Book a chat

Piers Torday’s Tips for Writing for Children

writing for children Nov 07, 2021
a good illustrator puts what a child sees on the page to help you when writing for children

Writing children’s books involves a distinct writing process compared to writing adult fiction. After all, in the adult world, your target audience is based largely on your genre; from science fiction to historical, adult readers of all ages are likely to come across your work if theyre looking for novels in those particular genres. On the other hand, children’s book writers have to consider genre and age. How old are your main character and their friends? And how does this define what happens to them (i.e. the plot and genre)?

Adults writing adult characters can draw on their recent experiences and those of people around them, whereas tapping into the ups and downs of a child’s life can require us to explore more distant childhood memories.

If you want to write stories for children, it can be helpful to hear from people who’ve published children’s books. And that’s just what this article offers, with excellent tips from Piers Torday, a renowned children’s fiction writer who won The Guardian’s Children Fiction Prize in 2014.

A former theatre and television producer, Piers Torday’s books include The Last Wild (shortlisted for Waterstones Children’s Book Prize), The Dark Wild (Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize winner), The Wild Beyond, There May Be a Castle (People’s Book Award finalist), The Lost Magician (Teach Primary Book Award), and The Frozen Sea. His latest book is The Wild Before (August 2021). His childrens books have been translated into 14 languages.

Writing children’s books at The Novelry

We have a thriving children’s fiction department at The Novelry, and we’re especially excited to be welcoming Piers to The Novelry as a writing coach.

To whet your appetite, Piers gives us his top tips on writing middle grade children’s books. Whether you’re writing your first children’s book or your fifteenth, these tips should help you practice writing for children to create your own great story and set you up for future success with readers of a young age!

 

My experience writing children’s books

I write full-length fiction mainly for children in the age range of around eight to twelve, although a few confident young readers of six have read my books, as have young adult readers and adults. But those fast-moving years between eight and twelve can be – for some – a golden reading stretch.

These children are rapidly developing, equipped with expanding imaginations and endless curiosity, not yet too inhibited by self-consciousness. They are reading to discover so much for the first time, reading voraciously to work out what they like and don’t like, often reading like they have all the time in the world.

This age bracket has a depressing industry category, derived from the US educational system, ‘middle grade’ fiction. But there is nothing middle-ish in the least about a canon that stretches from E. Nesbit to Katherine Rundell, that has given millions of us our very first glimpse of what it might mean to be the hero of our own story – whoever we are, wherever we come from, in a fictional universe of multitudes, that whether fabulously fantastical or rigorously real, all have at their heart, burning and bright, the same golden star.

The star that shines with hope that better worlds yet can be made, and better still, they, the reader, have the capacity to forge them. Just to ignite one spark of that radiant light in a reader’s imagination is an achievement, because – as you will recall from your own most treasured childhood reading – once lit, they can burn eternal.

Before you set off into the dark in search of that star for the first time, here is a light or two. I hope these tips might help other writers who, like me, are awed by the joy and potential of writing children’s books.

The star at the heart of middle grade fiction shines with hope that better worlds yet can be made, and better still, they, the reader, have the capacity to forge them. Just to ignite one spark of that radiant light in a reader’s imagination is an achievement, because – as you will recall from your own most treasured childhood reading – once lit, they can burn eternal.

Rather than focusing on practicalities like the word count, whether to write in the present tense or past or how much you must double-check for spelling mistakes before submitting (but please do), I’m going to think about the writing process, and how you can make sure your story is interesting to you, to your target audience and hopefully even to their parents!

 

My tips for writing children’s books

Here are five top tips for writing children’s books:

  1. Begin at the beginning

  2. Don’t go into the woods without a map

  3. Stay on that path, Little Red!

  4. Follow the characters

  5. And… Don’t forget to play!

     

1. Begin at the beginning

What excited you most as a child? Which rabbit holes did your instinctive curiosity most often lead you down, and what did you hope to discover there? What feeling did you yearn to understand more roundly?

If you can return to the site of your foundational childhood experiences, both real and literary, and rekindle the emotions they inspired, you can begin to remember what works for child readers on the page. Think about the first children’s book that really impacted you – what makes it so special?

