I want to write for children, where do I start?

I get an email from an aspiring author at least twice a month. Here is what I tell them.

First, explore why you want to write for children. Do you think it’s easier than writing for adults? Or because it’s shorter text? Then perhaps you’re very mistaken and should find out more about writing for children before you decide to write for this audience.

Do you want to write for children because you’re a parent, teacher or librarian and you love children’s books, then read on. Do you want to write for children because (like me) you’re one of those creatures who never grew up? Then read on.

PART 1

My first advice to anyone who wants to write children’s books is to READ CHILDREN’S BOOKS. I can’t stress this enough. Read books written in the last decade or so and read those good books recommended by librarians, award-winners and those that actual children’s writers are reading and recommending. If you have only read stories from 50 years ago or from the previous two centuries, then it’s time for an upgrade of your reading shelf.

My second advice is WRITE. Learn the craft. Knowing how to run doesn’t make you an athlete. Knowing how to cook doesn’t get you a job as a chef. There are different ways of learning the craft.

a) Learn from reading. Reading analytically and critically and as a writer is important.

Here is a blog post on How to Read Picture Books.

b) Learn through a course. You can do a writing course either a generic one or writing for children’s courses. It’s a little shortcut to avoid the pitfalls of googling and landing up on sites that promise to make you a bestselling author in 90 days. Choose a reputed course and also check out the tutor.

c) Do the writing. When you are starting out writing, you must write often. Not just your novel or your story. But write to learn the craft. Write in different viewpoints, learn to write in different tense – present vs past. Learn how to write lyrically and learn how to write for being read aloud. Learn how to use language that’s age-appropriate for the young reader you want to write for.

Here are some tips on how to start building the skills.

Stretch your limits, expand your skill-set.

This step of writing and learning to write never stops. Like a singer who has to train their voice, a musician who must practice and a doctor who must go to refresher courses to keep their license to operate, a writer must keep their skills sharp and updated too.

PART 2

This section of the advice covers more specific things.

a) Target audience – do you know which age-group you want to write for?

Created by Louie Stowell, author and publisher.

Unlike writing for adults, children’s books have to be nuanced to a growing child. Knowing which age-group you want to target will determine the type and length of the story you’d need to write. It’ll also determine which subjects you can approach and how. Hint: Choose it based on either on the age of the children you’re familiar with (as a teacher or as a parent or grandparent) or based on which is the memory well in your past you’re closest to? I feel closest to my 7-8 year old self.

b) Genre – do you know what kind of stories you want to write? Fantasy or horror? Mysteries or family stories? Contemporary or historical or science fiction? This will not only determine what kind of reading you must do, but also define which age-group might be more suited to that. Don’t choose the genre by what’s selling. Choose it based on what you love to read and write.

Once you know these two, then read, read, read. Know which writers are masters of these age-groups and genre and read their books. Find advice specific to the genre and age-group. Learn the rules so you know how to break them. When you break rules without knowing them, you’ll be clumsy and chaotic.

Then write, write and write.

Say for example, you’re interested in writing for 10 year olds, and your favourite genre is horror. Then read as many horror books written for this age-group and then practice writing short pieces for this age-group in this genre and then slowly build your stamina to write the book you want to write.

a) Write a poem say 16 lines aimed at your audience and genre.

b) Write a short story for the age-group and in the genre.

c) Describe a setting in great detail where this story might happen.

d) Describe a typical character you might want to use in your story.

Do these exercises regularly and often

These are building blocks and exercises which strengthen your muscle to work your way up the word count, chapter count and ultimately the full book. If you want to train for IronMan or Ironwoman, and you’ve never been to the gym before, I’m guessing you don’t want to lift a 100 kilo bar on competition day.

PART 3

Now we come to the part where you inhabit the world you want to belong in. Want to write children’s fiction then find other writers in the same field. Make friends, connect with them and perhaps form a writing group.

Organisations like SCBWI will help you find those writing groups. You don’t have to face the battle of writing a book alone. You can find cheerleaders and co-travellers.

When you join a course, you will meet other writers who are writing the same thing. Socialise with this group and start a regular writing group with them.

