There are truths about writing that transcend genre, and in today's article, A.L.Tait discusses how writing for children has provided valuable lessons that will help any fiction author.
I never expected to be a children’s author. As an established freelance writer, author of four non-fiction books and budding writer of women’s fiction, I always imagined that my first novel would be squarely aimed at adults, and I was working hard to make this happen (gathering rejections as I went).
But then I had an idea that I couldn’t ignore (no matter how hard I tried), and so began a steep learning curve, with some hard lessons learned along the way.
This is what writing for kids has taught me about writing fiction.
To focus on story
If a kid asks you what your book is about, they’re not expecting a 15-minute exposition on the themes. They don’t want to know that you set out to write a lively and engaging exploration on the power of friendship and the magic of loyalty. No, they want to know what the story is – and they want it in the shortest, most interesting sentence possible.
Fortunately, there is something about writing for children that just naturally brings the story to the forefront for me.
I remember when I wrote my first full-length novel, which was for adults and which remains to this day unpublished (for which we should all be grateful), people would ask me what it was about and I would ramble on about women, small towns, going home, blah blah blah.
I didn’t even know what I’d had written, nothing was at stake, and, frankly, most of the scenes were there because I thought they’d be interesting to write (which probably explains why it remains to this day unpublished).
When I sat down to write The Mapmaker Chronicles, however, there was no doubt in my mind about what I was writing: an epic adventure story about a race to map the world – and a boy who really doesn’t want to go. Every scene builds the story and the stakes ratchet higher and higher as the series goes on.
There are themes (of course) and lessons (natch) but they are not the focus. When you write for kids, you put story front and centre – a lesson for every writer.
To have an ideal reader
When I started writing fiction, I wrote romance novels.
Why? Well, firstly, I liked reading them (always a good start), but, secondly, I thought they made sense for me as a writer.
At the time I began dabbling in fictional worlds, I was a 20-something features writer for women’s magazines. I understood a whole lot about voice, tone, demographics, target audiences and angles.
To me, the category romance market, with its various lines and demographics, was a perfect fit.
Only it wasn’t. I wrote several manuscripts that received terrific feedback for voice, tone, and writing but received nothing but rejections.
Why? Because despite what my head kept telling me, I just couldn’t get to the emotional heart of writing for romance readers.
Fast-forward 15 years, several non-fiction books, and two kids, and I was writing contemporary women’s fiction that was still ‘not quite’ there.
Until one day I started writing a children’s story. The difference, however, was that I wasn’t writing for ‘children’, I was writing for two specific children – my two boys, then aged nine and six.
I set out to write the kind of story that they loved to read, full of adventure, friendship, and humour.
And it turned out that my agent, my publishing company, and thousands of other kids liked to read it, too.
To embrace impossible ideas
The inspiration for The Mapmaker Chronicles came from two conversations I had with my oldest son that gelled into an idea that made me tingle all over. But I promptly put it in the ‘too hard’ basket and tried to ignore it.
Why? Three reasons:
- I was very busy writing a 90,000-word contemporary women’s fiction manuscript
- I had never written for children and had no idea how to do it.
- A story about a race to map the world sounded EPIC – and EPIC would surely require more than one book and, frankly, I had no idea how to even start writing a series.
The thing about great ideas, though, is that they tend to nag you. A lot.
So when my agent asked me six months later whether I had ‘anything for children’ (because publishers were actively looking for it), I said, ‘Well, I have this random idea about mapmakers’.
Her response: ‘Sounds great, send me an outline.’
At this stage, I should point out that I had never written an outline for a novel in my life. A certified ‘pantser’, I was of the ‘get an idea, sit down and write it’ school of literary production.
So all I could say was, ‘I’ll have to write it.”
Six weeks later, I had produced the first draft of the Race To The End Of The World, book one in the series. It was an exhilarating, edge-of-my-seat experience and I think you can feel that when you read the book.
My agent loved it, but told me I’d need to produce outlines for books two and three. By then, however, I knew exactly where the story was going.
And so I became not only an author of children’s fiction, but an author of children’s series fiction. Both ideas that seemed impossible not three or four months before.
I think that, as writers, we sometimes ignore our best ideas because they terrify us – and I’ve learnt that the ones that scare you the most are the ones that you should embrace most fiercely.
The key is trust
Writing fiction of any kind is not for the faint-hearted. Weathering the self-doubt, anxiety, criticism, rejection and everything else that goes hand-in-hand with the joy of writing, takes time, strength and confidence that in the end everything will turn out all right.
Writing for kids has taught me that there are three keys to that happy ending.
- Trust the story
- Trust the reader
- Trust the writer
And never, ever ignore your best ideas.
Do you write for children? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Allison Tait is the author of 11 books, six of them for children. Visit her website for writing tips and inspiration, and to discover more about her EPIC middle-grade adventure series, The Mapmaker Chronicles, now available in the US through Kane Miller.