As my editing clients could attest, I often recommend my friend and colleague Emma Walton Hamilton’s excellent online courses on writing picture books, chapter books and middle grade novels, and young adult novels.
These self-paced courses provide a wealth of information in an easily understandable style. By the end of each course, you have a workable first draft ready to take to the next level.
Emma is an author (a New York Times bestselling author!), educator (besides her online courses, she also teaches writing for children in the MFA program at Stony Brook Southampton University), and freelance editor (a very talented one, I might add).
I first got to know Emma when I took her Just Write for Kids picture book writing course in 2010, and we have worked together on many projects since. I respect her knowledge, and delight in her warm, encouraging, and personable manner.
Enough intro, though — let’s get to the interview! This interview was first posted on my general blog at www.bethstilborn.com, but Emma has graciously updated it for this posting. Thanks, Emma!
Beth: Emma, we’ve talked about your online/home study courses in previous interviews on my By Word of Beth blog. I know you’ve done some recent updates to all your courses, so it seems a good time for us to update a previous interview for my Flubs2Fixes readers.
My first experience of your teaching was your picture book writing course, Just Write for Kids, in 2010. What made you decide to reach out to aspiring writers online this way? How has the experience been for you?
Emma: The course was inspired by the fact that in my freelance editing practice and in my teaching at the university, I was seeing aspiring children’s book authors make the same basic mistakes over and over again. It struck me that there were clearly some common misperceptions out there about writing for children, and with the market getting tougher and tougher, I thought (rather selfishly, I admit) that if I could give people the tools, the ground rules, for writing an effective picture book, I could perhaps save them, and myself, a lot of time and trouble.
Since I was teaching at the college, I started developing the course by recording myself in class. I had those recordings transcribed, then further developed the material to create a comprehensive course that allows people to work on the lessons at their own pace and in their own time. While it was designed to be an independent study, I wanted students to be able to ask me questions and also learn from one another, so there is a comment section attached to each lesson, as well as a private Facebook group where questions get posted and feedback is shared between me and the participants over time.
I recently revisited the course materials and did a comprehensive update. I added some new concepts, as well as some follow-up to the assignments and additional resources, bonuses, etc. I also moved it to a new platform so that it can be accomplished in a self-paced format rather than over a period of 8 weeks, and I added quizzes at the end of each unit. I think of it as a living, breathing program that grows and adapts as I do – and as the industry does.
Beth: Could you give us an overview of what the course contains?
Emma: The course is comprised of 8 modules, as follows:
Module 1 – Overview – the Big Picture of Picture Books
What is a picture book? Picture Book Format, Picture Book Structure, About Illustrations
Module 2 – Ideas – Where to Get Them and How to Develop Them
Sources of Ideas, Has This Idea Been Done Before?, Ideas File, Developing an Idea, The Central Dramatic Question, Cataloguing in Publication Information, Writing a Series
Module 3 – Character
Who’s Your Hero? Developmental Characteristics of Preschoolers and Early Elementary Students, The Prime Character Questions, Character Journeys, Anthropomorphism
Module 4 – Theme
What Do You Want to Say to Kids and Why? Emotional Resonance, Writing from a Child’s Point of View, How Does This Affect Word Choice?
Module 5 – Plot
What’s Your Problem? Types of Literary Conflict, Visual Interest, Plot Structure, Plot Sequencing
Module 6 – Style
Voice, Point of View, Tense, Writing in Verse, Beginnings
Module 7 – Narrative Details
Dialogue, Show Don’t Tell, Juicy Verbs, Language, Incorporating the Senses, Pacing, Watch Out for the Passive, Indefinite, and Unnecessary, Endings, Titles
Module 8 – Editing
6-Step Revision Process
Bonuses – Editing Checklist, Writers Resources, Manuscript Submission Guidelines
Emma: First of all, thank you, Beth! You’ve been such a stalwart supporter of my work, and an incredible colleague and ally in the children’s lit community. I’m so very grateful for all you do.
In the years since I launched the Just Write for Kids picture book course, I received many requests to create middle grade and YA versions, but I simply didn’t have the time to do the necessary research, etc. I was finally able to pull it together thanks to teaching middle grade and YA writing for Stony Brook Southampton’s Creative Writing MFA and in our Children’s Lit Fellows program for the past couple of years. This allowed me to do the research and compile the resources over a period of time, and eventually I gave myself a semester to pull it all together into these two home-study courses. I should mention that all three courses can be taken from anywhere in the world, at any time, and at one’s own pace, since they are designed as independent studies.
