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Writing for Children

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.

After many years working in publishing and talking to would-be writers, I have come to the conclusion that this is only a tiny fraction of the truth. Writing is like any other talent and it improves with being used. Dancers dance, musicians play and writers have to write and write and write to get better.

There is no doubt that some people have more aptitude for writing than others. But besides natural talent, a writer must have something to say.

Next, a writer needs to have the persistence and self belief to continue to write through all kinds of distractions and discouragement. And finally, if a writer wants to be published successfully, he or she needs a certain amount of luck.

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.

Students can also meet other people in the same situation. Writing can be a very lonely pursuit. A writer’s friends are usually embarrassed to give their honest opinion about a story because it is a recipe for falling out. Every writer knows the despair of writing something which at first sounds wonderful and then on re-reading sounds rubbish. Where can writers find an independent judgement? Whoever they ask must be someone they can trust to be impartial, someone who can suggest where their good ideas become woolly and perhaps even how they might go about improving things. However, these must always be suggestions. It is the writer who must decide how, where, and in what way to alter the manuscript.

In an ideal world, the publisher’s editor would help new writers endlessly until they achieved a best-selling novel. The reality is that publishers’ editors are too busy to nurture every single would-be talent. Therefore, it is up to the writer either to go it alone – which many do – or to find someone else to act as a sounding board. This is where writing classes can help.

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.

Interestingly enough, the one thing that can indicate how far a student will get – apart from their persistence, of course – is how flexible they are. Often, people who are highly educated are actually at a disadvantage. They believe they have been taught how to write correctly – and that there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way to do it. Nothing could be further from the truth, particularly when writing for children. Therefore, I have seen an Oxford graduate watch enviously as another student, still at school, sends the whole class into fits of laughter with a perfect story. I have had students who were models, refugees, counsellors, puppeteers, housewives, diplomats, postmen, soldiers, office managers, nurses, with children, without children or simply out of work. One of my best students left school aged 15. He is now editing a magazine and I still wonder if he will ever write his children’s novel…. Another is now a published author/illustrator, through his own talent and a great deal of effort. Yet another is looking after her children – and one day perhaps the quiet brilliance of her writing will find a publisher.

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.

It may sound self evident, but central to a writing course is getting students to write. Students develop through putting new ideas into practice. Therefore, every class includes about 15 minutes’ writing time and students read out and talk about what they have written. Most students are nervous at first, because they feel they are unprepared. But this rarely lasts because writing on the spot seems to bring the group closer together. It also relaxes everyone, as no one can be expected to write a bestseller in 15 minutes and at this point, students invariably have brilliant ideas and express them unbelievably well. If anyone gets stuck, they simply explain that the topic hasn’t worked for them. Different students shine at different topics and this helps to steer them towards what they ultimately want to write.

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 class then usually discusses what kinds of story are appropriate for different ages. Perhaps one of the most common mistakes made by new children’s writers is that they write about very young topics in a very sophisticated fashion. If you are aiming to write a picture book for a three year-old, you need to understand a little of what a three year-old can cope with. It is no use writing a story that is 10,000 words long.

However, a nine year-old is not going to be interested in stories designed for a three year-old – even if technically they are suitable. In fact, a good rule of thumb is that children are interested in most of the things that adults are – except they are not used to dealing with concepts. A child may love a book about a character who is alone, or brave, or funny. They will not be so interested in loneliness, heroism or humour in the abstract. Children are also not very comfortable with irony until they are about nine or ten years old, tending to take the printed word at its face value. However, when they do discover it, they love it.

The beginning

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.

At this point, it is usually a good idea for the class to discuss strategies for keeping going with a story. Finishing a story gives a student a great boost and in itself, is a huge learning curve. Different strategies are helpful for different people. Some students need a writing routine – a special chair or table or cup of coffee. For others this is either no use or impossible to maintain. Some find writing notes at the end of each writing session is helpful, so that they can more easily get into the flow of ideas where they broke off. And most people find a notebook helpful, where they can record interesting ideas and experiences to be used as the raw material for future stories. If you are able to go into a school and help with reading, this can be a great eye opener as you will see first hand which stories children struggle over and which really work.

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.

If you think of your own favourite childhood story, it is often not the end that sticks in your mind. It is the bit just before the climax. That is when the tension and suspense should be strongest. At the end of the story, you can ask a question or add a twist, to give the impression that your characters will continue even after the book has been shut.

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.

There are things you can do to improve your chances and while they are mostly common sense, this is probably an area where a good writing class can help. Look in your local bookshop for the publishers which produce the kind of books you admire. There is an outside chance that if you like them, they might like you. Far too many good manuscripts are sent to the wrong places and if a publisher produces medical books, he or she is not likely to be interested in a children’s manuscript, even if it is Harry Potter.

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!

There are also several residential courses (such as the Arvon Foundation courses), and they are a very enjoyable and relaxing way to take your ambitions further. Look on the internet, as these courses constantly change and new ones are added every year. Several universities and colleges also run long and short courses in children’s writing and you can achieve a diploma in Writing for Children, although this would take you at least a year.

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.

See the yearbook for online resources about children’s books

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