Tag Archives: writing children’s books

From the Top

Yesterday, friends, I wrote just over one thousand words.

Photo Credit: danorbit. via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: danorbit. via Compfight cc

Once upon a time, this wouldn’t have made me happy at all. I’d have considered a day in which I ‘only’ wrote about a thousand words to be a failure. But now I know better. Now I know that one thousand words with which I’m pleased, one thousand words which I don’t immediately want to delete, is A Good Thing. It’s progress. It’s possibility.

Best of all, I wrote these one thousand words on a new story, one I’ve never tried to write before. It’s been in my head for just over a year, but I’ve only started really giving it brain-space over the past few weeks, drip-feeding it by reading and thinking and planning and allowing the characters and setting a little bit of space in my imagination. I’m not sure of every detail, and I only have a vague idea of what I want to happen, but I’m hoping that as I go things will become clearer, and as I get to know my characters their actions will drive the plot (because that makes for a better story, I think). The important thing is: I have the conflict. I have the antagonist, and what he wants, and I have the protagonists, and what they want, and these two sets of ‘wants’ are in opposition. I have bullies and family problems and school issues and illness, and I have friendship and loyalty and love. So, essentially, I have everything I need.

It’s like preparing a giant stew: I have all my ingredients on the workbench, gleaming and shining and full of colour and life, and I just have to put them all into the mix at the right time and in the right proportion and – fingers crossed – the finished product will taste wonderful.

That, as they say, is the plan.

This story is different from ‘Emmeline’ insofar as it’s set in our world – i.e. the children are contemporary, and they’ll have all the trappings of modern twelve-year-olds. This doesn’t mean there won’t be a fantastical element to the story – c’mon. This is me we’re talking about here. Of course there will. But I love stories which show that sometimes the scariest aspect of getting through adolescence isn’t the idea that there’s a scary monster in the shadows, but the fact that your parents aren’t speaking, or there are money problems, or someone is unwell, or all of the above. I love stories (The Skull in the Wood is a really good one) which interweave the real with the fantastical, and show that sometimes there’s no difference when it comes to how scary things can get, and in fact the real problems you’re facing can outweigh the fantastical without any effort.

I have a really clear mental image of the setting for this story, too (not least because it’s based on a real place, not too far from me) and I think that helps to get a handle on the story. There’s a certain freedom in writing a story set in a made-up landscape, or one which exists but which you’ve never been to and must, therefore, imagine, but I’m finding I like the idea of writing a tale based loosely on a place I’ve seen and can visualise clearly. It’s not a fancy setting, either; it’s about as far from exotic as can be imagined. But that, strangely, is why I like it so much.

Anyway. This story is a proto-zygote; it barely exists. Hence, this blog post must be brief and rather uninformative. Also, I really want to get back to the work of writing, and so I’m going to sign out now with a fond adieu, in the hope that today will go as well as yesterday and that I’ll have more good news to share as the week goes on. I’m going to slowly edge my way into this tale, knowing that I have written and completed one book of which I’m proud, and there’s nothing stopping me from doing it again.

(Nothing but myself, that is, and my own fear and flailing, so it’s time to stop all that old nonsense, and just get the words on the page. Right? Right).

Photo Credit: Lua Ahmed via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Lua Ahmed via Compfight cc

Off I go, then. See you later!


Mind-Full Monday

Good moaning.

Image: warrelics.eu

Image: warrelics.eu

It’s Monday again, and my skull is creaking at the seams.

The things on my mind this morning, in no particular order, are:

1. The frustrations of being misunderstood;
2. The difficulty of keeping a load of closing dates for competitions and submissions in mind for long enough to write them down, whereupon you lose the piece of paper you wrote the dates down on and forget them all anyway;
3. The need to come up with stuff to write for these competitions and/or submissions;
4. The sheer absolute awesomeness of this:

5. The horror of constantly checking your email inbox, just in case there’s a message in it which will change the course of your future. Or, you know, not.
6. The fact that I watched ‘The Happening’ at the weekend, despite my brother’s warning years ago that it was utter, irredeemable nonsense. I should have listened to my brother.

But the main thing on my mind today is the fact that what I am going to be doing for the foreseeable future is rewriting one of my own books, in line with Very Knowledgeable Advice – the sort of advice it would be foolish to ignore, in other words. So, I am being very clever indeed by not ignoring it.

The book is ‘Eldritch.’ I don’t blame you for forgetting all about it. I nearly had, too.

