Nothing, but nothing, is more delightful than writing for children. And if you’ve started, as most such writers do, by writing for your own children, then you have delight piled on delight in store. Lucky you.
But as soon as you turn your mind to publication, the world starts to turn, not darker exactly, but a little more ruthless. Writing for publishers, even children’s publishers, means preparing a product for commercial exploitation. That means designing your product right for the market. We see a lot of children’s fiction: some good, some bad, some with potential. We’ve helped kids’ authors all the way from first concept through to getting a literary agent. But we’ve also seen a lot of mistakes. So here are the top seven things not to do:
- Don’t be ignorant of the market. Read lots of books of the right kind. That means same age group, same genre (eg: boy’s adventure), same vintage (ie: contemporary novels, not old classics). If you only read the golden oldies, you won’t know what kids are reading today – and what literary agents want to represent.
- Don’t patronise. Don’t write like an adult writing down for kids (bless them!). And don’t try to write like a child – that feels even worse. Just write in a natural voice that doesn’t make a big deal of the fact that you are adult and your reader is a child. Read JK Rowling. Do it like that.
- Stick with your character. Kids read because they want to get into someone else’s world. So if your hero is a girl called Jenny, make sure that – on pretty much every page – you are with Jenny on her adventures, or at least watching something happen which is about to be very important to her. Place your character at the centre of your novel and never stray.
- Keep things moving! Oh, it sounds so obvious, doesn’t it, but too many children’s books are too slow. You need to set up your adventure early, make sure that everything bears on the outcome of that adventure, and keep those pages turning.
- Don’t seek to educate. I don’t mind if you happen to educate by accident, as it were: if your story and your character happen to work together to get a message across. But that message always has to be the outcome of story and character. As soon as you put your character aside and start preaching, you’ve killed your book and lost your reader. Don’t do it!
- Be scary. Kids want sensation when they read. You can’t make your book too comfortable. Remember those early Walt Disney films? They were scary. And sad. They had real emotion – big enough to fill a child’s world. You do need to generate that kind of emotional scale to grip your reader. So don’t be scared to do it. Go for it.
- But be warm. I don’t know of any really successful children’s author where there isn’t an underlying warmth of tone. That is true of Winnie the Pooh. It’s equally true of JK Rowling. You don’t need to seek to engineer that warmth into your book. If you fake it, it’ll probably feel fake. So be warm, then write in whatever way feels natural to you. You’ll be a better human being – and your books will sell.
Seven tips? Oh heck, here’s one more. Being a writer is hard. And it’s an area where it makes total sense to get help, advice and support from more experienced authors. The Writers’ Workshop offers exactly that help and support, from feedback on your writing through to some wonderful writing for children courses. Use that help! You’ll enjoy the process and you’ll get way better at what you do. We hope we see you soon.