So You Think You Can Write Children’s Books?

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Jonny and Lucy sitting in a tree, G-U-R-N-I-N-G
(except it’s a restaurant)

Don’t stop breathing or anything, but I have an actual career-related blog for you today. Nothing to do with sleeping otters, or noodly boobs, or National Talk Like a Pirate Day. EVERYTHING to do with the job that I love.

Here I am after an exhilarating panel event for the Hertford Children’s Book Festival on Thursday. The silly face is all Jonny Zucker‘s fault for being a hilarious partner in crime. The Space Penguins T-shirt is a thing of beauty, I know.

The event kicked off a 4-day festival organised by lovely author Freya North. It involved posing behind a table at Hertford Theatre while wearing tremendous shoes and said T-shirt, facing a room full of beaming people holding notepads, and blethering on the topic above, on the subject of which I am apparently an industry expert.

I wasn’t sure I was meant to be there.

A quick perusal of my statistics gave me heart. Or, to give its correct regional spelling, Hert. 86 published titles with another 7 lurking in the pipeline, available in around 19 territories ranging from Thailand to Turkey, under a dozen sly pseudonyms plus me being me. Maybe I was allowed to be there after all. Maybe I hadn’t gatecrashed the show. Maybe my experiences WERE relevant to people trying to break into the realms of the printed word. Wow!

Tremendous Shoes

Tremendous Shoes

So You Think You Can Write Children’s Books? For those of you not present in Hertford Theatre on Thursday, here is my version of the basics.

  • We all know how YOU feel about getting lost in a Brazilian shopping centre, or being eaten by the Minotaur, or dangling from a cliff over a pounding ocean. We’ve been there. Maybe we’re dangling from that cliff ourselves right now, shouting for help. But this is the world of children’s books, with a child’s perspective on things. Find your 10-year-old self if writing for 8-year-olds, or your 12-year-old self if writing for 10-year-olds etc. Always add a couple of years on to the age group you’re writing for, except if you’re writing about penguins because their age, frankly, doesn’t matter.
  • Be prepared to fail a hundred times. Getting a deal took me thirteen years, from first finished story to published book. I feel your pain.
  • Find an agent. Curtis Brown has a fantastic new submissions system on their website for you all to throw yourselves at. No more stamps! No more ink running out half way through that scene about a rat and a parasol that you were so proud of! Follow the instructions. No gimmicks. No strange photos of yourselves holding kittens hostage.
  • Don’t worry about illustrations. Publishers choose illustrators, not you. Once you find yourself in the glorious position of HAVING SOMEONE INTERESTED IN YOUR WRITING, then maybe you can dangle thoughts of illustrators like worms on hooks above your editors’ gaping mouths. But not until then. You have plenty of other stuff to think about first.
  • If an agent says they are interested but would like you to change A, B and C – change it. Limbo dancers should have nothing on you. An agent has bothered to contact you. Be grateful. Faint, maybe. Don’t be precious.
  • Yes, I said agent (see earlier point). Not publisher. Always try agents first. Agents know their business, and if they like you, it probably means there’s a publisher out there that will like you too. But if someone offers to represent you for an upfront fee, run. That person is Voldemort.
  • Buy the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and read all the articles. Learn from what you read.
  • Write because you enjoy it, not because you fancy buying a beachside villa in the Bahamas. It ain’t going to happen.
  • Tibbles

    Tibbles

    I wouldn’t advise self-publishing if you want to make a living at this game. As I said at the event, it’s a bit like you drawing a fantastic picture of your cat, framing it, hanging it on your sitting-room wall, throwing your front door open and waiting for the stampeding hordes to admire it. However lovely Tibbles might be, no one’s going to come because they just won’t know you’re there, waiting, your coffee machine trembling with optimism. An agent can get Tibbles hanging somewhere more central for you. Heck, maybe even the National Gallery. Before long, you could be up to your armpits in commissions of cat portraiture. Or writing. Or whatever.

  • I was quite pleased with my cat analogy.
  • READ the books that are currently out there. It’s your competition. Fabulous Young Adult gems like John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, or Holly Smale’s delightful Geek Girl. Go and fancy Jace in The Mortal Instruments series.  Romp with the monsters in Beast Quest, and analyse why children love them. Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Tom Gates. Books that today’s youngsters buy in droves. This is no longer a world where Chalet Girls or Biggles make readers swoon.
  • Have a really, really good idea and write it really, really well.

Many thanks to Hertford Theatre for such a great venue, and David’s Bookshop for selling our books. Thanks Freya for the steak. Thanks Jonny for the amusing beard. Thanks audience for turning up, listening and buying books. May the words flow from your pens like mighty rivers of inspiration, but don’t come up with anything too clever because I’ll never talk to you again.

See you next year?

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