How to Write for Children – Advice from the Cardiff Children’s Literature Festival

accidental piratesIt was reassuring to hear that Claire Fayers, who introduced this Cardiff Children’s Literature Festival event, was actually in the audience five years ago, when it first took place, wondering if she’d ever get her work published. She now has two children’s books published (the Accidental Pirates series), which proves that these things can happen! She introduced us to author Horatio Clare and literary agent Philippa Milnes-Smith, who shared their advice on writing for children and getting published.

Here are the top 5 tips for getting published from Philippa Milnes-Smith…

  1. Most publishers will not accept unsolicited manuscripts, so it’s much more effective to find an agent than to approach publishers directly.
  2. Purchase a Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, which contains advice as well as listings of agents and publishers.
  3. Join the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBI) which hosts events, socials and competitions.
  4. Finish your work before submitting it, as publishers are looking for something already completed.
  5. Think about your pitch – Why will readers love this book? Why will they buy it?

She also spoke about the reasons why some work gets turned down, explaining that it may be simply because they are making investment choices, and they think that it won’t make enough money, or it’s not right for them.

The Mystery Author – She gave us an example of an author whose journey to publication was “convoluted, complicated and creative”. He sent his book to all the UK publishers and agents, and was turned down, eventually giving up and deciding to self-publish it as an e-book serial online, which was not at all succesful, as it was aimed at children, who “do not have credit cards”! He then re-wrote it and sent it out to US based publishers, and was taken on by an American agent, and his book was sold at auction to an American publisher. He’s now attempting to break back into the UK publishing world, and Phillipa explained that his eventual success was due to being “creative, thoughtful and committed” in his approach, “trying one thing after another and refusing to give up”.

Horatio Clare explained that many authors begin with something else (for him it was journalism, memoir and travel writing) and end up writing for children when they have their own kids, and start reading children’s books! Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot was inspired by his own son, who was a few months old when he started writing. Here are his top 5 tips:

  1. We write for children in order to entertain, inform and educate, and of those three, entertainment must come first – the book should be enjoyable and fun to read.
  2. Re-read Roald Dahl, who is still one of the most popular children’s writers of all time – he had a particular ‘tone of voice’ which was just right – the way in which he speaks to the reader – it’s irresistable.
  3. Try reading your stories to children, and gauge their response.
  4. One of the reasons why children love books is because they have a sense of ‘completeness’ that is missing in the real world. Characters may do surprising things, but they know that, eventually, the difficulties will be overcome and the villains will be vanquished.
  5. Read lots of children’s books – spend time in bookshops!

Horatio also pointed out that issue-based writing can be helpful (e.g. writing a book which explores the issue of depression) but even books based around an issue should be entertainment-led.

Claire Fayers added some of her own advice, explaining that her own journey to publication was far from simple. She sent her work out, was accepted by an agent and then, after the agent had submitted it to a few places, she retired, and Claire never heard from her again! Eventually she looked back at the manuscript and realised there was something missing from the plot – her characters didn’t have a big enough motivation for reaching their goal, so she re-wrote it and entered into a competition, which led to publication.

There were plenty of questions from the audience, revealing some more gems of advice, including:

  • It’s important to test the ‘tone of voice’ in your book by reading it out loud.
  • It’s good to experiment, and try writing in different genres and for different age groups.
  • Most writers, even if they write in multiple genres and for multiple age groups, will only have one agent.
  • Social media is useful for marketing your books, but it’s also important to remember that children don’t use social media as much as adults, so working with schools, libraries and parents’ organisations is often more effective, and many authors market their work through live performance as well.
  • If you begin using social media and marketing your books online, be prepared for the readers to respond.
  • There are no ‘rules’ about word counts for different age groups, but picture books for young children will have fewer words on each page, and are often 16, 24 or 32 pages long.
  • How do you know when your book is finished? When you have edited it so much you can’t look at it anymore, then you should find someone else to read it and tell you if it’s any good.
  • It’s the publisher’s job to find an illustrator.

So there you have it – a wealth of advice and ideas, tips and encouragement from the people who know what they’re talking about.

2 thoughts on “How to Write for Children – Advice from the Cardiff Children’s Literature Festival

  1. In a market saturated with Roald Dahl wannabes, I really do question Horatio Clare’s advice! There are far better, and less reactionary, writers who have a tone of voice which appeals to children.

    • Thanks for your comment Jon. I think Horatio was considering what worked for him, but Roald Dahl will always be a writer who divides opinion.

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