Margaret Clark, formerly Children’s Book Editor for The Bodley Head, gives us a taste of her new book on – Writing for Children
Writing is hard work, and the hardest part of all is getting started, whether composing your first sentence or finding your first publisher. One of my favourite writers is Betsy Byars, because she so clearly enjoys her work and makes it look so easy. But even Betsy admitted:
`No project is undertaken with greater hope and a deeper sense of insecurity than the writing of a book. I once heard an author say, “I write the first sentence and trust to God Almighty for the second”. And I’ll never forget Robert Benchley telling that once when he couldn’t think of anything to write, a friend told him to sit down at the typewriter, type the word “the” and wait. He did that, stared at the word “the” for an hour, typed “hell with it” and got up and left.’
That’s a good story – but not the whole story. Before the writer sits down at the typewriter, or more likely switches on the WP, he has to have an idea. (I can’t avoid the personal pronoun and use `he’ only because it’s shorter than `she’.) It may be no more than the shadowy figure of a person or an animal, a situation as yet undeveloped, an incident whose outcome the observer did not see; yet it must be something that so excites the writer, so fills his mind, he will not rest until he’s found the exact words that will convey it to someone else. Without that driving force, writing becomes just a series of sentences, offering no incentive for the reader to make an effort to understand them.
It is taken for granted that would-be writers for adults write about what interests them or what they consider important. From the thousands of manuscripts I must have read when I worked for The Bodley Head, I found that many aspiring writers for children seemed to give little thought to the point of their stories. They choose (it still happens, I am told) themes of orphaned puppies or camping holidays or uncontrolled computer games or Hallowe’en witches simply because these are considered `suitable for children’ rather than something the writers care about or find interesting. That’s why any publisher will tell you that reading the `slush pile’ is not difficult – almost from the first sentence you can tell whether the writer is seriously intent on transmitting to the reader’s mind the lovableness of a character, the fascination of a certain place, or the intriguing possibility of what will happen next.
Of course there is a paradox here, as in so much connected with children’s books. I am not suggesting that the writer should have reached his second childhood and be concerned only with childish things before embarking on a story for children. I mean that he should be able to recapture the emotions of being a child or adolescent (as the late Robert Westall did so successfully in his first book, written for his son, The Machine-Gunners) and feel real enthusiasm for the subject matter of his tale. At the same time it’s important to remember that today’s children think and behave differently from yesterday’s, and the writer must be aware of what they know now that previous generations didn’t, what they don’t know, and how they learn what they are being taught at school.
This was only one of the many aspects I knew I’d have to tackle when I agreed to contribute to A & C Black’s series of ‘Writing. ..’books. The enormity of the subject almost defeated me – after all, there are as many different kinds of book for children as there are for adults, but I kept remembering how often I had wanted to expand the formal rejection letter that could say no more than `not suitable for our list’. I decided to write the book in the only way I could, from the publisher’s viewpoint, and this proved significant for it made me realise that the main differences between adults and children’s books are in their publishing and marketing rather than their writing.Children’s books are often bought not by their readers but by adults -parents, teachers, librarians, some of whom are dependent on public money for their spending power, but the paperback is an object children have raised to the status of desirable possession (it fits a child’s pocket both literally and metaphorically), so I have briefly traced its development. I have included, with Black’s help, a breakdown in percentages of a book’s pricing – a topic about which there are many myths. By quoting statistics like the number of children’s books in print in June 1992 (around 30,000) I have tried to show how much easier it is for both bookseller and buyer to choose a well-known classic such as The Wind in the Willows than a first book from an unknown writer – and that this is one very good reason for publishing in series. I have also tried to explain the division between the publishing of text books and of children’s picture story and information books, even though the latter are bought by schools and used both to teach and encourage reading and for the study of any subject from dinosaurs to vegetarian diets.
