What about THE GRAVEYARD BOOK? That one starts when the main character is only a baby. What about THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING? It starts when Octavian is a small child, and as Octavian gets older he comments often about the changes in his understanding over the years.

  11. Knowing the target audience and knowing how to write to it is one of the most difficult things, IMO. Thanks for sharing, Brian.

  12. Brian- I feel for you. I’ve had a lot of trouble getting my MC’s age down at the beginning. I was also told she was too young. I began with her at 7 because Jane Eryre started that way and so many of my big reader friends read Bronte as young teens (Maggie of Thornbirds was also seven)- but, there are so many books written for YA now that they don’t scan library shelves desperate for something to read as someone older like me used to do.

    It may be that your story isn’t kid lit- and that’s OK. It sounds like a great story with tons of depth and emotion. Or perhaps it could crossover as Book Thief did, but one thing- there is a lot of back and forth, as Mary pointed out, right in the beginning. If you start young, stick with it for a bit before moving on.

    BT uses a prologue which jumps all around time (I guess Death can do that) but then settles down with Leisl at 9 which really isn’t YA age either but- a lot of kids were told to read that book in English classes so- you know, they stuck with it.

  13. All — THE BOOK THIEF, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK and OCTAVIAN NOTHING are all EXTREME exceptions to the rule. It’s true, BOOK THIEF wasn’t originally published as a children’s book. GRAVEYARD BOOK and OCTAVIAN NOTHING are groundbreaking, award-winning books penned by authors who had LENGTHY resumes.

    Publishers felt confident in taking a risk on Neil Gaiman and M.T. Anderson. OCTAVIAN NOTHING was, even more so than GRAVEYARD BOOK, an extreme risk. And it probably didn’t sell as many copies or loop in as many young readers as M.T. Anderson’s previous books had. But it got extreme critical acclaim.

    The point is, these books were written by professional writers who twisted the form because they knew exactly what the form was and because they knew what they were doing. If OCTAVIAN NOTHING had come into the slush pile from an unknown, I don’t know if it would have done as well.

    I would not advocate ANY of these groundbreaking techniques for unpublished writers-in-training. Publish a few books first, get a following, then spin the experimental stories that you want to. I don’t think this is a case of Brian knowing about and playing with the standard children’s book form, like M.T. Anderson and Neil Gaiman consciously did. I’m not saying this to be mean. I really do think this is a case of a writer who’s not as familiar as he could be with the market. And that’s okay.

    Just try to nail a book and get it published first, guys, before trying to write OCTAVIAN NOTHING or THE BOOK THIEF. That’s the path that works.

  14. Mary, this is great feedback re: the age of the character vs. the targeted audience. And I LOVE your comment about what to strive for in a first publication. THANKS times INFINITY for doing this workshop series.

    Susan at Stormy River, loved your quote to read 1000 books in the genre. I’m so guilty of reading the books my kids pick up, mostly because I’m a curious parent. I’ll only read to the end if I like the work. I’ll have to get out the abacus to see how close I’ve come to the 1K mark.

    I’m reading The Book Thief now. Wonderful voice for the narrator, with a serious tone that suits Death and Nazi Germany. Thomas, interesting to know TBT started as mainstream—my 14yr old son is reading it with me. Death’s voice was enough of a hook to start it, but I wonder how far he’ll willingly go with Liesl as the MC. I might have to drag him along.

    Susan James, if the Bronte sisters count as YA fiction (then I’ll also slip Austen in) and I’m just that much closer to my 1K count. 🙂

    Elan, yes, I find some first person characters whiny, where the author slips too far into introspection that they don’t realize how self-absorbed their character becomes. I worry about this for my own characters. Because, um, *I hate whininess.*

    Brian, to answer your question—yes, I am pulled into the tension, but I think the MC’s voice is muffled. It may be that he is much older now, like Mary conjectured, and the dissonance is related to the age difference in the look-back. I like the tender scene with his mother and the guilt over the father—very engaging. With respect to stating the age, perhaps it would be helpful to state how old Karl is NOW (the age at the time of narration) to help with the voice. Thanks for sharing your piece with us. I’m hoping this workshop helps the authors as much as it does the readers.

