Catherine Johnson is the much-loved tutor of our 3-month online Writing Children’s Fiction and YA course, as well as having written some fantastic YA and children’s novels herself. This week we asked her to name the three most important things you need to do if you want to write a children’s book. This is a nightmarish question for any author or creative writing tutor because it’s almost impossible to name JUST three. But we decided to put Catherine on the spot, and here’s what she said …
Only three?! Though actually, since I could sit here all day and go on and on and on (like Father Ted’s Mrs Doyle), three is not a bad thing. And number one, I think, is the most important of all.
1. READ! Read what publishers are publishing now. I cannot stress this enough. Immerse yourself in novels that modern young readers are eating up. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the past – I love Nina Bawden and Joan Aiken and Leon Garfield (and more) with many and various passions. But so often new writers come to children’s books with no references other than what they read in their own youth. If you’re writing now you need to know what’s being read now and what’s being published now. Use your local library, or if you are lucky enough to have a good local bookshop, cultivate your children’s bookseller. Of course we are (I hope) all writing the book we want to read – but without an idea of what’s happening right now in the bookselling world we are doing ourselves a massive disservice. You might worry someone else’s prose style could seep into your work. But you know what? Even if your work starts to read a little at the beginning like an homage to Patrick Ness or Malorie Blackman, by the time you get to the middle you’ll have found your own way. And what’s more you’ll discover so many wonderful stories: Kiran Milward Hargreave, Patrice Lawrence, Holly Bourne, Philip Reeve. Find the books, the stories you love. Be inspired.
2. Be Confident: Let yourself fall in love with your characters and your situation and write like you can do anything. Of course there will be times when it feels like pulling teeth, and when you will do anything rather than sort out that tricky bit of story which is not working out. But convince yourself you can do it, be a little bit proud, have a little swagger. Jimmy McGovern the brilliant TV writer advises new writers to write like schoolboys running down the road with their shirts hanging out. Since I was never a schoolboy, I imagine galloping a pony as fast as I can up a hill. Feel like that – Attila the Hun or Boudicca in her chariot mowing down doubt.
3. Be Kind To Yourself: If you’re a joiner-inner, find a group of like minded souls. It is hard. It is tricky. Writing takes so long. Writing can be selfish especially when one has work, family, commitments. Don’t worry. Don’t beat yourself up. Enjoy the times when you feel like you’re channelling the plot and it’s falling out of your head onto the page. And plough through the times when it’s like getting blood from a stone. When it feels like that, walk away. Go swimming. Take the kids out. Have a cup of coffee. Look out of the window. Think about a different scene, or a something your character did before the book started. Remind yourself why you love these pretend people (or animals) and your imaginary world.
If you’re writing a book for children or young adults, take a look at our online Writing YA and Children’s Fiction course with tutor Catherine Johnson. The deadline for applications is midnight at the end of Sunday 22 April.
We also offer a series of six-week novel writing courses for all-comers, check out all of our current courses here.