How Sue Mongredien balances writing adult novels with children's books
“It feels like the Holy Grail because it's really hard to crack,” says Sue Mongredien, “but I love it.” Sue is talking about writing picture books for children – her most recent achievement as a writer of over 100 books, and many more in the pipeline.
Sue's publishing career started in 1992 when she began working for Random House in the children's editorial department. “I began to get a feel for what made a good book,” she says. She started writing a teenage novel in secret “because I didn't want anyone to say 'you only got your book published because you work in publishing,'”. I sent it to an agent under a false name and they sold it – after that, I just got the bug.”
She was commissioned to write much more for children, but it wasn't until Sue had her own children that she started writing adult fiction. “I started an evening class in writing and wrote about how I loved being a mum, but how it was so domestic - and boring in some ways - and that turned into my first novel. I really enjoyed writing a longer piece and exploring the characters and taking them to extremes.” Her first Lucy Diamond novel was published in 2006 and since then she has written for adults as well as children. “I really like that – it's a better balance.”
So what about the name Lucy Diamond? “My first novel was quite racy so I needed a different agent and he said he thought I should use a pen name and keep the genres separate,” explains Sue. “I'd just written a children's story about Lucy and the Diamond Fairy and he said, 'what about Lucy Diamond?' I loved the name, and that was that.”
The disciplines involved in writing children's books are very different from novels. “With picture books, you're very limited – it can be about 300-500 words and it's like a puzzle. Every word counts and you have to think visually,” Sue says. “You can't use descriptions as the pictures have to do the work. And you have to think in terms of a two page spread - there has to be enough story to justify the illustrations.”
Picture books might be short, but the structure is the same as a novel. “They still have to have a plot, and you have to develop the characters - they need to go on a journey but you have to condense it into a much smaller space.” Sue clearly enjoys every aspect of this new challenge. “And it's lovely to have an artist do beautiful pictures to go with your words!”
When it comes to children's books, this is a different practice. “Children's books are about 6,000 words each, and I start with a synopsis, then I do a chapter breakdown, planning out really carefully what will happen in each chapter, which has to end on a cliffhanger,” she explains. “There has to be some movement of the story in every chapter and I chart when it's all going to happen. I find that so useful in children's books, because you can see the peaks and troughs, when the big action's going to happen and build up to the resolution at the end.” Writing for children also means using vocabulary suitable for that age level. “I have to consider if a 5 year old would understand certain words, and if they are a reluctant reader, I really have to grab them from the word go,” she adds.
The Lucy Diamond books are written differently again. “These novels are about 100,000 words each, and I don't really plan that much. I just sort of blunder off.” Sue laughs. “I start off with my characters and I know the theme, and I tend to know how it will end up but not how the characters get there. I work that out as I go along.” She pauses. “There's much more room to explore characters and themes in an adult novel. Often, once I know what's going to happen I go back and plant a few seeds at the beginning and I do quite a lot of editing.”
Because children's books have much shorter deadlines, Sue works on both at the same time, “but the novel is always going along in the background. I quite like working like that – I like the balance and it suits my moods.”
Sue's output is phenomenal by most standards, but she clearly enjoys the different challenges the books all bring. “Last year I wrote one Lucy Diamond novel, about 20 children's books at around 6,000 words each, and one picture book,” she says cheerfully. “A novel takes just under a year, whereas I can write the first draft of a picture book in about an hour but I go over it and over it. A children's book takes about 2 weeks for a 6,000 word book.”
Sue believes her training as an editor has helped her to manage her workload. “The children's books take a short period of time, whereas I'm thinking about the novel all the time - when I'm washing up or doing chores – I even dream about the characters.” She pauses. “Having been an editor I'm always really organised about deadlines. I've never let them waft by.”
The mark of a good story, Sue believes, is very good characters. “Ones you care about, believe in and want to keep reading about. Style is important too: I like a warm style of writing so you feel like a friend is talking to you and that's how I try to write, and engage the reader.”
Sue's workload continues apace, with several more Lucy Diamond novels in the pipeline as well as many more children's books. One of the many things she loves about being a writer is her own children's roles as critics. “They're very earnest, particularly the oldest, who is quite harsh with me now! She's given me loads of ideas and titles which is fabulous.”
Feedback is also very important for Sue. “I get lovely letters and emails from children, and I love going to schools and seeing their faces when I'm reading them stories. When they laugh, it's just brilliant! But I also get lots of emails about the Lucy Diamond books which is fabulous because writing a novel is such a solitary thing.” She pauses. “To have someone write and say 'I really enjoyed it,' makes it all worthwhile.”
Sue's most recent children's series is The Secret Mermaid, published by Usborne.
Sweet Temptation by Lucy Diamond is out now, published by Pan
Writers Forum 2011