Of course, you need to remember that now you are the provider, not the consumer. But by focusing on what your child self might want to read more than anything else in the world – be it a wholly absorbing fantasy quest, impeccably devised whodunnit or a richly reassuring assessment of family/school life – you stand a chance of gifting that pleasure authentically to the next generation of young readers.

Think about the first children’s book that really impacted you – what makes it so special?

2. Don’t go into the woods without a map when writing children’s books

Once you have some idea of what you want to write children’s books about, you may decide to first design and build to scale a miniature replica of the fictional universe in your head, occupying three basement floors, created in painstaking detail, a feat of imaginative virtuosity that takes a decade of your life and ends up being a global social media sensation and ultimately donated to the V&A (maybe you have a future as a professional illustrator, too?).

Alternatively, you may scrawl some hasty bullet points or a few sentences on the back of a pizza leaflet.

Or, perhaps like most of us, you will outline your book somewhere on the scale between those two extremes.

Do whatever works for you. Plan each chapter, or establish simply a beginning, middle and end. But whatever you do, remember this. Like your characters, you are setting off on a real adventure, over the arctic wastes of the blank page, into the dark and twisting woods of the imagination. Based on my experience and books written, I strongly advise you to at least know:

  • Where, why and how your story begins

  • Where, why and how (roughly) you imagine it ending

  • Some idea of how to get there… Because otherwise, you will get lost, and not in a good way. I suggest a minimum of at least three moments, scenes or way stations in your head, at least to start with…

Children of course want to find the way themselves, but they do sometimes need a hand. You need to be one step ahead, that’s all.

even a child's writing or picture books might have some fun adult characters that aren't the same age as the target audience


3. Stay on that path, Little Red!

If this is your first children’s book, beware the beasts in the bushes.

The wolves who whisper, halfway through your exploratory first draft, ‘Why are you writing this stunningly original and imaginative book, when you could be writing a book just like all the others? You do know that all bestsellers need to be identical?’ (They really don’t.)

The bats who squeak in your ear, ‘Oh dear! I’m not sure complete strangers you barely know on social media would approve of that!’

And the naughty wild boars, trotting behind you, with their tails in the air, licking their chops, ‘I think this book could be so much bigger! It’s not just about finding the golden amulet/solving the murder etc, it’s about ending world poverty too. And climate change. And all mental health. Oh, and that brilliant story about your neighbours. This could be the book of your life! Everything you ever wanted to say!’

STAY ON THE CHOSEN PATH UNTIL YOU GET TO THE END.

Then, of course, once you have a draft, you can make all sorts of changes, major and minor – but with the benefit of hindsight, not lost in the shadows of making your way. And you can always ask Grandma her advice too!

Remember, many young readers are deluged with content from multiple avenues. They don’t need your book to be about everything and all things to all people. They want the perspective that only you can bring. And, of course, a great story.

4. Follow the characters

However detailed or loose your plan, however firm your resolve… You are in fact only drafting a book, not actually leading a polar expedition, and it is quite normal to get lost or stuck.

There are now nearly as many guides to structuring a classic, satisfying genre story as there are stories. From the Hero’s Journey in legendary anthropologist Joseph Campbells’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces to former EastEnders producer John Yorke’s Into the Woods, there is no shortage of blueprints that tantalisingly offer a formula for fool-proof storytelling. These models try to explain the success of mainly commercial movie product by retrofitting often entirely original plots to archetypes drawn from the oldest myths and fairy tales.

They are packed full of truths and wisdoms and have much to teach any writer, of any experience, about the fundamentals of storytelling. I have often consulted them, like many, and will continue to do so. But read more than one a little closely, and you will notice that – somewhat conveniently – there are as many exceptions to their systems as there are rules.

Children’s books need great characters

This is because the most unforgettable stories are driven by unforgettable characters. Relatable characters that arise not from blueprints but from unique human imaginations, an alchemical fusion of DNA, memory and experience.

The characters that work on the page are ones we care about as much as we would care about ourselves and those we love. They should be as unique. Establish your main character and their friends and foes in the reader’s mind, make us care for them, explore their strengths and flaws, set them a clear objective located behind three or four seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and allow them to discover themselves through overcoming those obstacles, and you will always have an engaging journey.

