Children’s novel writing workshops
Writing for children
Our Children’s Novel Competition is now open for entries, so we hope you’re polishing your masterpiece ready for submission. In the meantime, here to help you perfect your MS is award-winning author Ann Coburn, with workshops to help you tackle some of the stumbling blocks of writing for children. Keep checking back for new workshops.
ANN COBURN has been writing fiction for children and young adults for 25 years, and has had 19 books published in that time. Glint (2005), a YA novel, won an Arts Council writer’s award and a Northern Writer’s award, and her theatre play Get Up and Tie Your Fingers (1997) won the John Whiting Award. She has undertaken residencies with a number of prominent arts and cultural organisations and given presentations at book festivals, including the Northern Children’s Book Festival and the Dublin Children’s Book Conference. Since 2009 Ann has tutored at Newcastle University, teaching creative writing courses, supervising PhD students and mentoring writersfor the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts. She has been a Royal Literary Fund Fellow since 2008.
For more ideas, and a clear way of approaching your work, you might consider investing £3 in A Novel in Nine Steps, the latest in our nifty new Mslexia Mini series. This one was developed by Jenny Newman, pioneering creative writing tutor and writer of The Writer’s Workbook (Arnold).
PLOT, THEME AND SYNCHRONICITY
How to create depth, layers, focus and resonance in your plot, and texture and specificity in your writing.
This final workshop is not about writing – it’s about stopping writing. Because it’s important to take a breather every so often and reflect on what you have written so far. In particular, it’s good to stop and define (or re-define) your theme.
I find this an invaluable stage, particularly when I’m writing for children or young adults. This is because young readers are looking for fiction that helps them understand the world and their place in it. This is not achieved by preaching or moralising, but by weaving together plot and theme, and making connections for the reader.
This workshop will take you through several reflective stages that will help you to do this in your novel. (PS: I lied. There will be some writing, but it will be outside, or alongside, your novel-in-progress.)
Exercise 1: Define your theme
Work out what your theme is. (If you have already done this, look again. Has it evolved or changed?) To help with this process, think about what your novel is about, rather than what happens in it. For example, one of my favourite YA novels, Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd, explores the destructiveness of prejudice and sectarianism and asks what one person can do to counter ‘the old grudges leapfrogging over generations’.
Don’t worry if you come up with more than one major theme. Write a paragraph about each theme and how it is explored in your novel.
But if you have identified more than one theme, read through your notes and select the one which has the strongest connection to your novel. If you are really struggling to pick one, you are allowed two – but no more.
Now to refine and define your theme. Write, in this order:
- a three line description
- a one-line summary (for example, the strapline on the cover of Bog Child reads ‘Betray your brother, or sacrifice yourself?’)
- three words, describing three things you want your reader to feel/understand
Exercise 2: Theme and setting
Now that you have a defined theme, look again at your settings and consider how you might use them to further serve your theme. For example, think about the following:
- Is there an iconic place, structure or landmark within your setting that you might use? Siobhan Dowd uses a piece of high moorland on the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland border as a key location to emphasise a ‘boundary’ theme throughout the novel.
- Is the history of your setting relevant to your theme in any way? In Bog Child Siobhan Dowd tells two parallel stories: one set in 1981 at the height of the Troubles; the other in the Iron Age. She used these two historical perspectives to explore patterns in Irish society. David Almond uses this technique a lot in his work too: using historical resonances to bring depth and layers to a contemporary novel.
Exercise 3: Theme and repetition
- Deliberate repetitions can serve your theme and bring structure, focus and resonance to your plot. The types of repetition you might use include:
- a character who echoes another character (two brothers, for example)
- a repetition of circumstances – in Bog Child the 1980s protagonist and the Iron Age protagonist face the same difficult choice
- a repeated event, related to the theme, that shows how your protagonist or their circumstances have changed (Christmas, a birthday, an exam or test of some sort, a funeral)
- a return to the same location – at the end of Emma Donoghue’s Room the child protagonist returns to the small room that was once his whole world; his reaction to the space show how he has changed
Exercise 4: Theme and character
Think about your protagonist’s interests and obsessions. Do they dovetail with your theme? If not, can you tweak them so that they do? Remember, your theme should help make all the elements of your writing work together. So your protagonist’s interests can serve the theme and also bring texture and specificity to your writing. My short story ‘Compass’ was written for the Hexham Book Festival’s ‘A Forgotten Perspective’ project, which explored life on the Home Front in WW1.
