Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

Behind the scenes – Writing & Publishing Graded Readers

Graded Readers are something those outside of EFL might not know and those inside might never have thought about how they’re written. Up until a couple of years ago, I often used them in class without thinking about their provenance either.

Then I suddenly realised “Hang on a minute…someone must write those…why not me?” Most of the books I’d used were adaptations of classics  (all students love Oliver Twist and females swoon as much over the Pre-Int version of Heathcliff  as they have always done with the original Wuthering Heights). A rifle through the internet and I’d worked out who the main publishers were and a few calls found out the names of the commissioning editors.

That was the end of the easy part.

Getting them to consider me drew blanks, despite the fact I’d written in other markets and done some online EFL stuff for the BBC. Undeterred, I thought I’d have a go at writing an original instead. I didn’t have a lot else to do at the time and it took my mind off, well, off everything. I needed an idea though. So I literally sat down one afternoon and let my mind find one for me. 45 minutes later I had the bare bones of 2/3 of a story about a boy whose mirror started reflecting 24 hours into the future.

I’d started off unable to think of anything other than vampires as this was very much the Twilight era…OK…flowing with the supernatural… then my mind wandered to mirrors and how, as a child, I had this obsession with trying to catch my reflection out. I’ve since learned a lot more about what the brain’s doing when inspiration hits so I know that if you leave it enough space and quiet it will piece together random bits of information and lo! the muse touches you.

My ending was weak and I knew it. I’m a beginning and middle kind of person – endings are harder. As in life, I usually just duck out before I get to the end of a story – leave the country, let friendships die and  detested jobs end when the contract does. Anyway, I pitched it to one of the publishers along with three sample chapters, they saw through my fudged ending and suggested what was needed i.e. an ending that fulfilled the promise of the premise.

I completely failed to make a revision with the necessary tightness and it was rejected.

But from their rejection I was able to work out how to end it more satisfyingly. Their door was forever closed to me though and they wouldn’t even look at the now workable synopsis. Big mistake I think since it was then picked up by a much bigger publisher. The second publisher came through by my making a polite nuisance of myself. They had said they liked new writers to do adaptations first, but, see above, there was no fire under their ass to field any out to me. I called them and politely suggested I pitch them the story since I’d already written the sample chapters and they liked it.

The time frames for this stuff are unimaginable to someone like me that has no idea what they’ll be doing six months from the present moment. From conception to tangible interest took four months. From interest to actual contract (after having to write a complete draft which I was already doing in case it was rejected again and needed to pitch somewhere else) took another eight months. The writing and editing process was eight months again on a schedule agreed by all involved and allowing for me to do nothing on it over summer due to other commitments. As well as the text itself I had to write a detailed artwork brief, as Graded Readers at low levels are heavily illustrated, and the pre and post reading activities that slot in between every two chapters. Then it has been another sixteen months until my oeuvre goes on sale.

The book is aimed at Beginner students and language grading is what sets Graded Readers apart from standard books. Mine meant sticking to a list of 300 prescribed, level appropriate words. And that’s including “and”, “he”, “of” etc. I was allowed to add 20 extra words that were essential to the story so some of mine were “mirror”, “bruise”, “hit” – (that makes it sound very violent!). I pored over those lists, constantly checking if I’d inadvertantly included something I wasn’t allowed. This often meant changing things; sometimes simple things like a basketball game became football. Sometimes really irritating things gobbled up my 20 word allowance like shirt but not trousers and I really needed “trousers” for one sentence which had to go in the end.

Then there were the grammar restrictions. Try writing a story in the past when you’re only allowed the past tense of the regular verbs on the list and five specified irregular verbs. I went through all sorts of linguistic contortions to make a point. For example, I couldn’t say “he saw” as it wasn’t one of the irregulars I was allowed but I could say “he didn’t see” or “did he see?” since “did” was one of the five. And some plot points were dropped altogether because they needed the past perfect to express them adequately. I’m quite analytical and a complete geek so for me this process was like cracking a code and I loved it. How can I say that using only this? Just like the astronauts on Apollo 13, I gave enough oxygen to my story to get the mission done.

I learnt a lot through being edited by pros in the field. Luckily, I’m not too precious**  about my stuff. If the editor says something isn’t working they’re usually right. My vastly improved ending still needed more tweaking but I had to have it pointed out before I was able to hone it. I notice the final version has had a few more things smoothed out, in each case an improvement on my final draft. I am fairly sure that being easy to work with and hitting deadlines is as important as writing well. I’m a major swot and set myself deadlines ahead of the required dates which then exert just as much pressure  as if there were anyone other than me expecting it done by then.

my book

So here it is, the end product of all that work. For me the truly magical thing is that it came from simply deciding to do it and then sitting there and letting an idea bubble up from the depths. Which is why I’m doing it again, next project subject to contracts, and the one after that is a little way past bubble stage but not yet solidified.

See, that was a weak ending wasn’t it?

** I’m saving preciousness for when I’m a bigger name!


10 comments on “Behind the scenes – Writing & Publishing Graded Readers

  1. Thanks for dropping by my place and leaving a comment, as it’s given me the chance to discover your excellent blog. I’ve often looked at graded readers and thought, ‘I could do that.’ What’s always put me off has been the thought of trying to go through the process you’ve described here. Congratulations to you for going the distance.

    Feeling sapped of energy due to flu, so this is just a short and sweet comment, but I will return!

