Friday, 6 February 2009

Why Write For Children? - Sally Nicholls

Why do you write for children? is a question I get asked every now and then. It's a good question. Here are some of the good reasons why people do it:

1. You love children’s books, and always have.
2. You have recently discovered children’s books and been blown away the amazing things writers are doing in this field (if you answered no to both of these questions - for shame! Go and read some Philip Pullman/Hilary McKay/Rosemary Sutchcliff/Mary Norton/David Almond immediately!)
3. All of your ideas are for children’s books. You aren’t sure why.
4. You have very vivid memories of being a child - many of the most significant things that ever happened to you were in childhood.
5. You are halfway through your epic fantasy about a little girl who finds a magical kingdom at the bottom of her sock drawer, and friends have suggested that it might not be suitable for adults. (This isn’t as unusual as you might think - Michael Rosen, Mark Haddon and Meg Cabot all started out thinking their writing was for adults).
6. You have no idea. You recognise it is probably an insane ambition.

And here are some of the bad reasons:

1. You’ve read some of the tosh that gets published and you can do better than that. Really? I sympathise with the desire to write something easy - when I was a little girl I wanted to write alphabet books on the same basis - but just because something looks simple, doesn’t mean it is.
2. You’ve read Harry Potter and it was utter tosh - you can do better than that. If you think Harry Potter is tosh, you’ve missed all the reasons why children love it - the humour, the read-aloud writing style, the vibrant characters, the plot twists and the deeply complex world-building. Children want to go to Hogwarts because it’s clear that J K Rowling does too - if you think what you’re writing is tosh, they will recognise this.
3. Children’s authors are loaded, right? Cue hollow laughter. Most authors earn less than minimum wage - around £6000 a year. And that’s just the ones that get published.
4. You want to be a writer and children’s books are easier than adult books. Probably true if you’re a celebrity and can afford a ghost writer. Otherwise, bear in mind that while you have to get everything right that you would in an adult book - plot, character, motivation, language etc - you also have to be aware the whole time that you are writing for people who are fundamentally not you, and come with their own needs and expectations. Not easy.
5. You’ve written a story and your children loved it. Children love attention, they love stories and they love anything created especially for them. It’s great that your kids liked your story - but this in no way means it is publishable or has any wider appeal.

Please note that neither of these lists are exclusive.


Nick Green said...

I've got another one for your Good Reasons list.

All the books I've loved as an adult, I think are wonderful, brilliant, sublime.

All the books I loved as a child REALLY HAPPENED TO ME.

Lucy Coats said...

All of the above, plus what Nick said. And because I never, ever really wanted to do anything else other than write children's books for a career, money or no money--and you're right, Sally, usually not much money.

(PS: The editing children's books bit of my career was fun, though...)

Misrule said...

Sally, may I ask your permission to quote this on an online writing course I am developing? (It's the online version of a writing children's book course I have been teaching for 3 years.) I would of course give full accreditation to the source.

Sally Nicholls said...

Sure! As long as you link back to us here, that's fine.

Lee said...

The bad reasons apply equally to writing for adults, I suspect:

1. You've read some of the tosh that gets published ...

2. You've read _____ (fill in the blank) ...

3. Stephen King is loaded, right?

4. You want to be a writer and adult novels are easier than children's. How can anyone honestly remember childhood? They only think they do!

5. You've written a story and your hairdresser/personal trainer/pimp loved it.

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

(Here I am, commenting late again.)

I'm constantly afraid of being good-reason #5 in reverse. I want to write for the upper end of YA because I'm in love with Folktale novelizations (especially for the tales that continue after the marriage), but I keep getting twinges the works aren't quite right.

Sally Nicholls said...

Hmm ... by Folktale novelisations, do you mean stories playing around with fairytales? You can do this for adults as well - try reading Angela Carter's Bloody Chamber, or Margaret Atwood's Bluebeard's Egg.

Alternatively, write the book and see what it ends up being. I thought my book was 9-12 and my publishers thought it was YA, but it's still the same book and I still enjoyed writing it.

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

Well, it mostly is written, and while in includes a child born of rape (implied) and monsters eating humans, I don't think it's more... extreme than a bunch of the YA already out there.

The question comes from the main character being married longer than she's looking for any kind of prince, and that sort of bucks template (though that's why I fall in love with the stories I work with anyway: you ever notice how marriage is usually a drag in literature, despite that fact that everybody's goal seems to be finding that perfect one?)