Follow your character’s instincts at all times through the woods. Their choices may seem eccentric, frustrating, or baffling, but accept them and you will open the door to fictional creations whose story arcs are as authentic as they are compelling.

And that’s true whether you’re writing for older children, really young readers, or indeed adults! No matter your target audience, being led by strong characters is always good advice. They are so often the most important element.

Follow your character’s instincts at all times through the woods. Their choices may seem eccentric, frustrating, or baffling, but accept them and you will open the door to fictional creations whose story arcs are as authentic as they are compelling.

When you come to edit, story maps can help you refine these arcs to best dramatic effect, but try to begin with hopes and flaws, not circles and arrows.

Who do young readers really want to spend time with for 300 pages?

5. And… Don’t forget to play!

Time out from the forest is also allowed.

You might have carefully carved out precious envelopes of time to write, balancing work and family commitments. There might be times of day or night in which you find your creative flow comes more easily, and it can be frustrating when these valuable hours feel blocked, wasted or counterproductive.

Often when adults write creatively, a part of us can be searching for that magical memory of total, intense absorption in writing stories or drawing pictures, or even just playing, reading and daydreaming as a child – when time both paused and passed effortlessly.

It was probably easier when we didn’t have responsibilities or an adult’s perpetual sense of time slipping through our fingers.

But sometimes it might be worth trying to recreate that childish pleasure in creative play, to help you through days when the words don’t want to come – and those days are not infrequent.

Often when adults write creatively, a part of us can be searching for that magical memory of total, intense absorption in writing stories or drawing pictures, or even just playing, reading and daydreaming as a child – when time both paused and passed effortlessly.

Don’t be afraid to experiment; they’re only words. And fixating on how many words you’ve written each day, or obsessing over a particular word choice, is unlikely to help loosen you up.

How to keep writing children’s books even when you get stuck

Here are some great tips I’ve found help me, and many writers, through a tricky spot. If you are blocked, even if you have no interest in picture books, even, in fact, if you can’t draw, try drawing the roughest of sketches of a character or location. It can relax one part of the imagination and release another.

Keep it fun. Ask one character to describe people in your story – warts-and-all, no filter. You might be surprised at what comes out. You might even find that two characters have more in common that at first it seemed.

Indulge in constructive fantasy; practice writing for a different form altogether. Reimagine your story as a movie, a comic or a game. Maybe even a musical! What would you change, what would you keep? How would you break your book down into songs?

Even if nothing comes of games and exercises, being actively playful is always a better use of your precious time than staring at a blinking cursor or scrolling through the apparently effortless successes of others on social media.

Whatever you write, however you choose to write, and for whatever target audience, it is a choice. No one forced you into this (I hope!). Discovering you have the means to make stuff up for other people’s entertainment is one of the greatest privileges there is. I hope you never forget to enjoy it – and then your readers will too.

 

For more tips on writing children’s books and hooking readers into the delights of fiction from an early age, be sure to read these blog posts from Polly Ho-Yen on how to write a book for children, Katherine Rundell on the importance of children’s literature and our very own Krystle Appiah on the difference between middle grade and YA fiction!

Are you writing for young readers, or have new ideas you want to explore? Enjoy writing children’s fiction with the specialist team at The Novelry when you join us for one of our online writing courses. Whether you’re set on the self publishing route or want to secure a literary agent, we can help you!

 

 


 
 
children's book writers like Piers Torday can offer tips

Piers Torday 

Piers Torday is the award-winning and bestselling author of seven novels for children, as well as lots of short stories. A former theatre and television producer, his books include The Last Wild (shortlisted for Waterstones Children’s Book Prize), The Dark Wild (Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize winner), and There May Be a Castle (People’s Book Award finalist). His latest book is The Wild Before which completes the Last Wild quarter. If you’re working on children’s fiction, you’ll find Piers an inspirational and enthusiastic writing coach!

 


Share this article

Find your course

We take beginners and experienced authors all the way from an inkling of an idea to a book in a year and on towards literary agency representation with our online creative writing courses.

Start today!

Subscribe to the blog

Sign up to get the Sunday paper for writers to your inbox.



Subscribe

Recent blogs

Narrative Perspective

Jan 08, 2023

Writing Tips From Authors

Jan 01, 2023

How to Write A Book

Dec 25, 2022