Author Jo Simmons‘ hilarious new book I Swapped My Brother On the Internet (Bloomsbury) explores an idea that SO many kids have dreamed about: What if you could trade your obnoxious sibling in for a an awesome replacement? Naturally, when SiblingSwap.com turns the dream into a reality for Jonny, the result isn’t quite what he’d hoped for … Jo has written a string of books for 6-9 year olds – my kids particularly loved her Pip Street stories and Super Loud Sam. She’s represented by Curtis Brown’s Stephanie Thwaites. In this guest blog to celebrate the publication of I Swapped My Brother On the Internet, Jo tells us what she’s learned so far about the challenges of writing for children …
My eighth book for children was published this month. I’d thought, naively, that I might know what I was doing by now; that I might have a strategy for coming up with an idea, honing it, planning the book, writing it. Sadly not. I seem to start from scratch every time. The learning curve keeps on curving. I’m always astounded at how hard it is to write, and how little I understand about the process. So while I’m woefully unqualified to advise anyone on how to write a children’s book – if pushed, I’d say this…
Don’t go with your first idea
When you’re waiting for your next genius idea to strike – and it’s just not striking – it can be tempting to ride any old camel to get out of the desert. I’ve even thought seriously about writing The Fruit Whisperer in my desperation … You can’t always tell if an idea has legs until you spend some time thinking about it, but I’d also say don’t waste time working up one that feels clunky or doesn’t excite you.
Don’t be afraid to rework old ideas
This follows on neatly from the above point. If you’ve had an idea floating about for some time that you’re attached to but isn’t working, think about how you can shift its emphasis to help it take flight; weed out some characters, push one of the child characters into the foreground, change the tone. My next book with Bloomsbury is a retweak of a story about grief I’d written, which didn’t fit my ‘funny fiction’ USP. So I tipped it on its head and turned it into a fun romp instead – but keeping the bones of the plot, the main characters and the location.
Have a plan
Some authors plot their stories chapter by chapter, others enjoy setting the story up and seeing where it goes as they’re writing. I thought I sat in the latter camp but, since writing stories of more than 30,000 words, I’m now coming down in favour of planning out your story. At the very least, know how it’s going to end!
Get a good first draft down
Spend time on that first draft and also give yourself time to park it, forget about it and then come back to it a few weeks later. If you can get the first draft as strong as possible, it’s so much easier to build from there; much better than shoring up and extending a rickety story constructed on shaky foundations.
Ask yourself ‘what is this about?’
That’s it really. Once you’re writing, pause often and ask that one simple question. Then be sure to answer it in your writing.
Tune in to the kids
This sounds obvious, but it’s important to spend some time with your target audience when writing a children’s book, to remind yourself of their concerns, mannerisms, interests and use of language.
If you can’t picture the scene easily, the children reading won’t be able to either.
Be ambitious with humour
It’s tempting to think kids laugh only at pants and poo gags, when in reality their humour can be surreal, sweet and slapstick. Try to create genuinely funny situations and then just describe them simply. Or come up with humorous characters, and let them loose.
Be prepared to take direction
Whether it’s an agent, editor or just a mate, it’s always worth listening to whoever reads your manuscript. They possess a secret weapon – fresh eyes. When you’ve been labouring over your story for months, you’ll lose sight of whether it’s good, bad or disastrous. They will let you know. Listen to their suggestions. Take the help. Even a single sound suggestion or comment can improve your story.
Accept you won’t get it right first time
No author, even the greats, gets a story down in one draft. Everyone takes time to redraft, tweak and tighten.
Prepare to be demoralised!
Losing faith and confidence in your story and your writing ability is all part of the fun!
If you’re writing a book for children or young adults, take a look at our Writing YA and Children’s Fiction course with tutor Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sunday 4 February).
If you’re writing for an adults, check out our Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell (deadline for applications is Sunday 28 January).
We are also offering three six-week online pay-and-enrol courses on how to write a novel. Browse all our creative writing courses here.