Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Writing Children's Fiction: A Writers' & Artists' Companion by Linda Newbery and Yvonne Coppard

K.M. Peyton, Linda Newbery, Yvonne Coppard
and Nikki Gamble launching WCF 
at Just Imagine Bookshop in Chelmsford
“Companion” is a good word here. This is a friendly book, ready to go along with the anxiety, self-doubt and plain ignorance of the newbie children's writer and reassure us that others have passed this way before. Apparently, established writers are still travelling the rocky road even if they've written unimaginable numbers of books or won prestigious prizes and film contracts. “You'd think it gets easier to write a book after the first two or three have been published wouldn't you? Well it doesn't. Each new book throws up a whole new set of problems and headaches and makes you feel that you'd never written anything remotely sensible or insightful in your life," says Meg Rosoff (author of There is No Dog – one of the cleverest and funniest children's books in recent years, imo).

Writing Children's Fiction has a three part structure. Part one takes a broad-ish sweep. It's entitled Reflections on writing children's fiction and allows the joint authors to ponder questions such inclusiveness and breakthrough books as well as offering a clear explanation of the available fiction-publishing categories – including Hi-Lo fiction and packaged stories. Linda Newbery recalls a conference when she found herself having tea with three “Lucy Daniels” - writers of the Animal's Ark series for the packager Working Partners. Her description of life for an author commissioned by a packaging company reminded me of the development of series in the pulp and magazine arenas – Sexton Blakes, for instance or the D.C Thomson fiction-franchising offices (which I studied in Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory). It's a reversal of the usual creative relationship between writer and editor -- with the customer as final arbiter. Plots and characters are brainstormed in-house but I can't help assuming that if sales figures for any individual Animal Ark title are significantly below the norm that the particular writer will be unlikely to be hired again.

This is writing as a job and one of the most attractive aspects of Writing Children' Fiction is the balance struck between its inclusive approach to the un-published writer – “If you think of yourself as a writer and you do write, then you're a writer” – and its lack of sympathy with any creative preciousness. “It's helpful to think of writing as a job of work, and to know that if you simply get on with it you'll finish it.” This comes from the third Workshop section under the heading “Fostering a Professional Approach.” There are hints, tips and exercises together with sensible advice about the desirability of an agent and the possible pitfalls of self-epublishing. Caution is possibly taken a little too far and there's quite an odd passage which presents the Kindle and the ereader as the enemy of libraries, when personally I would point the finger of blame at local authority (and central government) cutbacks. Generally, however, Writing Children's Fiction avoids the temptation to pit any one section of the children's fiction community against another.

The middle Tips and Tales section of comment by established, commercially published writers is varied and generally encouraging. Michael Morpurgo's top tips include practical suggestions such as making yourself comfortable while writing. “Do what I do, what Robert Louis Stevenson did, write on your bed, pillows piled up behind you, relaxed, at ease with yourself. Then you can go to sleep easily too – a very useful writing technique, I find.” Yes! But it's Frank Cotterell-Boyce who offers the truest encouragement. “You've resigned yourself to the idea that this one didn't quite come off (but at least you tried). Just then I promise you, often, and completely out of the blue a streak of lightening will hit you […] and illuminate some new pathway, some hidden secret spring inside your story. The water you've hauled up from that well will turn to wine. And you'll drink that wine and feel like singing.”

Oh, walk with me, FCB!

Julia Jones