This article was first published in 'Southern
Write', the newsletter of the Writers' Centre of SA, April 2004, p 11.
I am asked occasionally if I can write well enough now to do an adult novel. 'Haven't you played around enough with kid stuff to learn how to write a real book yet?' a man said. I kept my smile glued on and politely explained that writing for children is every bit as difficult as writing for adults – you have to capture children's attention more quickly for a start. And keep them reading while the Playstation beckons. He patted me on the shoulder and encouraged me to keep working at it. 'You'll write a real book soon.'
If you want to write for children because you think it's an easier place to start then think again. I have worked with Year 11 students who had to write a picture book for an English module. Who thought of putting poor Year 11s through that? Picture Books may be the hardest of all genres to write and the students soon discovered this. The first thing I asked them to do was go to the library, take out a dozen picture books each and try them out on the kids in the Junior Primary.
There is a rich diversity in children's writing – from picture books, numerous types of story books, to novels for younger readers and young adult titles. I found it helpful reading lots of the genre that I was interested in.
I also get asked how to write a children's book – what makes them different from adult writing. I don't believe they are different at all. Maybe the age or point of view of the main character is, or the content (I wouldn't put a violent scene in a book six-year-olds may read), but the writing still has to be my best. Adult readers may discern a writing style is poor and continue reading 'to see what happens', but think of the damage sub standard writing could do to children. They could grow up never experiencing the beauty of the written word and, horror – they could end up writing like that themselves.
'Who did you base the characters in Zenna Dare on?' a girl asked
recently. When I said I made them up she looked astounded. 'But I was
sure they were real. I wanted to meet them.'
She didn't know she'd given me the biggest compliment a writer could wish for Sometimes a person I've met inspires me to think of a character, sometimes it's just a photo or someone I see down the street. However that initial inspiration comes, I work on developing the characters so they have their own individuality, even though many of my characters contain a touch of me. CS Lewis said he'd become 1000 other people yet remained himself. I have my character write in a journal. When I get stuck during the first draft I go back to 'writing in the journal' and then the story starts again. (Long walks help too of course.) Certainly I find the draft is easier to write after a substantial mind mapping session on all the characters. The story practically writes itself because the characters know who they are and what they would do next. Writing is a lot like life – if we know ourselves and have confidence in our ability as writers then we can't be shaken.
Settings will often give me the inspiration for a story. Walking around the Kapunda mine some time ago I started thinking, what if there was an imaginary land in the mine. A boy would only have to go down a mine shaft, and when he emerged he could be in a parallel world. Then I thought of all the Cornish folklore that kids here don't seem to know even though a fifth of South Australians have a Cornish heritage, and Across the creek was conceived.
'How do you work out what to write about?' people ask. 'Where do you get your ideas?' I get tempted to say, 'The same place as you get yours.' Ideas are all around us, we only have to stretch out and take one. I often get too many at once and have to put one on the boiler for a while (as Gillian Rubinstein would say), or percolate it (Christine Harris), or compost it (Jackie French). Whatever, I let it simmer for ages like a rich curry sauce. Then it's ready to use.
One boy asked me in a workshop, 'But how do you know what words to put
down? How do you keep doing it?'
Again, I am a storyteller so, much of what I write is purely 'made up' but I base a lot of those made up things on research that I do, or interviews I've had with people. Some people tell me the most interesting stories and if asked, are only too pleased to let me use them.
How do I keep doing it? I write to music. It keeps me on the chair. So does the cat.
I am called a children's author but I hope my books are enjoyed by all ages. I've received mail from people of six to seventy-five. I believe Children's literature is an art form that can take its place alongside the visual arts or adult literature, to be enjoyed by all. And if this was widely believed we'd have children's writing discussed seriously in adult writing festivals, and have more review space in the media.
By all means write a book that young people will enjoy, but ensure you like it too. Write a real book for kids.