Yesterday, I attended Writing West Midland's annual Writers' Toolkit in Birmingham. Started only a few years ago, as an opportunity for writers to get together over a coffee and swap ideas/support each other, it has blossomed into a full day of workshops and the chance to catch up with/meet other writers, editors, agents and writing professionals.
After an excellent and enjoyable keynote speech from Helen Cross (about the dos and don'ts of visiting schools),
I sat in on several workshop sessions and learnt much from each of them. My favourite was 'Writing For Children and Young People', despite the daunting theme being how many challenges that entails.
Juliet Clare Bell (author of picture books including 'Don't Panic Annika' and 'The Kite Princess') warned that, if you don't catch the children's attention in your first few words, then 'the riots will begin'! Take care what language you use - it needs to be correct for the age group you are aiming at. Research which subjects have been written about many times already. If writing a picture book, know how many pages are required to fit the publisher's format.
Rachel Levy (representing the libraries) told us never to preach to our readers. Children pick up on messages or morals in stories easily enough without having to have them hammered home!
Julia Eccleshare (reviewer in The Guardian and Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) perhaps demonstrated most just how much children's approach to books and reading has changed over the last decade and the challenges that has brought about for writers.
It used to be quite acceptable that a good book might take ten years from publication to becoming 'a hit' amongst its readers. Children would sit alone, tucked up in bed or in front of the fire or, in my case, up a tree in the garden, happily reading whatever they fancied. It didn't matter that no one else was reading the same story.
Now, children like to be part of a reading community. They want to read 'the book' everyone is talking about.
This seismic shift from the solitary reader to the reading community began with Roald Dahl's 'Matilda', which 'whizzed round schools like a fire-cracker' according to Julia! It was closely followed by the 'Harry Potter' series. Thank you, JK.
It would seem, according to Julia, that there are 5 BIG authors - Horowitz, Rowling, Donaldson, Wilson.... She didn't mention the 5th. Anyone any ideas?
But what about the rest of us? Where's our space in the scheme of things?
We've written 'the book', paid close attention to all the writing challenges that face us and conquered each and every one, but how do we enter in to The Community if we're not one of The Big Five? That is perhaps our greatest challenge.
In the good old days the author was just that - the author. They existed in their pages, but otherwise could lead a happy life of total obscurity if they so wished. Nowadays, the author is The Selling Point. He/she has to spend time creating and selling himself, as well as the book. Often, more time can be spent doing this than actually writing!
Julia gave Jacqueline Wilson as a great example of someone who created her own, home-grown market. In the 1980s, she went in to numerous schools and got children 'onside'. It didn't matter that their parents didn't get where her stories were coming from, the children loved them AND her. The author now has to be a salesperson too, constantly meeting their audience.
Julia told us how the Guardian publishes 40+ children's book reviews each year. However, when you consider how many thousands of children's books are actually published each year, this is just a drop in the ocean. Reviews will not 'make it' for you on their own. You have to get out there and sell yourself.
Whether we like it or not, if we want our books to get on the shelves (and then be taken off them and put in someone's collection at home) we need to have a public presence.
Personally, I love going in to schools to inspire (hopefully) children to read and write creatively. I enjoy my book events, but it does take up an awful lot of time and I have to admit to sometimes begrudging, just a little, the hours I could have been writing.
On a brighter note to finish - it was pointed out that, here in Britain, we have the world's leading publishers and authors of children's fiction. If it were right, as we keep hearing in the media, that children no longer have much interest in reading books, would this really be the case?
So go on, write that perfect story for young readers and get it out there. You (and it) might just fly!