Many people have what they consider to be brilliant ideas for children’s books but have no experience of writing. But lack of experience need not get in the way of bringing an idea to fruition as there is guidance available in the form of courses. Alison Sage demystifies what happens on a writing course for children and outlines the benefits to be gained.
Can you teach people to write for children?
There are quite a few who think you can’t. There is an implicit idea that writing is a talent you are born with and that one day, sitting at your laptop in your kitchen (why is it always the kitchen?) your innate ability will suddenly surface like a lottery ticket, and you will write a bestseller that will pay your mortgage and take you on exotic holidays for life.
The role of writing classes
First and most importantly, writing classes can give the writer a chance to explore different kinds of writing in a non-judgemental atmosphere. It is the job of the teacher to help students to experiment until they find what suits them.
Who benefits most from writing classes?
It is impossible to guess at the beginning of a course how far students will develop their talent or even who will actually get published. Obviously, different teachers suit different people, but I have found an astonishing range amongst my students. That is what makes it so exciting and rewarding – and so unpredictable. The only student who is unlikely to be happy is the one who says: ‘Teach me to write a bestseller.’ This is frankly impossible and anyone who believes that writing is an exact science is bound to be disappointed.
A typical course outline
Every course is different because every student is asked what they hope to achieve and this obviously affects what we do. However, certain things are always included in some form.
Finding a story
The first place to look for a story is in your own experience. All students are asked to write something about their first memories of their baby brothers or sisters because when students genuinely remember their own childhood, their language becomes simpler, their writing more powerful and direct. They write in a way they never would if they were consciously trying to ‘write for children’. This is a very important step in trying to discover what is your own voice. Writers need to know not only what they want to say, but also how they are going to put it over.
The next thing to stress is the importance of the beginning. Many students think that page one is where a writer finds his feet and that the story proper starts about page six. This is not true. The first paragraph of a book is crucial. Children invest a lot of energy in reading a book and they want to be convinced pretty quickly that this effort is going to be worthwhile. A dull first page means that the book will be put down, never to be opened again. Even more to the point, perhaps, a busy editor reading an unsolicited manuscript will also lose interest if the beginning of the story is dull or confusing and they will make this the excuse they need to return it immediately. The beginning must draw the reader in. If a story is the solving of a problem, then the beginning must make that problem sound exciting and tantalising.
A vital ingredient
Another vital topic usually covered at this stage of the course is tension. Tension is what makes you want to continue reading and without tension, a story is as dull as a meal without salt. Just as a joke falls flat if the timing is wrong, so a fascinating story can become boringly muddled if the author does not build to a climax. It is about choosing selective details and using the reader’s own imagination to create suspense. A description of the monster’s claw grasping from behind the door is far more terrifying than a complete run-down of the whole creature.
Talk about getting published
Finally, most students are interested in the mechanics of getting published, and this is a minefield for would-be authors. It is difficult to get your work singled out from a pile of unsolicited manuscripts and while (eventually) good writers are usually discovered, it can be a long and tortuous process.
Sharing an interest
Perhaps the most important thing is to enjoy writing and to meet other people who are also interested. That way, students can keep each other going through the rejections and at the very least, improve at something they want to do. There are a great many courses which cater for all different kinds of interests, attitudes and expectations. The best place to look is probably at the local adult education institute. If there is no course specifically listed for writing for children, it is worth ringing up and asking if they would like to start one. You could also put up a notice in your local library for anyone else who might be interested and as soon as you are a group, the authority will take notice of you. You could even start your own independent writing group!
So can writing be taught?
The debate will certainly continue, as people point out that teachers on courses rarely become as famous as some of their students. However, there are things which are helpful to discover when you are starting out as a children’s writer. And perhaps the encouragement of the group will make sure that you continue writing until instead of your returned manuscript, it is the publisher’s contract that drops through your letterbox!
Alison Sage is an experienced commissioning editor of children’s books and has worked for a variety of publishers including Oxford University Press, HarperCollins and Random House. Alison is also a writer and anthologist and her Treasury of Children’s Literature won the Children’s Book of the Year Award in 1995. She has run many courses on creative writing for children for Kensington & Chelsea and Hammersmith adult education institutes.
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