The theme of my story was the tender and combative complexities of father-son relationships, and how those relationships change when a son becomes a man. This theme was heightened by the relationship between a father who had fighting at the Front for four years, and a son who had grown up without him. The son’s heroes were Antarctic explorers, and the object of obsession for both of them was a WW1 marching compass. These two obsessions served the theme, brought focus and depth to the story, and texture and specificity to the writing.
You can also use your characters’ obsessions to begin to build thematic imagery (more of this in the next exercise), by allowing your characters to resort naturally use related similes or metaphors to describe an event or another character.
Exercise 5: Theme and symbolism
Once you know your theme you can develop thematic symbolism, which will resonate with your reader even if they are not consciously aware of it. In Bog Child, Siobhan Dowd makes consistent and powerful use of religious imagery. While David Almond’s theme in Skellig is the power of hope in the face of death – the character Skellig powerfully embodies that theme, with his white feathered wings sprouting from his shrivelled decaying body. Think about your theme and note down symbolism you might use to embody it throughout your novel.
Keep your theme at the front of your mind – even when you’re not writing – by collecting images, news items, snippets of information about your protagonist’s interests, facts about your setting and so on. This will allow connections to develop automatically – an image or a news item will catch your attention because it fits with your theme, which will give you more ideas for your novel, and more ways of deepening and layering your writing.
‘Youth is wasted on the young.’ George Bernard Shaw
One of the most common pitfalls when writing for children or young adults is to create a protagonist who acts twenty years older than their age. They’re too mature, measured, morally centred and reliable, and they have too much insight and self-awareness. They don’t lie to themselves or others. They’re not extreme or changeable – and they don’t change enough. Young people are Protean, balanced between what they are and what they might become; at least half of their character is still unformed and full of volatile potential. Every first-time experience (and there are many) brings with it the potential to grow or, alternatively, to warp and scar. Those Protean years are like one long Mr Benn episode; they’re trying on various personas, and learning from each one. Youth is not wasted on the young – they need to make their mistakes in order to grow – and those mistakes, that unpredictability, their extreme reactions, are a goldmine for writers.
Try these exercises to help you to develop (or develop further) the youthful characteristics of your protagonist. All exercises are designed so that you can write something for the first time OR rewrite an existing scene from your novel-in-progress.
MAKE THEM INTO LIARS
Young protagonists are much more likely to be unreliable narrators because of their desire to fit in and their need to belong. They lie, to themselves and to others. They put on a front and hide their true feelings/nature. They pretend to like something or someone in order to be accepted and, sometimes, they will do something they are not happy about simply because others in the group are doing it.
Write a monologue for your protagonist where they are talking about another character but disguising their true feelings. Perhaps they are refusing to see that the popular group leader is always mocking and undermining them, preferring to interpret it as the teasing of a friend rather than face up to the truth. Or perhaps your protagonist is the popular one, describing the misfit with false praise and fondness when underneath they despise them. Or they could be antagonistic on the surface but underneath they envy or admire the other character.
If you have already written a scene where your protagonist is expressing their thoughts about another character, rewrite that scene turning your protagonist into a liar. Take out any honest reflection, insight or self-awareness and, instead, make them youthful – let them be, for instance, irrational, led by their emotions, and a bad judge of character. It might help to write the monologue first and then use the results to rewrite your scene.
The trick here is to put the reader into a position of greater understanding – to show the reader your protagonist’s true feelings, filtered through the ‘front’ of their denial or lack of self-awareness. This makes the reader more active and creates a greater build to the inevitable scene where your protagonist is forced to face up to the truth about the other character. Speaking of which….
PUT THEM UNDER PRESSURE
Now write a short scene where your protagonist is put into a situation – a party, for instance – where events force them to face up to the reality of their feelings about the other character or the other character’s feelings about them.
If you have already written this ‘facing up to the truth’ scene, rewrite it now that you have the earlier ‘in-denial’ scene in place. You will find that it becomes much more powerful; your protagonist must deal with their own lies and self-deception as well as the unfolding situation, and your reader will be more engaged with your protagonist and more emotionally invested in the scene.
