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I remember when I wrote my first full-length novel, which was for adults and which remains to this day unpublished (for which we should all be grateful), people would ask me what it was about and I would ramble on about women, small towns, going home, blah blah blah.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scenes were there because I thought they’d be interesting to write (which probably explains why it remains to this day unpublished).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.
I loved this post. I’ve learned a lot of similar things when I had an idea for a hugely ambitious epic fantasy series (while I had only written romance before).
I wanted to stick to romance, but the story wouldn’t let go, so I decided to be brave and take it on. I’ve never regretted that decision. 🙂
A.L. Tait says
That’s terrific news Misha! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post – and, yes, it’s sometimes difficult to take the plunge, but I’ve never looked back either!
Thanks for the post! Children’s fiction is one of my favorite genres to read and write. It is so much fun. “Have an ideal reader,” is great advice. I will also be checking out The Mapmaking Chronicles.
A.L. Tait says
Hi Jasmine, thanks so much!
Thank you for telling your story. It has given me the courage to put my stories to paper.
A.L. Tait says
That’s so great to hear Linda! Best of luck with your writing!
Most encouraging. Allison’s story of how the shift for her came from her decision to write for her own children echoes Peter Pan, Pooh Bear, The Hobbit and I’m sure many more. I’ve been struggling to make headway with my next novel but am now inspired to write for my granddaughter … 🙂
A.L. Tait says
Thanks Leo – I’m sure your granddaughter will love it!
Thanks for your wonderful article! I’m on the brink of diving into a writing project, which is just as you have described- inspired by our two oldest children (11 & 9). And, I love how you say our, “best ideas terrify us” because that is how I feel. I must be onto something! 🙂 Thanks for this perfectly timed piece! It really spoke to me. Thank You!
A.L. Tait says
Thank you so much Kate – and best of luck with your ‘terrifying idea’!
Cat Michaels says
Thanks for the post, Joanna and A. L.! I just published my fourth chapter book as an indie author, and I especially appreciate your idea of writing with a specific child in mind. My biggest joys (and ah-ha’s) come from doing interactive read-alouds for schools and libraries and seeing kids’ reactions first hand. I always ask for feedback on story ideas, and the children offer brilliant plot possibilities —- the kid lit version of beta readers -:D.
A. L. Tait says
I hear you on this Cat – author visits and talks are one of my very favourite things about being a children’s author!
Simone Emery says
Great article Allison. Putting the reader first is a great piece of advice for all sorts of content!
🙂 I love this… Been trying to write a fantasy series based on some childhood memories of roleplaying, and my obsession of ninjas…. Only on chapter five of the first book. This helped greatly! When I started writing, I wasn’t sure why I was writing it other than I felt like I would do good with it. When you mentioned the audience, at first I thought I didn’t have one, but then I remembered my friends on skype who love to read my stories, and always encourage me. Thanks so much! Hopefully, I can get this published by my 16th birthday and finally become a teen author!
Annabelle Franklin says
‘Put story front and centre’ – this is such an important lesson! When I read a book, the main thing I want is a damn good story, and I’ve always tried to write with that in mind.
Robbie Cheadle says
A lovely post. I also write for children and I also started out by writing for my own two sons and then sharing our tales with other children. I have to be a bit careful not to use language that is not age appropriate for my target audience or over complicate an idea.
Jennie Fitzkee says
Wonderful post! Full of heart and wise words.
V A Trafton says
Love the post. I write inspirational childrens picture books. I find inspiration in every story I write. Our children need to feel they have a chance to take whatever they strongly believe in and make a difference. I recently started a blog to write about my books, what inspires me and books related to my inspirations. My ideas for stories come from observing children in my everyday surroundings. Keep writing stories that make a difference and you’ll see how much you can touch a life.