Amy Sparkes: Stand out from the Slush Pile

Amy Sparkes Report: 8th March 2022 by Sarah Noon

Amy is a novelist and journalist who has written over 20 children’s books, from picture books to middle grade chapter books. She also works closely with publishing companies. She began writing in 2009, with picture books. She went on to writing junior fiction and her most recent books are middle grade. “I am working my way up!” she says. In addition to this, she writes scripts and articles for magazines. She also has 6 children – 5 of whom she home schools! Despite all of this, she still has time to do author visits!  She is fortunate she says, that through her work, she is able to read many manuscripts – hundreds of stories every year.

Amy Sparkes

Amy considers that there are four things that are “… even more important than plot.” These are concept, character, voice and energy.

  1. Concept

Many stories that Amy reads, have ideas that have occurred many times before.  She gives the example of the Tooth Fairy.  Whilst there is no reason why this can’t be incorporated within a story, she feels that writers need to “step outside of the safe idea.”  She gives the analogy of a rainbow, and how a writer will often “go with the violet” – their first idea, when what writers should be doing is focusing on farthest (“red”).  Writers should be challenging themselves to move away from their first idea.  She suggests changing something within the original concept (for example, the setting or time period).  Amy is asked whether she thinks there are certain age groups where certain topics are predictable and whether new writers should we steer away from those. She suggests we consider what can be done to make the topic different. For example, if the story is about a lost dog, could it be on another planet?

2)  Character

Amy explains that she is always looking for characters who stand out because they’re not generic – not safe or predictable.  She gives the example of the “feisty female” or STEM female. She asks writers to consider these things:

  • Why are we going to remember this character?  
  • Why have the characters we read when we were young stayed with  us?
  • What was different or quirky about them?

She goes on to say that we should try to give characters something different or interesting.  This is vital, she says, because when someone has read one hundred stories that day, writers  need to consider what is going to make their character different? Is it the best version of itself it can be? She reminds us that we have to be honest with ourselves as writers and make sure we’ve pushed our ideas and characters as far as we can. Amy gives the example of a child protagonist frequently being twelve.  She suggests giving the character three adjectives and ensuring that at least one of those adjectives is clear in each page.

Amy also talks about distinct character voices.  Eric in The House of Magic for example only speaks two words of one syllable at a time (there is no way that his voice can be confused with any other character!).

3)  Voice

Voice is something that Amy is very passionate about (“It’s what makes you, you as a writer”).  She says the voice is what  “… makes me sit up in my chair.” Amy explains that having confidence in your voice is what “… makes your writing sparkle.”  If you’re writing something that you care about, then the voice will come through. She talks about “head” stories and “heart” stories.  The “heart” ones are the ones that you feel passionate about and have to share. These tend to be the ones when the writer’s voice is often stronger. Here, the writer will be more invested in the story and energised with regards to developing editing their work.

Sibling relationships is something that Amy is very interested in.  As a result, this is often a theme in her books.  The voice comes through clearly because she cares about the theme.  This is what she asks writers to consider when they are developing their ideas.  Amy is a firm believer in “dream time” – time away from paper and pen or computer.  Writers need that processing time and time to consider the point of our writing. What do we want to say? Why do we want to say it?  Amy believes that if we do this, these stories will “… be the ones that will sparkle and shine the most.”

4)  Energy

When sending work to an agent,  Amy admits that receiving the feedback “it’s a little bit quiet” is the things she dreads the most.  It means the work doesn’t have that energy behind it.  She says that one way of acquiring that energy is to go back to thinking about the voice and that connection again.  She explains that energy can be a “quiet” energy – it doesn’t have to be a “loud” energy.  She asks us to consider, what is the tone of the story? What are the key phrases? She gives the example of a bedtime story, which will be gentle, but needs to carry the reader along.  We  need to think about the words that are used and their rhythm etc. If it is a funny story, consider, is there a laugh on every page? Are the laughs getting bigger and louder every time? “You have to get readers feeling the sense of story and sense of progression.” She talks about keeping the pace going in order to build up to the end point or climax.

With older readers, she says, we are thinking about injecting each chapter with energy and to think about what makes our reader want to read on.  She urges us to look at how we start and finish each chapter and to consider a hook, or the middle of a scene.  She suggests “playing” with the reader, remining us that “kids love language.” Humour can encourage a child to read on.

Amy is asked how important it is to cram energy and voice into the synopses of a story.  Her reply is that “You have to feel like the life has been sucked out of the story!”  The first two or three chapters will enable the reader to feel the energy.  The cover letter will allow you to be much more you.

She is also asked to clarify the difference between energy and pace.  She answers that energy is about identifying what moments need more energy in relation to feelings and emotion – what do I want the reader to feel?  “Pace,”  she says “…is what keeps the reader coming along with you.”

Amy concludes her talk explaining that when she is writing, “… draft one is with my heart, draft two is with my head.” She says, the heart is the fun bit, and the head is more analytical – looking at energy and voice etc. She adds that this is where the reader has to be really honest with themselves.  She ends with some very clear advice for us all: “Always start with the heart!”

Report by Sarah Noon

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