  2. James Schofield
    January 15, 2013

    Dear Nicola,
    I was very lucky in my experience with writing graded readers for Summertown Publishing, in that the owner at that time (it now belongs to the publishing behemoth Cengage), Louis Garnade, could do what he wanted and a priority for Louis was always speed. Our approach was very swashbuckling which we could afford because I never had to write for anything below B1 level. I think writing for the lower level as you did requires a lot of patience.
    My EFL writing is now confined to short stories for Business Spotlight – a magazine designed for non-native speakers of English in Germany. I love writing them. As you said, it’s like solving a puzzle. How do you get a good story with a beginning, middle and an end across in only 900 words, and how do you do it without overtaxing the linguistic ability of the readers?
    I’ve recently started a much more self-indulgent project – writing a full-length novel. No more restrictions on vocabulary, grammar or word-count! But I realised that I was too lazy to do it without outsiders goading me on. Until now I’ve always had editors to nag me. So I started a blog in October which describes the whole writing process and I then post the novel chapter by chapter and ask people for input. If you have time, do have a look. I’d really welcome your thoughts.


    • Nicola
      January 15, 2013

      Interesting, I’ve never heard of short stories in business books. You mean fiction not articles? I’d like to take a look at those too!
      I’m doing other writing projects, like novels and screenplays and I find that the graded reader mode is hard to get out of and I can’t work on both things simultaneously. However I don’t have the problem of making myself work as I am super strict with myself and make a timetable and stick to it. Editors don’t get chance to nag me – I’m a total, sickeningly annoying swot. You could try writing appointments for writing in your diary – as if they’re business meetings etc. But I would love to take a look at your novel – I am scheduling it in for tomorrow 🙂 I love doing that sort of thing and do it a lot within my writing group – giving and receiving. I learn a lot from both. Good luck.

  3. James Schofield
    January 15, 2013

    Business people like fiction just as much as anybody else. And the office has so much going on. Many a heaving bosom lurks under a pinstripe suit.
    If you want to see the kind of business graded readers I’ve done you can look here:
    My problem with writing is not so much procrastination or writer’s block or anything artisitic like that. It’s the job that gets in the way. I keep on having to toddle off and do other things when I would much prefer to continue working on my jigsaw puzzle of a book. Sigh…

  4. Hi Nicola,

    Congratulations on your success!

    Just wanted to say that I found this post absolutely fascinating. Beginnings, middle and endings are challenges enough, but such strict restrictions on word use must take it all to a new level.

    Thanks for this great insight into the world of graded readers.


    • Nicola
      January 17, 2013

      Thanks! I am drafting a more detailed post about the long, long process of getting the second one published but don’t want to jinx the book by posting it before the contract’s signed!
      Actually, the word limitations become almost comforting in a strange way – coming up with ideas is a much freer thing so having a clearly defined part of it is reassuring. But then I’m a very structure orientated creature.

  5. Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)
    February 1, 2013

    I have rarely used graded readers in an active sense, but have passed them on to some of my students for pleasure reading, which they’ve seemed to enjoy. Adam’s recommendation of your post led me here and glad so. I’ve known authors-in-progress before, but never really heard too much about the process itself. It hadn’t occurred to me how detailed the word-type restrictions were and how that must complicate what you are able to write. Question: do you suggest the level you’re writing for or does the publisher? I ask simply because the higher the fewer restrictions and easier story-writing, perhaps?

    Enjoyed the read. I look forward to the longer post, as you say.

    • Nicola
      February 1, 2013

      I plan to post something on using graded readers actively as my interest in them stemmed from a handout of a training workshop I’d been unable to attend in person and I’ve used them ever since. I think they’re hugely underused which is a shame – although for students to do individual reading is also a nice thing. Unfortunately that under-use is reflected in publisher’s priorities too – coursebooks are where they focus of course. Re level, I pitch with the sample and say what level I think it’s for but then adapt it to whatever level they say they have a gap for. The first one I’d written at pre-int level and then graded down. Now I send pitches and just say this is a guide for how the story will feel and I can rewrite it. That said, the latest pitch has loads of past perfect in that I wouldn’t like to do without which means it needs to be higher. In reality I would hack them out and stitch the story corpse back together for an advance and royalties! I’m not sure the higher ones are easier because they have to be longer, and maybe with more characters and interactions and I feel like my writing should make cleverer, more literary use of language as a piece aimed at natives would. More pressure.

      • Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)
        February 2, 2013

        Huhn. I hadn’t thought much about the higher the level, the more pressure there may be. What I’ve always wanted to write, but never got around to it, was a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book for Intermediate level learners. I don’t teach them myself anymore, but felt there was a nice gap in our industry there. For my students, I can use the actual CYOA books from the 80s (which I proudly display on my office bookshelf), but they are pitched at a younger audience. Maybe writing my own should become a priority again…

      • Nicola
        February 2, 2013

        Those books are brilliant and I had one I used to use with adults years ago. I think special ELT ones would make a great addition to a publisher’s catalogues BUT I suspect they might not as the format means increased page length ie a more expensive book to produce. BUT I don’t really know what they’d think and therefore it’s worth a try. The original CYOA were especially targeted at “the reluctant reader” which is what a lot of EFL students are, I think, although their lack of interest stems more from time and perceived difficulty than a lack of interest in reading itself, well sometimes. As you can see, the process even of getting something commissioned is really long so my advice is this (if you’re serious and not just one of the many who say “I always wanted to write a book…” and then never try):Plan out your concept in a flow chart style and see if you have enough branches to make a book with enough choice. Write the main stem and take one branch to its conclusions an then you have your sample material. Write it roughly to the right language level but don’t worry about vocab for now. Write a synopsis of the proposed book (a page) and then look at the main publisher’s and see who has adult readers and then get in touch with them and offer the pitch. It’ll take months for them to look at it and in the meantime you can be writing the rest of it. If they don’t bite, try the next. If no-one goes for it. self publish or see if someone will make an ipad book out of it for you and market that yourself. A long and difficult route but not impossible.Good luck!

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This entry was posted on January 10, 2013 by in Graded Readers, Writing and tagged , , , , , .
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