I’ve had over 50 books traditionally published in a range of genres. A few are plays for teenagers and younger children. Some are linked to characters on TV (such as Brum) and are joke, puzzle, activity and story books. Others are picture books or adventure fiction for school age kids. If you look at my website you’ll see examples.
While writing in a range of formats, I’ve seen similarities in my work – and my approach to writing. Here are some ideas that have helped me.
1) Read the genre you are aiming at. Immerse yourself in the relevant books. I used to think that my writing would somehow magically be diluted and weakened by reading the work of other writers. The opposite is true. I was able to pull their words and structures apart, agree (or disagree) with what I read, and get a sense of how the format worked.
I never felt like slavishly copying a certain style – I simply read so much that stuff filtered into my own writing. No man is an island and no writer can honestly say they have not been affected by something they once read.
2) Grow up surrounded by books. This is riffing a bit on my first point. Obviously you can’t go back in time and surround yourself with books but it really does help if you have had a childhood love of reading. Fiction, non-fiction, who cares. Just getting words into you is a positive benefit. Obviously, if you have been starved of this as a child then grab loads of second hand books, trawl libraries and steal from friends (well, ask nicely actually).
Get yourself a real feel for narrative and story, for text and picture layout. It’s never too late. Books gave me a fantasy retreat from some rather dire stuff that was happening to me in Children’s Homes. Books created amazing worlds that I could inhabit for a while. They energised and enthused me and helped me become literate, confident and, er, me.
3) Get empathy with how kids think. Watch and you will learn. The secret here is to listen to the way children talk and think. Resist the urge to step in – any interaction from you will screw the dynamic and truth of what you are seeing.
By hearing children converse you will become aware of the rhythms and patterns that children adopt. It will make your own writing sound more natural. Children tend to say only what they need to say. They may repeat phrases and rework their sentences as they speak – go with their flow. It’ll make you a better writer.
4) Love your work. There is no point writing something and getting all worked up about it before the ink is dry. I tend to write my stories in chunks then go back and edit. This can work but only if I know the plot, the characters and have got myself to a stage where I can write without fear. If I am too uncertain then it shows in my writing which gets edited to death. Best to write a chapter and edit afterwards than write a paragraph and edit that.
Rash editing can simply be masking your lack of preparation or understanding of the story or characters. If you ever think your work is rubbish then it will be. Be constructive and pull out what works. Look for the strengths. Print it off, go for a walk, come back and read it at arm’s length. If you think it is going nowhere then stop and start writing something else. The urge to get back to that piece of work will return.
5) Buy a load of sticky Post-It notes (other makes are, of course, available). When I have a story idea – be it a picture book or prose, I always start by drawing the main story arc. It gets me into the characters – and stops me from fussing too much with the plot.
I draw ACTIONS – nothing else. If a character is not doing something then they should not be in your story. Stories are about DOING. Post-Its can be easily rearranged, drawn over, replaced, etc. They are brilliant. You can do the same using virtual notes on your computer desktop or tablet screen. Trust me, it works.
6) Don’t get scared or defeated. Life for a writer is tough. You are always going to have knock backs. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sent something to a publisher for it to be rejected but then that publisher comes up with a very similar idea not long afterwards. Part of me says it’s coincidence – it’s probably just bad luck. For every rejection send your stuff out to three, no ten, more publishers.
7) Your work is probably as good as the next man/woman. Who is to know why someone gets lucky and is published. It could be that they have written the best kids’ book EVER. Or they were the best of a bunch and had approached the agent/publisher at the right time. I think the key is to build relationships. Get known as a hardworking, imaginative writer and your reputation will stand you in good stead.
I read rubbish kids books all the time. I roll my eyes and despair how something so awful could make it into bookshops. That’s life. It doesn’t mean your work is bad. Hey, we can’t all be at the right place at the right time.
8) Publishers don’t always know best. I’ve had books rejected by one publisher only for them to be accepted by another. Keep trying.
9) When you get rejections – and you will – channel your writing energy into new projects. Following a rejection, I resolved to take some ownership of some of my ideas and created my Wee Panda Bear Books – Cuddle Muddle, Wiggle Jiggle & Eggy Leggy. Out of despair comes creativity.
9) Be nice to everyone. A) It’s a nice thing to do and B) You never know who is on the way up. Publishers and Editors and Agents move about, get promoted, lunch together, etc. Some may talk about you – most will not. But if you stick in their minds as that rude individual who needs a slap then you probably won’t be getting much paid work in the future.
10) Write. No, really. Write as much as you can. Don’t show it to anyone – just write. If you want to get involved in a Writers’ Class then fine. But be aware that your words will be filtered through the minds of others and you’ll probably start rewriting to please other people. Not a good idea when an idea is so raw it’s bleeding out of your ears.
By all means listen to constructive criticism by someone you respect who has just won the Nobel Prize For Literature. Personally, I’d rather just write my own stuff and see what happens.
When you write, magic happens. Doors open. People smile and the world is a better place.
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