But I knew that, if my book were to have any readers, they would want, above all, a prescription for writing. Most people assume, rightly in my opinion, that for children they should write simply – but they go on to suppose that this entails limited vocabulary and spelling out every detail. Writing simply, I suggest, is writing lucidly and with care, so that your meaning is absolutely clear. You can find such writing in books of all kinds – the last novel I read, Rose Tremain’s Sacred Country, is an excellent example – and you can use guidelines that apply generally, whoever your audience. The following precepts may sound old-fashioned, but they still work. Use the direct word in preference to the circumlocution; employ the transitive verb rather than the passive (thus eliminating many ‘is’s and ‘was’s); avoid the abstract word; use adverbs and adjectives sparingly. Avoid cliches; concentrate on meaning, so that your `style’ (your voice, unique to you) is not intrusive and nothing obstructs the connection between your mind and the reader’s.
Many beginner writers also assume that the beginner reader needs long explanations and detailed background information before the story can start. On the contrary, the shorter the story (and most children’s books, particularly for the younger age-group, are much shorter than adult books) the more important its shape and its pace. Young readers appear ready to accept any situation if it promises excitement and if the writer is serious about it. Ted Hughes writes `The Iron Man came to the top of the cliff’ and the reader is instantly alert. I write `It was a sunny day at the end of June and it was Friday so the three children, Sophie, Simon and Peter, were at school and did not see the strange sight that would have met their eyes if they had been sitting on the warm turf at the top of the cliff that was just outside the village where they lived in a cottage with their mother who worked three days a week in the village shop (including Fridays, so she didn’t see the strange sight either) and their father who . . .’ and you can tell that my thoughts are all over the place – and so is the reader’s attention. I’ve written down trivial chatter without thinking of focus, emphasis, or what I consider makes my story worth telling. And it is storytelling that characterises most books for children; yet here again narrative skill is the same craft, whatever the age of your reader. James Clavell, the very successful author of that blockbusting novel Shogun, said in a recent interview, `The art of writing is rewriting. I wrote 850 pages and I had an editor in America who went through it line by line and taught me how to write tight. The first time you write a novel you go into ecstasy with the purple prose: how the clouds look, what the sunset is like. All bull. What happens? Who does what to whom? That’s all you need.’ Writing tight; paring down; good advice for a writer for children who must make every word count.
So what is different about writing a children’s book? Of course, as the professionals explain, it is the viewpoint that is all-important, and everything follows from this. The writer needs to be able to view people, events, the world around us as they appear to a child, a child of today, at different ages and levels of development. Subject-matter, vocabulary, approach – all these things immediately become a matter of commonsense. Obviously there are practical considerations. You may find blank pages at the end of an adult novel, never at the end of a children’s picture book – so the make-up of the book matters, and a picture-book story may have a better chance of acceptance if it is planned as a series of mini-chapters, each to make a satisfying double-spread of text and picture.
The easiest way of teaching (or advising) is by example, so in my book I’ve tried to analyse the texts of a picture book, a `beginner reader’, a story for the newly independent reader, a full-length novel for older children, a novel for teenagers, and an information book, hoping to show `how it’s done’. The creative process itself remains a mystery, although I did begin to see more clearly how this works. Having produced a synopsis for my publisher, I spent a happy time making notes. I did this for as long as I dare: anything to put off the job of giving them a logical shape. Then I’d take my dog for a walk and if the sun shone I’d come home with perfectly crafted phrases ringing in my head. When I typed them out, well … not so golden perhaps. Next day the sky would be grey and I knew what I’d written was rubbish. Oh, how I remembered the times I had spoken (as a publisher) about the loneliness of the writer. It is difficult, I learned bitterly, to be your own critic without losing your confidence altogether. That’s really what an editor is there to provide – and I was fortunate to have a good one, who was calm and reassuring.
But my respect for writers (whom I’ve always admired) has never been greater!
Margaret Clark’s book, Writing for Children (0 7136 3736 6) is published by A & C Black at £7.99