Beth: Could you give us a glimpse into what’s offered in the two novel-writing courses?
Emma: Both are 14-module courses, as opposed to the picture book course, which is 8 – and like the picture book course, they are accomplished in a self-paced format. Each module builds upon the previous one’s lesson(s), and includes writing assignments, exercises and checklists for works in progress,
The syllabus is similarly structured for both courses, but the content is different. By way of example, below is a partial list of what the chapter book/middle grade course includes (but isn’t limited to). The YA syllabus is structured the same way with respect to the weekly topics, but the lessons within each topic are of course tailored to YA:
MODULE 1: Intro to Middle Grade
What is Middle Grade? (Age ranges, word counts, subjects, gender, genres, etc.); MG vs. Picture Books, Chapter Books, & Young Adult (YA); Getting & Developing Ideas; Writing a Series
MODULE 2: Character
Who’s your hero? Developmental Attributes of 8-12 Year Olds; The 4 Prime Character Questions; Character Journey; Anthropomorphism
MODULE 3: Plot
What’s the Problem? Dramatic Conflict; Classic Novel Structure; The Dramatic Arc; To Outline or Not to Outline? Scaffolding; Story Map; The Hero’s Journey
MODULE 4: Beginnings
First Chapter Musts; The Promise of the Story; Establishing Characters, World, Style, POV & Pacing; Inciting Incident; Back Story; Planting Seeds for the Ending; Info-Dumping; Cliché Openings; The First Line/Opening Sentence.
MODULE 5: Theme
What’s the Big Idea? Relatability; Universality; Revealing Theme; Multiple Themes; Must There be a Theme?
MODULE 6: Voice
Narrative Voice; Point of View; The Unreliable Narrator; Tense; Character Voice – Authenticity & Interiority; Authorial Voice; Passive & Indirect Voice
MODULE 7: Setting & World-building
Describing Your Setting (Sensory Details, Imagery, Time); World-Building (Rules of the World, Culture & Society, etc.); Chapter Books & Illustrated Novels
MODULE 8: Chapters
How Many Chapters Should I Include? Chapter Outlines; The Hero’s Journey; Chapter Ingredients; Transitions; Cliffhangers & Tension
MODULE 9: Scenes
Objectives + Obstacles = Conflict; The Elements of a Good Scene; Pacing; Zooming In & Out; Interiority; Beats; Dramatization vs. Summary; Play-by-Play Narration; Transitions & Turning Points
MODULE 10: Subplots & Secondary Characters
Roles & Archetypes; Stereotypes & Clichés; Edgy Content; Tracking Secondary Characters & Subplots
MODULE 11: Dialogue
Balancing Dialogue & Narration; The Purpose of Dialogue; Character Voice; Subtext; Attribution; Punctuating & Formatting; Info-Dumping; Dialect, Slang etc.
MODULE 12: Narrative Details
Pacing; Backstory; Tension, Suspense & Stakes; Coincidences & Surprises; Non-Linear Narrative; Verse; Edgy “Content”
MODULE 13: Endings
The Job of the Ending; Denouement; Ending Options; Clichés & Other Ending Bewares; Epilogues; Sequels, Series, etc.
MODULE 14 – Editing & Revision
Revision Guidelines; Editing Your Own Work; Submission Formatting & Guidelines; Freelance Editors; Bonuses
Beth: Why two courses? Why not “Just Write Novels for Kids” and leave it at that?
Emma: There are significant differences between chapter books, middle grade and young adult novels. While some of the craft elements are the same – such as basic storytelling/dramatic structure, character journey, etc. – the focus and degree of detail is quite different with each format, as is the emotional heart.
Chapter books, for instance, tend to not only be much shorter (which gives the author less opportunity for exposition, backstory, world-building, subplots, etc.), but they are also geared to the youngest side of the middle grade reader spectrum, which means the protagonist is younger and the stakes are generally lower than they would be for middle grade or YA. Small stakes – friendships challenged, mastering a new skill – feel large for this age group. This translates to smaller changes for the hero. And chapter books are often part of a series, which means kids must be able to read the books out of order, so characters tend to be more consistent and their emotional journeys from one book to the next less dramatic.