MAKE THEM MORE EXTREME
Now either rewrite or develop that scene further, making your protagonist’s actions/reactions more extreme. Use the poor impulse control and the volatility of young people and don’t allow your protagonist to think too much or hold back. Instead, allow them to be thoughtless, emotional and irrational. Make them heedless of the consequences of their actions – force them to burn bridges. This will create a much more dramatic and energised scene and it will also have a positive effect on your plot: the greater the fall-out, the more dramatic and heightened the next stage becomes.
Keep pushing them. For example, if you’re writing that party scene, are drink, drugs or sex freely available? Is someone getting out of control and putting themselves at risk? Is it your protagonist, or is your protagonist attempting to stop them? What if the person putting themselves at risk is someone the protagonist doesn’t like? What if everyone else thinks it’s funny? Pile on the pressure and conflict and see what they do.
FINALLY, ALLOW THEM TO CHANGE
Now think about how that situation has changed your protagonist. What – if anything – have they learned? What might they do differently next time? How will this influence what they do next?
The challenge here is to create a voice for your protagonist which is so individual and distinctive that your reader will be able to identify them simply from the way they talk.
Exercise 1: Monologue and voice
Start with writing a monologue for your protagonist. Let them talk about ‘summer’ and what it means to them. Write freely in your protagonist’s voice until you have filled half a page.
Now stop and look at your protagonist’s choice of vocabulary, their use of colloquialisms and their sentence construction, bearing in mind what you know about their ethnicity, class, upbringing and level of education. Is the monologue a good fit? For instance, if they are using metaphor or simile, are they apt choices for this character? If not, adjust accordingly.
What about dialect and accent? How far do you go? Do you go all out as David Almond does here (click for link)?
An equally effective (and perhaps safer) option is to find the rhythm of the dialect and use the occasional dialect word for emphasis.
Now look again at your protagonist’s monologue, bearing in mind what you know about their character. Do their speech patterns reflect their character? For instance, if your protagonist is lacking in confidence perhaps they keep apologising, or they always qualify their opinions, or they don’t finish their sentences, or they phrase their thoughts as questions. Perhaps they have a ‘thinking time’ phrase, or perhaps they are brilliant at inventing unusual insults. Whatever – whether they are wild or calm, pragmatic or imaginative, pessimistic or optimistic – let this show in their voice.
Finally, think about your protagonist’s circumstances and their current interests or obsessions. Now rewrite the monologue once more, using the theme of ‘summer’ as a catalyst but allowing your protagonist to keep veering off into those interests/obsessions.
Your protagonist’s monologue should now have a very distinctive, individual voice.
Go on to repeat this process for another main character.
Exercise 2: Dialogue and voice
Put your protagonist and the other main character whose voice you have been working on in a dialogue scene. You can either let them talk about summer, or redraft a dialogue scene you have already written. Instantly, the dialogue is given energy and interest because you are bringing two distinct and individual voices together. Let it run where it wants to go and allow your characters to respond to one another genuinely and in the moment.
Next, create a hidden agenda for each character and a conflict of goals and begin to layer subtext into the dialogue. Dialogue is not always about communication. Perhaps one character has a secret and the other is trying to find out what it is or force them to admit it. Perhaps one does not want to face up to something the other is desperate to discuss.
If you already have a dialogue scene where there is a conflict of goals, redraft it by incorporating the following:
- Look at the shape of the dialogue on the page. Are both characters talking equally? If so, try making one character say much less than the other. Silence is also part of a conversation. Ask yourself, is the more talkative character or the less talkative character the one in a position of power? Silence can denote power or powerlessness depending on the circumstances. Perhaps they don’t feel the need to speak much, or perhaps fear or awkwardness has made them inarticulate.
- Evasion and diversionary tactics such as changing the subject, deliberately misunderstanding, refusing to listen.
- Non-sequential dialogue – in natural speech people often fail to answer questions, veer off in another direction, or respond to unspoken questions.
The trick here is to let the reader see the hidden agenda under the surface conversation about summer. This use of subtext creates tension and intrigue and it is much more interesting to read than on-the-nail dialogue where everyone says exactly what they are thinking or feeling.