So, I had originally imagined ‘Eldritch’ as the first part of a trilogy. In my innocence, I had thought the story needed three whole books to tell it: I had imagined my funny little hero, Jeff Smith (who wishes he had a cooler name so that he could have better luck with girls), and his brave and clever friend Joe Araujo (who would rather be at home eating curry than on an adventure), would enjoy being flung through time and space not once, but three times in order to bring their story to a conclusion. I thought I had crafted good, strong characters, including a compelling baddie (I so hadn’t); I thought, in short, that the story was strong enough to sustain a series.

But – *cue dramatic flourish* – I was wrong.

I was wrong, and I didn’t see it until it was pointed out to me. I didn’t see that my baddie was a mishmash of clichés, and that my story was a reasonably good one, but that it certainly didn’t need three books to tell it. I didn’t see that, while my writing was reasonable and the dialogue between my leads was memorable, so much of what I’d written was so-so and forgettable.

I’m not trying to pretend this wasn’t hard to hear. But if you want to know the truth about it – I took this feedback, and I digested it, and after only a few moments (a few stomach-plunging moments, admittedly) I began to see how much sense it made. Taking this feedback was a lot easier than I’d expected, and a lot less painful than I’d imagined.

Image: 8track.com

Image: 8track.com

Not long after this, I began to re-plot the book in my head. It was tough to disassemble the scaffolding of ‘trilogy’ which had previously existed around these characters and this story; it was hard to even imagine the book as a self-contained unit, instead of a series. It meant a total rethink of the plot, the characters, the motivation, and particularly the ‘baddie’ – he needed to be stronger, scarier, more interesting. In short, he needed to be mine, not a mixture of all the baddies I’d ever read about. I hadn’t realised this was what I’d managed to do, until I re-read him. In short, the bits of the book which didn’t feature him were much stronger than the bits that did.

And that’s not good.

Your baddie is supposed to be your most compelling character. Even more so than your protagonist, your antagonist (to give him his ‘Official Title’) should be unique, and marvellously evil, and logically motivated, and in possession of a Dastardly Plan that makes sense and is workable. He or she should be layered and complex and full of secrets. If not, then you don’t have any proper drama or tension in your story. Your heroes have nothing to fight against or overcome. The danger in your tale is neutralised.

My baddie was a pantomime villain. Looking back, I can’t believe I didn’t spot it myself. But that’s why it’s important to have other eyes read your work, of course.

It also leads me to realise that the most important part of writing is the ability to rewrite, up to and including taking your own work, completely breaking it down, and building it back up again from scratch. A mere edit wouldn’t have saved ‘Eldritch’, but I am only human, and I did investigate whether there were any shortcuts to the process. I wondered if there was a way to salvage most of it, and just change the bits that needed changing. I wondered if there was any chance I could keep some of the features that, I thought, made the book unique – but I’ve learned that only what’s good for the story, not what’s good for the writer, should make it into a final draft.

You have to be willing to do whatever it takes to make the story as good as it can be. If this involves starting again from first principles, then that’s what you have to do.

The only rule is: never give up trying to make your work as excellent as it can be, and always ask for (and heed!) good advice.

All right, so that’s sort of two rules. But you know what I mean.

Image: commitnesstofitness.com

Image: commitnesstofitness.com

I hope a week of wonder awaits you – and that there will be plenty of words in it.

How to Write the Perfect* Children’s Book

I realise this is a lofty claim to make, particularly coming from a person who is yet to be published. However, I feel like I have read, and attempted to write, enough of ’em to have cracked ‘The Formula’, the unbeatable equation that will lead inexorably to the creation of the Perfect Children’s Book.

You ready? Image: wcrz.com

You ready?
Image: wcrz.com

Without any further ado, I’ll begin. If you don’t have your notepad and pen ready yet, that’s not my fault – you had enough warning.

Okay? Time’s up! Off into the misty heights of fame, fortune and National Treasure-ship we go.

1. Have your protagonist (always cute, always blonde, always blue-eyed) be wonderful, right from the beginning.

Nobody wants to read about troublesome tykes, right? Smart-mouthed or cheeky children shouldn’t even exist in reality, let alone in fiction. The only way to write the perfect children’s book is to write it – obviously – about the perfect child. Usually this will be a boy (sorry, girls), but if you must write about a girl then at least make sure she wears a dress and that she keeps her socks clean. You know you’re onto a winner if the protagonist of your book is a paragon of virtue and duty right from page 1, and doesn’t change at all – not even slightly – by the end of the story. We don’t want to give children ideas about bad behaviour, redemption, character development or maturation, of course – if they read about perfect little children in their perfect little books, it’s only logical that they’ll start to emulate this appropriate behaviour immediately. Win-win.

