Sunday, March 12, 2006

Guest Post - Writing for Children LBK Masterclass

As I mentioned in a previous post below, I attended a writing for the screen masterclass at the London Book Fair last week with my friend Emma J, who stuck around for another masterclass in the afternoon, Writing for Children. Emma J has very kindly written a report on that event, so here it is:

"I've attended numerous author talks over the years and come away from most of them feeling that I have little in common with either the writer or their writing process. The only exception (until last Saturday) was hearing Philip Pullman once talk about how he always starts his books by getting an idea about a landscape first. I really identified with this (although, sadly for me that’s about the only thing we have in common!)

However, my general good opinion of author talks was fully restored at last Saturday's London Book Fair Masterclass on Writing for Children. The four authors (Geraldine McCaughrean, Philip Ardagh, Meg Rosoff and Siobhan Dowd) were inspirational in their approach to their writing, and their advice and anecdotes were informative and very helpful.

Geraldine McCaughrean talked about how not to let research slow down the narrative arc of your story. The temptation is to show off your in-depth knowledge of the subject matter, but this then detracts from the progress of the tale. Therefore, research, whilst important to stories set in other lands or periods in history, should never overwhelm the central story. GM admitted that she has never been to the Arctic or to China but still set her books in these locations, letting her imagination, and the willingness of the reader to be entertained, do the rest.

Philip Ardagh concurred, saying that by overwhelming your reader with your research all you do is make the reader think you are showing off. Whereas, one small, well placed piece of research can often impress the reader far more. He also talked about delivery of your material. He mentioned one of his books, where a boy called Fergal falls from a window on page one of the book, and dies instantly. The book then goes back through the Fergal's life, having attracted our attention to this character, and tells the story of how he came to fall. A tragic story is told in away that gets the child reader's attention. The way Fergal died is no longer important – he matters to the reader, he has a story and they want to know more about him.

The second part of the afternoon included talks from Meg Rosoff and Siobhan Dowd. Both concentrated on the actual act of writing. In Meg's case it was her resistance to writing that led to her taking up alternative careers in PR, advertising, and very nearly running her own cake making service. Then her sister became ill with cancer and it occurred to her that we all only have so much time in which to do the things we feel compelled to do. So, she started asking everyone she knew how on earth she could go about writing a book. The result was How We Live Today, an instant bestseller.

Siobhan Dowd spent 12 years patiently waiting for her big break. Three years ago she sat in the audience at the LBF Masterclass wondering if she would ever get her break. Now a writer for Random House, she was up on the stage. She talked about how to make your writing lean, mean and clean Рall traits she had learnt through patiently honing her craft in her 12 year wait to be published. According to her, if you get the five C's right (Consistency (get the details right and give your writing credibility), Chapters (structure of your story), Cast (characters that interest people and that progress or change as the story progresses), Cutting (being ruthless about rewriting), and Clich̩ (finding new ways to say things), you won't go far wrong.

And, finally, all four answered my question about whether or not you have to be around children to be a good children's writer with the answer I wanted to hear. No, you don't, it doesn't matter, the story is key. And, as Meg Rosoff put it, "Don't trust children, they have very bad taste…." Philip Ardagh agreed. He once asked readers of a book he was particularly proud of to write to him and tell him which was their favourite character. They ignored all of his well-rounded, funny characters in the book that he had spent ages writing witty dialogue for, and instead overwhelmingly voted for a stuffed stoat that never said a word. "

Thanks Emma!

I want to read the book with the stuffed stoat ....

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