5 Things I Have Learned About Writing For Children


Last September I was thrilled to be accepted onto a creative writing scheme. I was lucky enough to be paired with a fantastic Irish language publisher who is mentoring me through the process of writing a children's picture book. Or two. Or maybe three. Whatever I can get done throughout the year, I suppose.

The process is really interesting. My mentor Tadhg Mac Dhonnagáin is brilliant and accomplished and really knows his stuff. I'm learning a lot about the 'business' of children's literature from him and about how books are made. I'm learning a lot about the writing process too. He gives me tips and techniques to try and we discuss what kinds of things work and don't work in children's literature.

I'm pottering away in my attempts at putting something even vaguely entertaining together. I have one almost-there story, another at draft stage and several others still bubbling away in the 'ideas' folder - waiting for their chance to sink or swim.

I thought I'd share a few things I've learned so far in case you've got a ideas folder on the boil too and needed a little nudge to get started. Which you should. Because it's really fun - even though...

1. It's Harder Than It Looks:

Sorry to start off on a pessimistic note - but it's true! You'd be forgiven for looking at a children's picture book and thinking "anyone could do that". There are few words, not very many pages and fairly simplistic plot lines. So far so easy, right? Except that it's not easy AT ALL. Writing picture books can be surprisingly technical. Not only do you have to come up with a story that is appealing to children - with enough tension or excitement - within a 'safe', identifiable framework - to keep them interested, but there are many other things to consider too. What's the hook on each page that will keep a child (or, more realistically, their grownup) turning the pages? Can you fit the story into just 24 pages? Where will the double spreads be? What will they be used for? Does the story stand on it's own without pictures? Can you tell the entire story in less than 600 words? (You can nearly double that for Gaeilge, but sometimes it's still not enough!) And finally  - can you visualise the entire thing in pictures as well as words? Even if you can't draw for toffee - you'll still need to be able to picture how you want the book to eventually look. So yeah... it's kind of hard...

2. There Is A Secret Formula... (but not for all of it):

The good news is that there is actually a kind of 'formula' for writing picture books. You'll still need to consider all of the above (and more) but there is a basic formula which will definitely help get you started. Once you get to recognise the structure you'll become quicker at realising which of your amazing story ideas will work and which you might struggle with taming. (I am not yet at that point, I might add, I still think every idea I have is perfect children's story material until I start trying to write it down... but I digress...). The basic structure of almost every children's picture book is as follows:

There is a 'hero'. We first see the hero in his/her normal life. But the hero isn't completely happy. There is a problem. The hero goes on a 'journey' to try to solve the problem - usually three different things happen during this bit. Then there is a 'twist'. The twist brings resolution. (You can also throw in an extra twist at the very end if you're clever/ funny enough)

...and that's basically it. Pick up your nearest children's picture book and see what I mean. You'll very quickly be able to recognise this basic structure even though every story is completely different. This formula is very 'satisfying' for young children (and their grownups!) and if you can be creative and entertaining enough while still staying within it  - you're on to a winner. Apparently.

3. Tools Of The Trade

One of the most useful tips I've gotten from my mentor Tadhg, was to treat myself to some new stationery. Sort of... Well, that's what I chose to hear, OK? What he really said was to use post-its or those study-note thingys to help work out your storyline. Even if you just have the very bare bones of an idea, these little note cards can help you work out which direction the story might go. Write what 'plot points' you do know about on the cards (just one point on each) and you'll very quickly see where the gaps in the story are and start to be able to think about how the story will move from A to B and eventually to Z. The beauty of these little things is that you can move things around, swap things out and remove things entirely without having to keep scrolling up and down your computer screen cutting, pasting, deleting and getting confused. Pen and paper FTW.

4. It Won't Write Itself:

So you have the brilliant idea. You've played around with the post-it notes. It's all looking good. The hard work is done, right? Nope. Well, not if you're me anyway. Now comes yet another tricky bit. Putting your bum on a seat and actually writing the story. Because apparently that's the only way it actually gets done. You can bat ideas around your brain until the cows come home but if you don't ever sit down and start typing - the story will never materialise. Tadhg reckons even spending 20 minutes a day is enough to begin with. The idea being to build up both a writing habit and your writing 'muscle'. This bit is harder than it sounds too, funnily enough...

