Piers Torday on Writing for ChildrenNov 07, 2021
Piers Torday is 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) and The Lost Magician (Teach Primary Book Award) and The Frozen Sea. His latest book is The Wild Before (August 2021). His work has been translated into 14 languages.
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 tutor. To whet your appetite, Piers gives us his top tips on writing for children.
From the desk of Piers Torday.
Begin at the beginning
Don’t go into the woods without a map
Stay on that path, Little Red!
Follow the characters
And… Don’t forget to play!
I write full-length fiction mainly for children aged 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:
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.
Only 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 life – you stand a chance of gifting that pleasure authentically to the next generation.
2. Don’t go into the woods without a map
Once you have some idea of what you want to write 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.
Alternatively, you may scrawl some hasty bullet points 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, and you are strongly advised 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.
3. Stay on that path, Little Red!
If this is your first 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.
4. Follow the characters
But of course, 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 legendary anthropologist Joseph Miller’s The Hero’s Journey to former EastEnders producer John Yorke’s Into the Woods, there are 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.
This is because the most unforgettable stories are driven by unforgettable characters. 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 them 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. 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 does a young reader 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.
Don’t be afraid to experiment; they’re only words. If you are blocked, even 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 give a warts-and-all, no filter description of another. You might be surprised at what comes out.
Indulge in constructive fantasy. 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 other on social media.
Whatever you write, however you choose to write, 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.