  15. Oh Mylanta, I’m learning so much from these examples and the resulting discussion.

    Way to go, workshoppers! Thanks for putting your work out there so we can all benefit.

  16. As your TB here (Token Brit), depending on when this was set – and for some reason it feels post WWII – ‘soccer’ is fine. When my father was young, he played soccer and what was then called rugby football. If it is set more recently – then you would have to use ‘football’.

    Also, as it is set England, I really feel that it needs to be written totally in British-English. To go back and forth is jarring. And yes, we under-educated Brits always say ‘afterwards’ 🙂

    If you go look at Martha Grimes – she’s an American writing about England and all her books are written with English idiom and spelling (except for a couple of things that I always notice!)

    If you ever need a British checker.. I’m happy to oblige!

  17. Brian,

    Kudos for putting yourself out there. It’s a tough gig to get all this feedback. Much easier when a back pat is forthcoming. Yet, we wouldn’t learn as much from those as we have via the courageous authors who put their work out there. Thanks.

    I might be the only person who thinks this–and may be way off base thinking it–but I saw the conflict with Dad as being a result of something bad happening to Mom.

    While reading this passage, I assumed Mom’s train took her forever away from our young MC and only afterward, as a teen, he tried to fulfull his promise to take care of Dad and failed miserably at it.

    If this is the case, I think the tone and sequencing are more successful than first thought. Of course, I’m but one reader. And if any readers are too confused by the events as they unfold, they will quit reading.

    In any case, I am intrigued by the events and would like to know more.

    Thanks again for putting your work out there and best luck.

  18. Wow. All these people, as well as Mary out mentor, taking the trouble to read my piece and comment. That truly is a pat on the back. And such insightful comments.

    Thanks, Mary, for the comments – so, so true. I feel in a much better place to improve it – starting with “who is is for?”!!

    Folks – I am a Brit, and living in the US. It leads to a certain schizophrenia about grammar and spelling. I went back and forth about “soccer”, which I would definitely call “football”, then went for soccer. Mistake.

    For anyone who wants to find out more about what happens to Karl (in this very rough draft, I am about to post some more on my website.)

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I feel honoured (Brit spelling) and excited to get back to karl’s story.

  19. Brian, thanks for your bravery! I would say that you definitely do get across the tension and foreboding you asked about. I agree with Mary where she indicated that there was a bit of melodrama–to me the “only the broken promise” part didn’t sound fresh. I think many writers have used devices like that to egg the reader on with tension, and there are more genuine ways to do it. But you have me caring about Karl and cringing to think what might happen next.

    Elan, ha! –thanks for your point about first person. I thought I was weird, because so many people love first person narrators, but I always (seriously since like grade school) felt they were self-absorbed. I catch myself avoiding first person reads unless they have an amazing concept or high recommendations from my friends.

  20. Hmm. I’ve noticed THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING on the shelf at the library before, but since I usually don’t pick up a book unless I have a recommendation, I haven’t read it. Now I’ll definitely give it a try.

    Good luck with this, Brian. I didn’t mention it before, but you have a very smooth, reader-friendly style. Once you sink a little deeper into your kidlit voice, you’ll really have something here.

  21. If a fantasy (traditional, other-world) takes place over the course of multiple years (MC age 14 to 20) does that automatically bump it out of YA and into Adult?

    I agree that the retrospective aspect of Brian’s excerpt has more of an adult feel. Thanks again for doing these critiques.

  22. Feywriter — This is problematic. 14 year olds and 20 years olds are in wildly different places in terms of their development and perspective. Who (what age group) do you want reading your work? Those sweeping fantasy epics that span multiple years don’t work as well for kidlit. I’d discourage it.

  23. Elan- I forgot to say. I agree wholeheartedly. I often tire of books written all in one pOv and its first person. I start thinking- enough about you already! Is this story only about one person? But I think they appeal to YA because so many teens are in a very self conscious/self absorbed stage of their life.