5. Not Good Enough:

When you've learned how to structure your story. And you've got your post-its all in a row. And you've written a draft or two of your story, drawn a few stick figures for good measure and even figured out where your double spreads will go - there's still one more hurdle to overcome. The crippling self doubt. Maybe it's just me, but somehow, the idea I was excited and enthusiastic about in the beginning seems to look crappier and crappier the more I work on it. Then a nagging little voice starts up saying 'not good enough, not good enough, not good enough!'. Some days it takes all of my energy to pull my self-confidence up by the bootstraps just enough to even try to put pen to paper. Other days I tell that little voice to shut up and just get on with it. Again, maybe not everybody feels this during the writing process but I certainly do. Sometimes, to overcome it, I read or tell the story to my little girls. If they are respond well, that little voice goes back to the dark recesses of my psyche... if not... well... that's a whole other story...


I've got a lot more thoughts on this wonderful learning experience and maybe I'll share more in the future... like, maybe when I have a book published some day and can pretend to be some class of an expert on these matters. You can take all of the above with a pinch of salt in the meantime. Except the advice from Tadhg. That stuff is solid gold.

If you're a writer and have any tips, tricks or advice to add, I'd love for you to comment below! 


14 comments

  1. Great tips. Fantastic. I absolutely get the "plot" part. That's the hardest.

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    1. I seem to find it all hard to be honest! But I love it, so I'll keep on trying. Thanks for commenting x

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  2. Some nice tips thanks. I have read a few children's stories that I haven't like recently, now I can go back and see if they are missing some of your golden rules! That 'not good enough' voice can spread over a wide range of writing types and projects, I hear it often at the moment!

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    1. Ugh, I wish I could permanently shut that voice up! Let me know your findings with the crappy books. I mean some stories follow the criteria but are just 'meh' in general, I suppose. It's a fine-art to get it right, it seems!

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  3. I'd love to write a book for children, but it's definitely a very time-consuming project to undertake! Looking forward to seeing what you produce in the end - think of us if you're looking for test subjects :)

    You might be interested in this course. I started it, but had too much going on to see it through to the end at the time. https://www.coursera.org/learn/writing-for-children/

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    1. I'm sure you sill some day and I'm sure it'll be great. You have a beautiful way with words. Do you know I have been looking a coursera courses all week and failed to spot this one which looks great! Thanks for the tip!

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    2. Coursera is great for this kind of thing. I've done quite a few of the IT-related courses, but there are some fascinating modules in every kind of subject you can think of. Just need to find all the time... :)

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    3. Oh, time - that old nemesis! My husband has done a design course and something about music and found them excellent too. It's an amazing resource.

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  4. Sounds like you have come a long way.
    That self doubt is the pits. It's actually kept me from writing a story/book I have buzzing around my head. I just can't sit down to do it without thinking 'who do you think you are Miss I think I can write'
    Good luck with your WIP I hope you get it up and running soon.

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    1. If only my word count had come as far, Tric! Well you have a customer here waiting if you manage to quieten that voice enough to get it done. In fact, I'm sure you have a lot of people waiting for you to get that book written! Please do it!

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  5. Wow.. Looking forward to sitting down with some note cards and a big ould journey.. Thanks Sadhbh, I discovered those exact cards recently. A new me!

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    1. I can't wait to see what you come up with in that fantastically creative head of yours Sue!

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  6. Thanks for these Sadhbh. I have a story I have been telling the boys for weeks now and they love it. I must make a few notes on it, if only so I can tell it to the youngest when he is old enough. I have another book I swore I would write with every one of my three maternity leave bouts. Still not started and I am back to work in September. These pointers really help put a framework on it though. You are very good to share your tips.

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    1. Oh DO write it down! Even if it never goes further than the family, imagine how lovely it would be for your boys to be able to tell it to their own children some day! And maybe September could be a good deadline for that book idea. September is my deadline too. We can panic about it together ;)

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