2. Don’t give your readers any ideas. About anything.

Right. Well, there’s a lot packed into this point. By ‘ideas’, of course, I mean ‘Ideas’ with a capital ‘I’, ones that encompass the world and the universe and the concepts of selfhood and identity that should, naturally enough, have no place in a book for anyone under the age of thirty. I also mean ideas about naughty and/or dangerous things that an ambitious reader might try to recreate in their own life – so raft-building, adventures across rooftops, placing mysterious keys into even more mysterious locks, battling your way through old fur coats to get to the back of a wardrobe, and/or accepting dangerous-sounding invitations from tall old men with long beards and a distinctly wizardy look about them are all out the window. We want books that are going to keep their readers quiet, calm and – best of all – obedient. Don’t we? Yes, we do.

3. Children’s minds are weak, and so shouldn’t be over-taxed; do their thinking for them.

Imagine this, if you can: a children’s book wherein the protagonist must solve a mystery. A mystery whose resolution is not obvious from the beginning. A mystery which even an adult – horrors! – would find challenging.

This, clearly, is a scenario which should be avoided if you’re attempting to write the perfect children’s book.

VERBOTEN! Image: examiner.com

Image: examiner.com

Children’s brains are delicate things, and are liable to stretch completely out of shape if too much is put into them too quickly. Things like mysteries, requiring logical (and, even more heinously, critical) thinking, are just too much for them to deal with. The perfect children’s book will hand them everything they need on a plate, carefully and concisely explained to them by another character in the story (invariably an adult), and they will be encouraged to think of themselves as terribly clever if they understand even a fraction of this explanation. Think of it like helping them to eat by pre-chewing their food for them. Who wouldn’t like their steak and onions slightly digested before they begin eating them, eh?

Anyway. Moving swiftly on.

4. Adults, in the Perfect Children’s Book, are always right.

This one hardly needs elaboration, does it? Let’s mirror what we’d like to see in reality in the fiction we’re lovingly stuffing down the throats of our young people. Write no adult who is not kind, but grave; wise, but patient; twinkly-eyed, but an arbiter of absolute justice; stern, but fair. No child character shall be permitted to talk back to, question, or contradict an adult – there will simply be no need for it, of course. Occasionally one may show an adult character who falls short of the ideal (a drunkard, maybe, or an elderly spinster) so long as they learn the error of their ways and reform by the end of the story – ideally through the actions of the child protagonist.

5. All parents in the Perfect Children’s Book shall form happily married couples.

None of this single-parent family nonsense, or what have you. Everyone knows that the non-nuclear family is merely a scaremongering tactic cooked up by the dangerous, leftie-liberal media. Every child protagonist should have a Mummy (who likes to bake, and whose hair is never less than immaculate, and who loves nothing more than to keep her house gleaming) and a Daddy (who has an important job somewhere far enough away to mean he comes home tired – but not too tired to play! – every day, and who carries a briefcase, and who always smells just slightly of cigar smoke and aftershave); depending on the social class of your protagonist, you may also add servants, as required. Parents should be present for every important plot event in your Perfect Children’s Book; this fad for having them ‘disappear’, so the child can get on with whatever they want to do, is a dangerous one, and should be stamped out immediately.

6. All endings shall be happy.

The Perfect Children’s Book should contain no death, and no serious injury. Your protagonist should never be placed in a situation where they are in danger, and they should be allowed to suffer no greater injury than – perhaps – a splinter in their finger, which shall be swiftly attended to by a kindly (female) adult. All endings to stories should have a Message, which is hammered home quite clearly – perhaps with the aid of an explanatory piece of verse, or maybe a jolly sing-song between the child and his/her stuffed toys, or similar – and things like grief, sorrow, loss, self-sacrifice and fear should be kept as far away from your story as possible. Every book should end with all significant characters restored to their rightful place, all ‘baddies’ turned over to the appropriate authorities, and the child protagonist at home in time for a warm supper, a hot bath, and bed.

This one is non-negotiable.

Image: artskooldamage.blogspot.com

Image: artskooldamage.blogspot.com

That’s about all I have time for here. Simple, isn’t it? It should be. Writing children’s books takes no effort, after all – just about anyone can knock one out over a weekend, or slap one together if they’ve nothing better to do. It’s amazing we’re not all doing it! I hope you’ll follow these guidelines, and that success will soon be knocking at your door.

Oh, but just one more thing: when your children’s book is published, and goes super-stellar overnight (as, of course, all Perfect Children’s Books do), I’ll be around to claim a small – and entirely appropriate – percentage of the royalties in return for the invaluable pointers I’ve provided here. You won’t even miss my fee out of your giant stack of money, though, so don’t worry.

Happy writing!


*Don’t worry about that muffled whacking noise you’re probably hearing. It’s just my head, meeting the wall in quite an enthusiastic way.