The Great HiLo Discussion
A visit from my HiLo author friends Gail Anderson-Dargatz and Paul Coccia!
So last week (week before? What is time?) was a big week for me - my book Countdown was officially released into the world! This was my fourth HiLo Orca title and my first in their new Anchor line! Countdown was released simultaneously with three other Orca Books HiLo titles: I Got You Babe by Paul Coccia, Bigfoot Crossing by Gail Anderson-Dargatz and Star Eaters by Brooke Nelson. It was a hilo book birthday party!
I keep saying HiLo, so I should probably define it for those who are wondering what the heck I’m talking about. HiLo stands for high interest, low reading level. These books tend to be short and sweet and specifically written for readers with a lower reading level - readers who are older and who can be very selective about what they read. As a result, the writing in a HiLo book has to be sharp and clean, with a fast moving story and themes relevant to a more mature audience. It’s a lot for a writer to juggle.
And I love it.
I love the challenge of HiLo books - I’m not allowed to do whatever I want, there are parameters that must be met, all while telling a ripping good tale.
And because there’s so much going on when it comes to writing a HiLo book, I thought it would be fun to bring in my HiLo book buddies to have a discussion about writing HiLo!
So please welcome to Authorstrator, amazing Orca Books HiLo authors, Gail Anderson-Dargatz and Paul Coccia!
Let’s dive in!
How do you approach writing a hilo title vs a more commercial title?
Gail: In some ways, my approach to writing a hi-lo is like writing a commercial project. I start with a ‘big idea’ or premise that has enough potential for conflict to carry the project. For example, with Bigfoot Crossing, here is my initial big idea or premise: When Jay’s dad drags him into the woods to hunt Bigfoot, a Bigfoot hunts them instead. When Jay’s Dad goes missing, Jay must track him down, and he finds there is more than one monster in those woods.
Once I have my big idea, I work up a one-page synopsis and a chapter outline. Once these are approved by my editor, I dive into writing. Here the writing differs considerably from writing commercial as the prose is at a reading level that is considerably lower than what might be usual for the age of the intended audience. For example, with some of my hi-lo books, the writing is at a grade one or two level for a middle-school readership. That means a small cast of characters, no flashbacks, and short sentences and chapters. I weight every word and phrase carefully to make sure that it’s easy to read and understand. But I do borrow heavily from the commercial writer’s toolbox when it comes to story and structure. The stories must have a highly engaging story and exciting subject matter to draw the reluctant or struggling reader in and keep them there.
Paul: I appreciate a lot of what Gail says about the nuts and bolts and your writer’s toolbox. I find short story techniques, Gail lists limited casts of characters for example, come in particularly handy. Consider if characters are working hard enough to earn their page count or if they can do double duty and take on some other function. Hilo writing puts you to the test as there’s no room for veering subplots, extraneous characters, or overuse of imagery. Writing that isn’t strong will be picked off immediately. Hilo readers are likely to put down your book and not give it a second chance. Streamlined is a good way to think of the stories. Characters and plots aren’t necessarily simplified but they should be aerodynamic and help propel the reader from the first page to the last. Clarity is so important. Ambiguity, especially at the end of the story or loose ends can be extremely frustrating for a reader who may have worked hard to get to the final sentence. They need the satisfaction of knowing they understood the story properly, not an open-ended inference of how things worked out. I was bound to get in a cooking analogy. Although your ingredients are limited, the skill and attention needed are the same.
Me: Why did you never make HiLo cookies for the book party, Paul!? But to what you’re saying about streamlining and limited ingredients - that’s sort of why I wrote Countdown in text messages. I really felt the format of text messages would streamline everything to a laser focus. It sort of had the limited tools built in already. And it was really challenging and fun to work within those restrictions.
What's the most important thing to keep in mind when writing for a HiLo audience?
Paul: I guess it’s a bit of a ‘who’ for me. The intended reader should be most important in the author’s mind. While the HiLo audience could be anyone (I love the books for their tight brevity), the intended readers are young people who are still developing their foundational skills with books and reading and are middle-graders and teens who are quite smart. Getting to the end of a word might be a big success for them. Authors should always keep in mind wanting these readers to excel while respecting their intelligence and age.
Me: Yes, 100% agree that it’s the ‘who’. For me, the ‘who’ is that reader who can’t put the book down. I desperately want the story I write to be an absolute blast - start to finish. I remember reading Carrie by Stephen King in a single sitting.I never read a book in a single sitting before. Time just fell away and I devoured it. I want the reader, who maybe hasn’t had that reading experience before, to forget they are reading and just get lost in the story. That really drives the decision behind every page and every word.
Gail: I agree, Paul. Also, story is everything. If a writer can keep a striving or reluctant reader engaged, truly interested, with a great story then the reader is not only drawn into a given book, but into the reading experience. They’ll pick up another high interest, low vocab book. And another, and another … That can change lives.
And finally, tell us about your new HiLo titles!
Gaill: I got the idea for this book after finding a ‘Sasquatch alert’ poster in my local park, claiming that Bigfoot had been sighted in the area. It was someone’s idea of a joke, but I knew I had the start of a project. We also have a bigfoot crossing sign in our local village and that, of course, gave me the title for the book, Bigfoot Crossing. In this hi-lo novel for middle-school readers, Jay’s dad takes him out hunting for Bigfoot. But Jay has to carry his little sister, and this isn’t his idea of a camping trip. Besides, he doesn’t think Bigfoot are real. But then something big starts hunting them, and Jay’s dad goes missing. Jay, still looking out for his little sister, must now find his dad. As he searches, he finds the Bigfoot isn’t the only threat in these woods.
Paul: I Got You Babe is the Cher-iest work of glitterature out there! Mac is an icon (like Cher), but his classmates haven't quite caught on. When he convinces the parent council to update the school’s Fun Fair to a Pride Fair, Mac is determined to win the talent show and become the star of the event by performing the classic Sonny & Cher duet, “I Got You Babe.” As Mac’s plans pick up steam, he doesn’t slow down to consider his always-supportive best friend may not want to play Sonny to his Cher. I Got You Babe is a fun, light story about a big personality with big dreams as he navigates friendship and will have you singing along.
Thanks so much for the chat, Gail and Paul! Check out Bigfoot Crossing and I Got You Babe. To learn more about writing for Hilo, I recommend checking out Gail’s excellent blog summary here, as well as explore the titles from Orca Books!
What are you reading?
WHAT I’M WORKING ON
I'm STILL working on the pitch I mentioned last time - those subplots and character arcs are pesky buggers. It’s basically consuming all my time and this week is the week I finish it, so help me! Also, I've been putting together worksheets and bonus content for students who have been reading The Bear House (fun!). I'll be sure to share them to the goody tier once they are done!
It’s a laser focused week, so everything will be done and finished and complete before its over so I can get back to some drawing I am behind on - I have a fun new illustration project I am excited about and will share more when it’s done. Plus there’s a whole supporting case of ‘After’ that I need to sort out.
And that’s all from me!
Have a great week :)
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