This piece will run in Inis Children's Book Magazine - but here's a sneak peek. Hope it's useful, SarahXXX
So You Want to Write for Children? Some Advice for Unpublished Writers by Sarah Webb
Recently I spoke to thirty six-year-olds about my new Panda book, Emma the Penguin at the Dublin Book Festival. It was my first foray into the world of the jitter bugs that are 1st classers, and as I watched fellow Panda-person, Gillian Perdue round up her herd of cowboys and teach them how to line dance, I realised just how much I still have to learn about entertaining younger children. But I’d like to share what I have learned with you, in the hope it will prove useful to other writers, especially to those starting out.
Firstly the bad news, it is no longer enough to write an amazing book. There are over 8,000 children’s books published annually, many of which are also amazing. Some of these amazing books will have a lot of money behind them, some of them will be ‘written’ by pop stars or models. Some of them will be written by authors with a long standing track record.
But do not despair. There is a lot you can do to build your profile or ‘platform’ (as the market-eers like to call it) as a children’s writer before your book is published or even accepted for publication.
I’ll start with some general points. It goes without saying that you should put most of your time and energy into your writing. Write for the child inside you, write remembering just how it feels to be 4 or 7 or 9. Dig deep and use your memory. In a recent edition of Inis (Spring 2010) Sophie McKenzie says ‘I remember exactly what it was like being a teenager . . . (I) can vividly remember the years between 13 and 15.’
Yes, modern children now have You Tube, Facebook, mobiles – but they are just different ways of communicating, but emotions don’t change. After all, your parents may not have had televisions or telephones growing up!
If you want to write for children or teens, talk to children or teens, ask them what music they like, what actors, what books, what telly shows. The average 6th class girl’s favourite show is Desperate Housewives – who would have guessed?
Take constructive criticism on your work from people who read a lot of children’s books. Teens make good critics, but younger children generally want to please. You might find an experienced librarian or teacher who will read your work – take on board what they say.
Write from the heart and don’t be afraid of strong emotion. In Jacqueline Wilson’s books siblings jump out of high towers, killing themselves (My Sister Jodie), mums have nervous breakdowns and take emulsion paint baths (The Illustrated Mum). Oliver Jeffers’s latest picture book, The Heart and the Bottle, features a girl whose father has just died. She does not know how to cope with the grief so she takes her heart out and places it in a bottle for safe keeping. Strong stuff!
If you want to write commercial children’s fiction, you must have an eye to the market. Read children’s books – especially in the age group/area you are interested in writing for – library/bookshop recommendations, modern classics, bestsellers and award winners. There are many good guides out there to help you pick fantastic books to read, my favourites being the Ultimate Book Guide series published by A & C Black, a must for anyone serious about writing for children or teens.
This reading will also help you be aware of what modern children like and are interested in – and what works in a book. And also it’s fun; some of the best books out there are children’s books. It will also help you work out what age group you are writing for: early reader, confident reader, teen reader. This is vital. Children’s books are categorised in most shops and libraries by age. Young readers are aspirational – they like to read about children older than they are. If your character is 11, your readers will probably be 7/8 to 11.
Are there any gaps in the market? In a word, yes. At a recent Irish Pen event called ‘New Kids on the Block’ event, Svetlana Pironko, Director of the Author Rights Agency, Siobhan Parkinson, Children’s Editor at Little Island (New Island’s imprint for children and teens), and Paddy O’Doherty, Children’s Editor at Puffin Ireland, explained what they were looking for.
Paddy would like to see fiction for the 7 to 9 age group, but especially 8 to 12 fiction. She says ‘read Puffin books’ and see where the gaps in the list are – and try to fill the gaps! She is very interested in good animal and child stories like Charlotte’s Webb, humour for girls – Louise Rennison type books (she kindly mentioned my own Amy Green books as the type of thing she is looking for), and Fantasy. She said the books must be ‘well written, original ideas and voice, with a real sense of control’. She wants to feel that the author knows what she (or he) is doing, they have a sense of authority. And overall she is very keen on reading more manuscripts from new authors – all good news!
Siobhan Parkinson is looking for novels for age 9+ and teens. She is personally not a huge fan of fantasy, she prefers realistic novels and she, like Paddy is looking for ‘originality, a strong voice, someone who is in control of their writing’.
Svetlana, however is a big fantasy fan and finds this sells best to international publishers. She also likes teenage/crossover fiction and says universal stories are vital; she is interested in books that can travel. In the UK, the publishers are veering towards ‘brand’ authors, authors they can work with over a number of books. And this goes for the picture books as well as novels. Oliver Jeffers for example has just signed a four book deal with Harper Collins for his new picture book series, The Hueys. Cathy Cassidy’s new book, Cherry Crush, will be the first book in a new series for girls.
Once you have written your book, what next? While awaiting publication (or your manuscript to find a home), there are many things you can do to start building your profile. Of course, you must start working on your next book, that goes without saying. But you can also begin creating an on-line presence. A website, a blog or both. A Facebook, My Space or Bebo page. Down the line, your readers should be able to find out more about you online and contact you – it’s part of the job of a modern children’s writer.
Blog about what interests you – whether it be books, writing, music, fashion, the universe – as long as it’s interesting! Decide your blogging market – are you targeting parents, teachers, librarians, or children themselves? For blogging inspiration, check out David Maybury’s blog, the children’s literature blog of record.
Reviewing children’s books for Inis magazine is a good way of keeping in touch with current books and also getting your name out there. And it goes without saying, do join CBI and attend some of the wonderful events and workshops. Attend author events and hear other children’s authors speak about their work. Immerse yourself in the children’s book world and you will have a better chance of spreading the word about your book to the right people when it is published.
Start reading your work to children right now. Think about what you have to offer as a performer. If you want to write for children, these days you have to connect with them LIVE. Find your own special way of doing events – standing in front of children and reading is not enough. The first and only commandment of doing events is: Thou Shalt Not Bore.
I use a lot of show and tell during my talks. I show the audience photos, toys, books and clothes from my childhood and talk about what I was like as a child and teen. Then I use these stories to explain how I became a writer.
Finally, be optimistic and have a strong constitution. You will probably be rejected many, many times before you make it. Even after fifteen years and twenty-seven books some of my ideas are still turned down. Write because you can’t not write. Multi-award winning writer Patrick Ness says write with joy. I would go further, I would say write as if it’s your last day on this earth. Give 100% every time you sit down at your desk. And hopefully your joy, passion and dogged hope will translate onto the page. Good luck and keep the writing faith!
For marketing and publicity tips for published writers, see another of my articles on the CBI website – CBI Info section - www.childrensbooksireland.ie