Share your writing with other writers to get feedback. Peer feedback is so important because you can’t see the faults in your own writing that easily.

There are different types of groups you can form

A writing group – this is just a group of writers who get together to write. A set time, a set place and just write. After that you can of course, go to the pub or cinema or chat (okay, after this pandemic is over, of course). Until then you can always do Write-30.

A workshop group – this is a group of writers who are writing for the same age-group (and sometimes the same genre). You swap each other’s work regularly – say once a month and give feedback to each other. See more details about how to form and run these groups here.

A combination of a Writing group and a workshop group – this is where everyone attempts a writing exercise and give feedback to each other on the work produced. Usually writing courses are run this way.

A writing club – you don’t write together or share your work. But you’d like to get together to go to courses, conferences or just talk about writing and getting published.

Ideally you’d belong to one of each. I’m always in one or two groups. I currently curate Write30 where writers across the world come together to write. I belong to a workshop group where we regularly swap work (once a month) and help each other get better. Between the three of us, we have published at least 5 books in 2 years that was edited by this group. I also belong to a social writing club – where some of us get together to just chat, gossip and eat together.

Organisations like SCBWI give you an opportunity to do all of the above. So do check them out.

PART 4

How do I get published – very often I’m asked this question by new writers who haven’t even finished their first story. My advice is – write something so you can get published. And I’m not being rude at all. If a new pilot with less than 10 hours of flying time wanted to pilot a commercial airliner full of people on their first week of work, would you let them do that? That’s the same with writing. Take your time, build your craft, sail it out.

The second thing to keep in mind is – writing for children is not just a job that pays the bills. We are shaping the thoughts and intentions of the future generation. They take in everything they read and it informs their view of the world. So don’t be in a hurry to produce work for children that might not be good enough yet. Even if they don’t know that your sentence structure is bad, they’d know when a story doesn’t work. Nevertheless, it’s important that we take care in preparing what we put before them.

There is a social responsibility attached to writing for children – you’re opening up their world – whether in terms of language or emotions or adventures, you’re illuminating a path and it better be a fun and safe one that’s worthy of their time.

Here is a video you can watch where I’ve talked about getting published. It covers a wide area of publishing and how to get in etc and this hopefully will answer a lot of questions.

So after all these long-winded advice here is a simple takeaway.

a) Read widely.

b) Hone your craft.

c) Shine your story.

And repeat!

PART 5

Here are some practical pointers.

  1. Read the FAQs I’ve created so you can ask questions in an informed way.
  2. If you’ve not already gotten hold of this book, please do so. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Childrens-Writers-Artists-Yearbook-2021/dp/1472968182 – they contain a starting list of agents. You must of course google and narrow down the list and figure out whom to submit to. At any point don’t submit to more than 3 agents. Scatter-gun approaches don’t work.
  3. You can enter a number of competitions. Just google them and find reputed ones. FAB Prize is something you must look out and submit every year to. There are also competitions run for members by SCBWI and also competitions are run during the Winchester Writing conference.
  4. Check out Megaphone Write – a development scheme for BAME writers and apply to be mentored one-to-one. https://megaphonewrite.com/ (follow their blog even if their scheme is already closed for the year).
  5. Check out Booktrust Represents and get included in their FB groups and mailers, they run free courses throughout the year for BAME writers https://www.booktrust.org.uk/what-we-do/programmes-and-campaigns/booktrust-represents/ 
  6. SpreadTheWord is running a children’s writing workshop in 2021 https://www.nawe.co.uk/DB/events/spread-the-word-masterclass-how-to-find-the-perfect-idea-for-your-childrens-book-with-jasmine-richards.html which will be useful. Jasmine Richards has huge experience and can give you more advice on developing your book. 
  7. Check out the following blogs:

Chitra Soundar is now running a monthly surgery for aspiring children’s writers of colour. It’s free and it’s online!

If you’re eligible, register here to attend the next session!

Finally I leave you with this –  http://www.chitrasoundar.com/writing/2020/10/31/i-wish-i-knew-this-when-i-was-a-beginning-writer/