  24. I agree with Lisa. I felt for Karl pretty quickly, and the typical, mundane conversation rang true for me. It’s just the kind of thing Karl can look back on later and think, “Why didn’t we say something more meaningful?”, which I think is an experience a lot of people have when dealing with loss. I agree with Mary about the mom-tension taking away from the dad-tension, but it does have a nice bit of irony to it: Karl is worrying about the parent who’s leaving, but should be worrying about the one standing right next to him.

    The only thing that tripped me up at all was the use of “you” in the first paragraph. The use of “you” can sometimes pull me out of the story. I think it could just as easily be, “But who could he blame if not himself?”

    That’s all. I liked this a lot, Brian.

  25. Thanks, Mary. I was initially querying it as adult, but had comments that the writing/voice felt more YA. I’m leaning more and more toward shelving the book altogether.

  26. Brian,
    I’m an immigrant from England too…I’m also writing a mg hf based on events in WWII. May I suggest you read GOOD NIGHT MR. TOM and anything Enid Blyton to help you get a sense of time and place of children in the 40’s and early 50’s in England. The BBC/schools link is very helpful too.
    Best Wishes!

  27. Thanks Brian for sharing, and thank you Mary. This is so educational and helpful!

    Mary, will you post the body of the entry in full at the top of the post and then break it down with your comments? It would be helpful to read the work as a whole before I read it with your opinions in-between.

  28. Thanks Brian for sharing. It’s a hard thing to do. I quite liked the excerpt but was really annoyed by the inserted German phrases. Everybody who knows a little German (and I am a native) will know that your phrases are plain wrong (it’s “Meine Mutter” and “Auf Wiedersehen”). Did you deliberately do this to show that they can’t speak German very well any more? If not, you should get someone who knows the language to look at your German snippets.
    Luckily, that’s something easily remedied. Good luck with the story.

  29. Thank you for sharing Brian. My favorite lines were when you described the mom zipping up Karl’s coat and kissing him. This was the part where an actual picture started to form in my mind. I think Mary has provided some excellent suggestions. Best of luck.

  30. I’m definitely going to rework this and eliminate the retrospective thing. I want it to be YA, so these comments have cleared a veil away for me. The events experienced by Karl aged 8, i realize, are backstory. Thanks, everybody, for your comments. This workshop idea is so helpful.

  31. Thanks to both of you! I’ve been having a similar issue with one of my own mss and couldn’t figure out how I wanted to handle it. Now I know what I need to do. This is a valuable learning process for me!!

  32. I have the same problem teaching To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s really an adult book–the narrator looking back at events from her childhood. My students have a hard time with it–they miss all the irony about what the young characters don’t understand in their world and the narration confuses them. It’s also hard to get teenagers to engage with characters who are younger.
    Mary–I have learned more from these posts about first pages than from books and conferences. Thanks Brian for being brave and submitting your work.

  33. Thank you for sharing Brian! I agree with the above about the visual beginning with the mother zipping up his coat. As a mother, I started to gain some deep feelings for the characters during this scene! Great job.

    Also, if the boy is thinking of his mother in the German language (or knows about the language), I’d love to hear it a little bit in their dialogue to each other. What a great chance to show more about your characters. Keep it up Brian, I’ll be checking your website soon to read more about Karl, yay! And, thanks Mary I’m learning so much.

  34. Brian, thanks for sharing- and Mary, thanks for all the instruction! You’re definitely helping me tighten up my own writing.

    Brian, I’d recommend the book The Summoning (the first in the Darkest Powers trilogy). The book starts with the MC at about 4 years old and the voice is very childlike. Then with the next chapter, the MC is a teenager and is trying to figure out what their childhood memory (described in CH. 1) really means. I got the feeling that’s what you were trying to do here- set the scene with a pivotal childhood event, and then the rest of the book will take place at an older age.

    Also, I think you have some very powerful images in your opening (zipping up the coat, the promise). If you leave out the “analysis” of those events, they will be even more powerful.

    I think you have a fantastic start; I’m excited to see where it goes! And as the mom of a boy about this age, my heart is already aching for little Karl. I’d say that’s a job well done!

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