There are equally big differences between middle grade and YA. Middle grade readers are generally between 8-12, YA is 13 and up. As anyone who has ever been a teenager will remember, there’s a vast difference between 10-year-olds and 13-year-olds, let alone 16-year-olds, so the ages of the main characters differ tremendously, and as a result, so do the attendant themes, character journeys and other issues.
Adults can still play major roles in middle grade, for instance, where they tend to take a real back seat in YA. Middle grade novels tend to be more internally focused; they’re more about self-growth and the hero discovering who he/she is in the world, whereas in YA the hero notices the world around them and often moves from a more selfish stage in life to awareness of the feelings and situations of others. YA characters are old enough to be fairly independent and can get into trouble on their own, so there is more grittiness and realism. And of course there are vast differences in terms of what we call “content” – which is edgy language or mature issues. Whereas middle grade is still very tame in this regard, YA can and does include sexuality, profanity, violence, substance abuse, or basically any edgy content relevant to teens today.
Given the range of these differences, I felt it important to create two courses so that I could address the issues relevant to each format in greater detail.
Beth: Since I’ve taken both JWFK and JWFMG, I know that there’s a Facebook Group as well. Could you say a bit about it and its purpose?
Emma: Absolutely! I created the Facebook Group as a way for the participants in the course to ask me questions and to also learn from one another. All my courses are designed as independent studies, which means participants work at their own pace and do not submit their writing assignments to me for critique (though I do provide suggested answers or examples in each module relative to the lessons of the previous one, that students can compare to their own assignments.)
That said, I am always available for questions that come up. All the courses have the ability for participants to post questions within each lesson, which is valuable not only for the person asking the question but also for future participants, since the questions and my answers remain there in perpetuity. But the Facebook Group takes it a step further. It’s a more visible, immediate and social way to ask questions and share comments, and it allows others who have taken the course to respond along with me. This broadens the discussion exponentially, and has the added bonus of giving me feedback and ideas for areas in which I can improve the courses whenever I do updates or revisions.
Beth: Very importantly, how can people find more information on your courses?
Emma: Thank you for asking! My website will lead people to all the various resources and courses I offer. Here’s the direct link: http://emmawaltonhamilton.com/store/
and here are the links to the specific courses in case you missed them in the body of the interview:
Just Write for Kids: http://emmawaltonhamilton.com/store/just-write-for-kids-picture-books/
Just Write for Middle Grade: http://emmawaltonhamilton.com/store/just-write-for-middle-grade/
Just Write for Young Adults: http://emmawaltonhamilton.com/store/just-write-for-young-adults/
Beth: Thanks so much for this overview of your courses, Emma!
NEXT WEEK the interview will continue with a look at the other products and services Emma offers.
Be sure to come back on Friday, March 4th!
EMMA WALTON HAMILTON is a best-selling children’s book author, editor and arts educator. With her mother, actress/author Julie Andrews, Emma has co-authored over thirty children’s books, seven of which have been on the NY Times Bestseller list, including The Very Fairy Princess series (#1 Bestseller), Julie Andrews Collection of Poems, Songs and Lullabies, the Dumpy the Dump Truck series, Simeon’s Gift, The Great American Mousical, and Thanks to You – Wisdom from Mother and Child.
Emma’s own book, RAISING BOOKWORMS: Getting Kids Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, premiered as a #1 best-seller on Amazon.com in the literacy category and won a Parent’s Choice Gold Medal.
Emma is a faculty member of Stony Brook Southampton’s MFA in Creative Writing and Literature, where she teaches all forms of children’s book writing and serves as Director of the Children’s Literature Fellows program and the Executive Director of the Young Artists and Writers Project (YAWP), an interdisciplinary writing program for middle and high school students. A former actress and theatre director, Emma was a co-founder of Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, where she served as co-Artistic Director and Director of Education and Programming for Young Audiences for 17 years.
Emma is also an award-winning children’s book editor, and hosts the Just Write Children’s Books self-paced, home-study courses in writing picture books, chapter books and middle grade and young adult novels. In addition, she is a Grammy Award-winning audiobook narrator and an accomplished public speaker, regularly addressing arts and literary conferences, schools, universities and other groups about the value of, and synergy between, the arts and literacy.