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Masterclass children - LBF 2006


A special report from the 2006 Masterclasses at the London Book Fair

In four packed sessions at the London Book Fair, the Daily Mail Masterclasses provided excellent coaching for aspiring writers. Our third report deals with writing for children.

Writing for Children

The Writing for Children Masterclass at the London Books Fair  drew a well-informed audience of 200. This stimulating session had input from four children’s writers, Geraldine McCaughrean, Philip Ardagh, Meg Rosoff and newcomer Siobhan Dowd.

Geraldine kicked the session off by talking about research. She stressed its importance, but said that in the end ‘I’m not an educator, I’m an entertainer.’ She stressed that readers need to have a reason ‘to turn over the page, so I make it a point of having something happen on every page’. She said that sometimes when writing a book it’s ‘like building a wet bonfire… it just won’t catch’.

Writers take readers to another place: ‘when you’ve written the book, you have been there… we travel inside our imaginations to another place’. She added:‘Don’t write about what you know about, write about what you don’t know about, taking children to a place they’ve never been to before’. ‘Inevitably you will end up inhabiting one of the children.

Philip Ardagh, author of the Eddie Dickens trilogy, now consisting of six books, felt that ‘characters have a life of their own’. ‘I find it so useful to be able to put things away and then come back to them’.

Meg Rosoff entertained the audience with a sparkling account of her own, very roundabout, path to a career as a writer. Her advice was to ‘write the book and see how it comes out’.

Siobhan Dowd, the first-time author of A Swift Pure Crime said she had herself been one of the aspiring writers in the audience three years ago at a Masterclass entitled Making Your Story Mean, Lean and Clean. Tony Bradman had said then that writers want to write for the age group which they were in when they experienced a traumatic episode in their own lives. Meg felt that: ‘Getting your story right is what will get you your publisher and your agent’. Many stories are lacking the WOW factor, you need to ‘make your story stand out – make it your own animal.’

Siobhan talked about the five Cs:

  • Consistency – things that don’t work in your story.
  • Chapter structure – some of hers were too long and it was good if they varied in length.
  • Cast of characters needs to change in a book.
  • Cutting – not too many adverbs.
  • Cliche – it’s always important to avoid this.

She said that she would recommend getting an agent, because doing your own submissions was so time-consuming and agents are better at bargaining than you are.

Meg said: ‘I don’t write for anybody… in the end you have to write for yourself.' Her agent advised her to ‘just write the best book you can’.

Siobhan agreed: ‘You write the only story you can’.

In answering the question whether a children’s writer needed daily contact with children to write for them, Meg said she thought not, as ‘you’re writing from the child within’.

Geraldine expressed her views on editors very pragmatically: ‘We are the suppliers of a commodity, if they say jump, we jump. They’re paying the money and they need to get what they’re paying for’ especially since ‘publishing is all about the bottom line’. If you can get your book published, then they want you to write the same book again.’

Siobhan said: ‘I’m not really creating an authentic voice, but a convincing voice’.

Philip said that 'the one message I’d give today is not to give up’... ‘You may find that the book that gets you in is not the one that gets published.’ Meg agreed: ‘Keep going, keep going, keep going… but listen to people, if ten people say the same thing.’

Siobhan had the last word: ‘My advice is to take control.’

Chris HolifieldManaging director of WritersServices; spent working life in publishing,employed by everything from global corporations to start-ups; track record includes: editorial director of Sphere Books, publishing director of The Bodley Head, publishing director for start-up of upmarket book club, The Softback Preview, editorial director of Britain’s biggest book club group, BCA, and, most recently, deputy MD and publisher of Cassell & Co. She is also currently the Director of the Poetry Book Society; During all of this time aware of problems faced by writers, as publishing changed from idiosyncratic cottage industry, 'occupation for gentlemen', into corporate business of today. Writers encountered increasing difficulty in getting books edited or published. Authors create the books which are the raw material for the whole business. She believes it is time to bring them back to centre stage.

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