My main qualification for writing for children is that I used to be one. Just like everyone else. So I believe we all have the potential to write for kids.
People often become writers because they carry experiences inside them like Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls. The trick is to re-connect with the tiny you who was enchanted by cobwebs and clouds but baffled by adults. I can’t really tell anyone what to do, but if I tell you what I do, maybe it will help!
Get in touch with your inner brat
It doesn’t matter whether you were bookish, wild, shy or loud. Probably all of these things at different times. Get into your time machine and find your child self. Not some therapy “inner child” who is wailing “nobody loves me”. Save that for the memoir. I mean the one with scuffed knees and snotty nose, or maybe neat hair but a weird love of snails. It doesn’t matter, once you can get feel your way into that space.
When publisher Paula Campbell at Poolbeg asked me to write about the 1916 Rising, I immediately thought about what a twelve-year-old me would have made of it.
I went to Secondary School in Mountjoy Street and was a student at Trinity College. I know Dublin very well. At school, I couldn’t wait for the bell to ring so I could wander up O’Connell Street. I used to walk every inch of the city centre, pretending to my mother I had netball matches (Mam if you are reading this, sometimes this was true!). I loved the flow of life that pulsed through the streets, the fleeting glimpses of other worlds. I realized that a big event like the Rising would have been thrilling for a young girl as well as scary. Molly popped into my head – a nosy, opinionated, bold girl in both senses of the word on the verge of adolescence. She decides to rescue her Fianna Boy Scout brother despite her father telling her to get to safety. She plunges in naively, as violence and mayhem rage through the streets. Research backed up my hunch that children were skirting in and out of the bullets. Molly soon developed a life of her own. But the spark was that thirst for adventure and the little acts of defiance that I remembered from childhood.
Talk to Children
As a documentary maker, I have often filmed and interviewed children in extreme situations. I am always struck by how clear thinking and unsentimental they are. I have followed children with life limiting illnesses for documentaries such as the BBC’s Children of Helen House about a children’s hospice and Born to Be Different for Channel 4. They don’t sit around waiting to die. They behave like other kids, playing, being naughty, winding up grown-ups. You don’t have to pick up a camera. Just watching kids is enough, the way they interact, quarrel, become pals again in minutes. In The Chingles, the three sibling protagonists argue constantly. I was pleased when some reviewers remarked that the children were all too believable.
Child readers also give great feedback. I am blessed with bookworm nephews and nieces who I use for market testing (no bribery involved – honest). But you don’t have to constitute your own X Factor panel of reviewers. Just hearing kid’s responses to other books can be invaluable. My seven-year-old daughter doesn’t care about an author’s reputation or fame. She either likes it or switches off, particularly if she doesn’t understand or connect.
What happened next? They may like the characters but it’s the plot that will keep them turning the pages. Writers have different approaches to plots. I love constructing them, enjoy the artisan pleasure of putting in the scaffolding. I write freeflow first, then figure out the story “beats”. Then I write a treatment with just the bare bones of the narrative. If you struggle with plots, learn from other genres such as screenwriting, where action is central. Books such as Robert McKee’s Story are instructive in the mechanics of building your storyline, brick by brick.
Start in the Middle
I usually discard the first few chapters. They are warm ups, almost like a prequel. With my latest novel Deadly Shot, a boy’s diary of the War of Independence, I wrote a couple of chapters exploring his environment and the beginning of the guerilla war. It was fine but not gripping. So I began the narrative just before Bloody Sunday. “Go in hard” is a journalistic instruction that works for fiction too.
Don’t be afraid to bin the throat clearing. It’s a good feeling, like spring-cleaning your wardrobe or pruning a plant. Go on, kill your darlings.
Keep tabs on your character
Luckily I have an eagle-eyed editor Gaye Shortland who swoops when I casually change hair colour (is it flaming red or auburn?) or like a bad godmother, forget an important birthday. I now keep mini-biographies of my characters vital statistics – a bit like a Police File. Name: age: known associates ; eye colour etc. Sometimes you have to put an APB out on your character to make sure they haven’t shapeshifted. Unless of course, like in The Chingles they’re supposed to.
Get in on the App
If theatre is about getting bums on seats, writing is about getting your bum in a seat. Then the words are lured out of your head onto a page or screen in some coherent order. Unlike theatre, it can be lonely. Unlike a footballer, there’s no coach screaming at you from the sideline. Luckily there are useful some apps to help. I like www.grammerly.com that corrects your grammar like a friendly schoolteacher. Squinting modifiers – who knew! It can also help tame long, meandering, dithering sentences. My favourite tool though, is the simplest – Word Count. It gives me a warm glow to know I’ve typed a thousand words. Once they are on the page, you can re-order, go in hard and kill your darlings.
(c) Patricia Murphy
Deadly Shot – Dan’s Diary of the War of Independence 1920-22 is in bookshops now or pick up you copy online here!