Joan Aiken asks: Who should write for children, and what should they write?

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Can anyone write a book for children?

Joan Aiken took her work very seriously, and was often asked to speak about it. A series of talks she gave was eventually published as a heartfelt guide called ‘The Way to write for Children’ and as her own mission statement, has inspired new writers ever since. As she was aware, this particular field was becoming a tempting market, but to whose advantage?

She wrote:Writing for Ch.3Lately there has been a good deal of discussion about the vogue for celebrity publishing, and perhaps given the healthy state of the children’s book industry and the number of excellent new writers appearing in recent years it does look like a tempting prospect.

Surely anyone could toss off a book for children? Not necessarily!

Joan Aiken had fun imagining a black hooded Grand Inquisition checking the motives of the would be author – and some of the answers that would receive ‘Nul Points’.

Such as: ‘I have read a few, anyone could do it, and it shouldn’t take long, they’re quite short,’ or ‘I’ve read surveys about what sells, there’s a formula, you need a brown furry talking vegetarian animal, with an alliterative name like Walter the Wombat…’

Finally a man comes in with an idea about a rusty bridge, and a trainee tea-taster, and an old lady, and a boy who has stolen piece of turf from a football field, and how they all meet by chance on the bridge and begin to realise they have met before… well, he says,  it’s a kind of ghost story…

What happens next?

Writing for Ch.2

She could be pretty fierce, but then she had spent years answering letters from children, or talking to them in schools, reading her own stories aloud and getting feedback and suggestions, and so she had a fairly good idea what would satisfy or nourish, or what could possibly turn them off reading for life…

Joan Aiken was also strongly in touch with her own childhood self –  the inner reader who had always been looking for answers in books.

Writing for Ch.3As she said:

‘Your book could be the one that starts a child reading, or the only one they possess – what kind of a power is that? Surely you should use it wisely.’

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Read more about  Joan Aiken’s The Way to Write for Children

here on the Joan Aiken Website

Where do stories come from? Joan Aiken explains…

Argosy webpage

Joan Aiken studied her craft while working for the short story magazine Argosy in the 1950’s, and always said it was the best training she could have had. As well as reading hundreds of submissions, interviewing and gleaning advice from the top authors of the day, such as Paul Gallico or H.E.Bates, and submitting her own stories to fierce editorial scrutiny, she was tasked with filling odd corners of pages, searching out entertaining news items, and writing a humorous Log Book to introduce the magazine each month.

While many of Joan Aiken’s Argosy stories were later included in her own supernatural or fantasy collections, she was so prolific that many had fallen out of print until fellow fantasy enthusiasts, Gavin Grant and writer partner Kelly Link of independent American publishers Small Beer Press offered to bring out a collection of these early works,  even including some previously unpublished finds, and they are certainly some of her wildest and most memorable stories.

Also in the collection is a short introduction Joan Aiken wrote for the title story, full of her own generous and hard earned writing wisdom, useful advice for other writers just starting out perhaps?

Here it is:

“Writing short stories has always been my favourite occupation ever since I was small, when I used to tell stories to my younger brother on walks we took through the Sussex woods and fields. At first I told him stories out of books we had in the house and then, running low on these, I began to invent, using the standard ingredients, witches, dragons, castles.

  Then doors began to open in my mind, I realised that the stories could be enriched and improved by mixing in everyday situations, people catching trains, mending punctures in bicycle tyres, winning raffles, getting medicine from the doctor. Then I began mixing in dreams. I have always had wonderful dreams – not as good as those of my father Conrad Aiken, who was the best dreamer I ever met, but very striking and full of mystery and excitement.

   The first story I ever finished, written at age 6 or 7 was taken straight from a dream. It was called Her Husband was a Demon. And one of my full-length books, Midnight is a Place was triggered off by a formidable dream about a carpet factory. Most of my short stories have some connection with a dream. When I wake I jot down the important element of the dream in a small notebook. Then weeks, months, even years may go by before I use it, but in the end a connection will be made with something that is happening now, and that sets off a story. It is rather like mixing flour and yeast and warm water. All three ingredients, on their own, will stay unchanged, but put them together and fermentation begins.

    A short story is not planned, in the way that a full-length novel is planned, episode by episode, with the end in sight; a short story is given, straight out of nowhere: suddenly two elements combine and the whole pattern is there, in the same way as, I imagine, painters get a vision of their pictures, before work starts. A short story, to me, always has a mysterious component, something that appears inexplicably from nowhere. Inexplicably, but inevitably; for if you check back through the pattern of the story you can see that the groundwork has already been laid for it. 

   The story of The Monkey’s Wedding for example, was set in motion by a dream about an acerbic old lady hunting about her house for lost things and buried memories, combined with a news story about a valuable painting found abandoned in a barn; only after I had begun the story did I realise that the last ingredient was going to be a grandson she didn’t even know she had lost.”

As a taster you can read one of the stories in a post from Tor.com here – this one is called Reading in Bed and is perhaps a warning to choose your late night reading matter carefully for fear of falling prey to nightmares – or alternatively, to help provide useful story material as Joan Aiken also said when she recommended eating cheese before bed in order to encourage fertile and fantastic dreams…

Monkey's Wedding 3

Find the collection at Small Beer Press

Think you can write a children’s book? Joan Aiken can help…

Prize 1

So how is the book coming along?  You still have a couple of weeks to send in your entry! All you need is a wonderful idea for a story you really want to tell, and we’ll give you the encouragement to write it – and that’s what is being offered here. You have until June 30th to send us your idea for a children’s book that could become a classic of the future.

Julia Churchill, Joan Aiken’s rep. at London literary agents A.M.Heath who are sponsoring The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize (and hoping to discover a new talent!) tells you what we need:

“To get a good sense of the voice, concept and where the character is headed, we’d like to see the first 10,000 words PLUS a short description of the book (a few lines) AND a one page outline that shows the spine of the story.”

Sounds simple? Joan Aiken might have other ideas, having turned out over a hundred books herself, she knew it wasn’t exactly a piece of cake, and writing for children she felt should always be the best. But she also helps you fight the fear and do it anyway…

She imagines a test – an inquisition even – for the would be writer:

W2Write inquisition

Well we aren’t the Spanish Inquisition, but what we are looking for is someone who has a story they really want to tell,  and which they think children will enjoy…!

As Joan Aiken also said, all she ever wanted to do was give children the same wonderful pleasure that she herself had from reading as a child.

W2Write Vision

Well, she has plenty more advice and encouragement to give:

Take time to write regularly, brood about your story before you fall asleep and let your dreams take over, listen for the voice which will tell your story, find your imaginary reader and tell it to them…

All these thoughts and much more come from her very entertaining and generous little book The Way to Write for Children, but of course as she also says. there are many, many different ways, and we are waiting to hear yours…!

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Find the book here, and much more about Joan Aiken and her writing life

on the Joan Aiken Website

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And get writing! 

Full details of conditions & how to enter are here on the A.M.Heath site

Open to un-agented writers in the UK and Ireland

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