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Writing for Children: Rule Number One


Read More than You Write


"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."
- Stephen King

Author opinion falls into two camps on this one, with some writers maintaining that reading fiction while writing is a very bad thing. To this I might say that if you have been working for years as a published author, and you have that degree of sophistication, dexterity and confidence, then maybe sometimes yes. But for the majority of us who are not at that level... Many other authors, however, believe the opposite to be true, that reading and being well-read is essential to good writing, and it is this argument that I am exploring here.

So why do I believe that reading is essential to a writer?

Novels show writers what can be done and how. They can be everything from a rip-roaring read to a work of art, and they present the finished article, the puzzle of writing solved and celebrated as a successful story. These can be fiendishly hard to analyse though in terms of your own writing, as Sarah Waters wisely says in the Guardian ‘Ten Rules for Writing Fiction (part two)': "because the better and more compelling a novel is, the less conscious you will be of its devices". Annie Proulx urges us not to give up with this tricky analytical task but to "develop craftsmanship through years of wide reading". Easier said than done.

Reading can certainly broaden a writer's use of vocabulary and also concept. Personally, I think this is best achieved by making sure you also read outside of the genre you are writing in. So if you are immersed in creating a YA dystopian novel, radically switch subjects and styles of voice and mix things up by picking up a historical coming-of-age story, for example. You will find that a different area of interest and narrative conflict, on top of a different voice, helps keep things fresh in your own work. Science fiction and fantasy author Michael Moorcock agrees. He says: "I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt."

There are those who disagree. Will Self is one such. He tells us, "Stop reading fiction - it's all lies anyway". It could be argued that if one has the singularity of vision, experience and talent of Will Self, one can do what one likes. But even Self qualifies his statement with adding that fiction "doesn't have anything to tell you that you don't know already (assuming, that is, that you've read a great deal of fiction in the past; if you haven't you have no business whatsoever of being a writer of fiction".

I think it's important that writers of children's fiction know what's going on in other spheres of writing too. I would urge them to read adult literary fiction, poetry, literary magazines, e.g. Granta, broadsheet book reviews (many of which publish excellent twice-a-year supplement summaries of children's fiction output), children's book blogs, e.g. An Awfully Big Blog Adventure ( which is UK children's writers blogging daily about books and writing. And of course, newspapers, journals, screenplays, plays, and other media of Twitter, cinema and documentaries, art exhibitions, museums - everything really of quality. All of which are rich material and keep a writer's curiosity for the world and everything in it ticking over.

I think also that the concept of reading as solace, as proper escape from the hell of one's own writing is not to be underestimated. When writing is going badly, when the ideas or flow is stuck, it can be a release to put the mouse down for a stretch and turn to someone else's finished book and find there completion, order, resolution, a novel that works. Reading can give a writer hope that, one day, they can do it too.

If all else fails, and you have writer's block and you feel dispirited even by reading, there is always Colm Tóibin's advice: "If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane."

So you want to write children's which children's authors should you be reading?

Over the years, I have seen slush pile type children's novel manuscripts with big passing nods to the following four authors: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, J. K. Rowling, and with younger readers in mind, Enid Blyton. And I have thought, this author is not widely read in children's fiction. While there is nothing wrong with any of the works these huge names have written - they are terrific books, which endure the test of time - there is a vast library of contemporary children's authors out there which I often feel is being overlooked, even by those who are involved in the activity of writing! Knowledge of a wider range of fiction and styles, other than just fantasy, would hugely improve the output of new submissions.

Of relatively recently published authors, this is an extremely non-definitive (but A to Z) list of a handful of names (30, in fact) that I recommend. I'd absolutely love to list more, but I'd be here all night. I'm not mentioning all the other big names from decades past, as we all know who those are, don't we? These writers encompass so many different genres and backdrops and themes, from fantasy to family life, international adventure to issues, historical to humour, wartime, dystopia, coming of age and coming home.

David Almond. Malorie Blackman. Frank Cottrell Boyce. Melvin Burgess. Kate Cann. Natasha Carthew. Anne Cassidy. Cathy Cassidy. Babette Cole. Suzanne Collins. H. L. Dennis. Neil Gaiman. Sally Gardner. F. R. Hitchcock. Anthony Horowitz. Eva Ibbotson. Cathy MacPhail. Jaclyn Moriarty. Michael Morpurgo. Robert Muchamore. Patrick Ness. Philip Pullman. Celia Rees. Philip Reeve. Chris Riddell. Meg Rosoff. Samantha Shannon. Andrew Strong. Jeremy Strong. Jacqueline Wilson.

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson read Fine Art at Oxford before working with books in London for Pan MacmillanOne of largest fiction and non-fiction book publishers in UK; includes imprints of Pan, Picador and Macmillan Children’s Books, Penguin and other publishers, back in the day when publishing houses used to celebrate deals with champagne and Fridays with chocolate. She is a freelance editor, writer and sometime literary consultant, drawing on her experience of children's publishing and all who sail in it. She likes writing poems and drinking coffee.