Children's books masterclass

28th July 1995 at 01:00
Write what you would enjoy reading, recommends Jan Mark, and trust your own judgment.

Writing for children is much harder than writing for adults. This is said a) by people who believe the opposite but are too polite to say so and b) by authors who have made a reputation in adult fiction and are afraid that no one will take them seriously again if they write a children's book. Conversely, correspondence courses that suggest that writing for children is a doddle are equally wide of the mark. A plain text that reads easily is often the work of a sophisticated mind that knows how to select the minimum number of words to convey the maximum meaning. Consider Arnold Lobel's Owl at Home and his Frog and Toad stories, which deal with complex ideas in the simplest language.

However, unless you are contributing to a graded reading scheme the agereading age is the last element to worry about. Anything that comes between the writer and the act of putting words on paper can be regarded as a delaying tactic and worrying about the possible readership is one such. Here are a few others: character sketches, synopses, chapter titles, plot diagrams, word counts. At all costs avoid that hoary old mantra "All stories have a beginning, a middle and an end." Yes, they do, but not until they are written. Methods recommended to make writing easier frequently have the reverse effect. Methods work for individuals, develop your own.

All of which is to say that writing for children is no different from writing for anyone else. Don't compromise your own intelligence or vocabulary; forget the children, write the story. There is no such thing as the average child, do not presume to cater for it. If what you have written appeals to some or many children it is because there is something in it that they find rewarding, and this is not necessarily a protagonist of the same age. Few people, of any age, are going to read Little Women and identify with Meg, Beth and Amy.

To return to the vexed question of the beginning, the middle and the end; this is less a matter of construction than of pacing, which comes with experience. Children writing short stories tend to indulge in long-winded introductions because they are accustomed to novels which, being more spacious, can afford the luxury of a leisurely beginning. You, of course, would not make your heroine get up, wash, clean her teeth, dress, go downstairs and eat breakfast before you allowed her to start doing something. Descriptions of extraneous characters are as exciting as other people's holiday snaps.

If you are planning to write a novel you have actually elected the easier option; begin, and see what happens. The short story is over sooner but demands far more technical skill. If it doesn't work well, it doesn't work. It is dangerous to start one unless you know where it is going to end, and aim for that end throughout. Most broadcast fiction lasts for 15 minutes which is 2,500 words on the page. In a scheduled slot anything longer has to be cut, and since it is hard to cut a short story without maiming it this is excellent training in economy. Edit yourself, as you go, before anyone else gets near it.

These days there are plenty of novels for children that are as short as short stories, 2,000 - 6,000 words, but there is a considerable difference in the telling; look among Viking Kites and Read Alones, Walker Sprinters, Reed Bananas. Generally speaking, though, a story is as long as it needs to be; only experimentation will tell you which kind of fiction you are writing. Incidentally, Ginn, among others, are currently publishing plays as reading texts.

If your bent is towards picture books then remember that unless you are also the artist, you are producing only half of the book and the pictures are none of your business at this stage. A quick page count will reveal that most picture books have 32 pages including the cover. This is not the result of an uncanny consensus among the authors; the offset litho press processes pages in multiples of eight and just one extra page of full-colour printing costs a fortune. It doesn't happen. There is no need of detailed description in a picture book, that is what the pictures are for. The illustrator will choose what to depict, you do not annotate your MS with instructions. You definitely do not add little sketches so that slow-witted artists can see what you are driving at. A picture book text can be as short as one sentence (Rosie's Walk by Pat Hutchins); 1,200 words is not unusual. Graham Oakley's books (The Church Mouse, Henry's Quest) are exceptions. The texts are long and, because he does both, inseparable from the pictures. He is a hard act to follow, but study how he does it.

Teen fiction? Beware. What is it? A lot of it has devolved from The Catcher in the Rye which was not written for teenagers - and it is as well to remember that its hero-narrator is in a psychiatric clinic. Perhaps the most truthful novel ever written about adolescence is Le Grand Meaulnes (The Lost Domain) by Henri Alain-Fournier, also for adults. Teenagers are not solely concerned with sex, drugs and rock and roll. They are on the cusp between one life and another; the phenomenon of isolating them in a lifespan of their own is a very recent one and one of the attractions of historical or science fiction is the opportunity to present a child or teenage character as a functioning, integrated member of society.

Many books that look as if they are meant for depraved teenagers are actually read by much younger children who would like to be depraved teen-agers. Teenagers read Anne Rice, Stephen King, Charlotte Bront , Terry Pratchett - just about anyone that the rest of us read. There is no average teenager either.

So above all, write what you would enjoy reading. Fortunes have been made from the axiom: "This will keep the little suckers happy" but it is not a sound premise on which to begin. Elitism is not a matter of airing your intellect, it is contempt for your readers. Be honest, abjure Victorian values and forebear to write moral polemic disguised as fiction. These days, being older does not guarantee knowing better. A thundering attack on the drug culture will not impress a readership that knows more about it than you do - and they probably do. Be funny - if it comes naturally; otherwise play it straight. Jokes injected into stories like mould into cheese can fall very flat. Exclamation marks will not make a dull sentence funny or exciting. They belong in dialogue, to denote exclamations, not in narrative. Dialogue can bring a character to life and move a plot along, but beware of the first-person narrator who is a child. Can you carry it off? Think of most children's narrative powers over distance - and take a look at Gareth Owen's poem "Horror Film". In any case, while a first-person narrator gives you an in-depth knowledge of your character, the omniscient author, writing in the third person, literally knows what everyone is thinking. Not everyone has a flair for dialogue (this includes many distinguished authors). Contemporary slang may not solve the problem. Much slang enters the language, but a lot dies with the craze that spawned it and reads hollowly when attributed to characters who would never use it because it represents a bygone age, i.e. last year. A year is a long time in childhood - and in publishing.

Being among children helps, but the only child you have ever known intimately is yourself. If any one thing facilitates writing for children, it is a long memory. Never mind what statistics tell us about children and their reactions, remember how you felt. Popular opinion continually informs us that children love to see adults made to look ridiculous and disgusting. Do they? Did you? Children hunt in packs. Thirty of them baying at a victim have nothing to do with the individual responses of each one.

Two good practical books of advice by an author and an editor respectively are The Way to Write for Children by Joan Aiken (Elm Tree 1982), and Writing for Children by Margaret Clark, (A C Black 1993). After the story is written is the time for a little market research in bookshop and library; who publishes what? It is advisable to consult the Writers' and Artists' Year Book, but make sure that you get the current edition. It is updated annually. Publishers eat each other and a year is a long time . . . They all know each other, too, so do not send your work to more than one at a time.

Look out for competitions such as the current Treasure Islands short story competition. Do not introduce your work to an editor with the information that you read it to your grandchildrenclass Brownie pack, and they loved it. They would, wouldn't they? They like being read to, they like you, and they didn't have to read it themselves. It might be safest not to try it out on anyone - trust your own judgment. Which you will develop by reading. Read; not necessarily children's books, any books, lots of books. Don't be afraid to borrow and imitate; sooner or later you will find that your own voice and style emerge. Even among the youngest children the ones who can write confidently are the ones who know how fiction works, even if they cannot articulate this, because they read.

Go thou and do likewise.

Jan Mark's latest books are They Do Things Differently There (Bodley Head) and A Fine Summer Knight, to be published by Viking this summer. Details of the Treasure Islands .

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