Jacqueline Wilson’s guide to getting started writing children’s books
Having written 112 books for children over the last 60 years, Jacqueline Wilson provides her best advice and tips for aspiring children’s authors on where to get started.
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Children may have a world of technology at their feet nowadays and they countless ways to find entertainment online – but they are still reading. In fact, they are using many technological resources to do so. Research by the Publisher’s Association found that sales of digital children’s books in the UK rose by 50% in 2020 and a survey of 58,346 children undertaken by the National Literacy Trust found that more than a quarter of children and young people said they were enjoying reading more because of lockdown.
So, if you have always wanted to write for children, now is as good a time as any to start – and Jacqueline Wilson would agree. Although she wrote her first book at the age of nine in 1954, she has now written 112 novels for children and her most recent novel, The Runaway Girls, was released only last month. “I cannot imagine not having a book in my mind all the time,” Jacqueline says. “It would feel so peculiar and empty.”
Jacqueline has sold over 40 million books in the UK and her most well-known novel, The Story of Tracy Beaker, has inspired three spin-off series on CBBC since its publication 30 years ago.
It’s safe to say, then, that Jacqueline Wilson knows a thing or two about writing children’s books and she has some advice for aspiring children’s authors – from how to structure a novel to how to get a publisher, to dealing with complex issues in a way that is accessible to children. Here, she give Stylist’s Curiosity Academy the inside track on getting going.
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ALWAYS HAVE NEW STORY IDEAS IN YOUR HEAD
Jacqueline explains that she mostly comes up with ideas when she is in the middle of daily tasks and errands, “When you’re trudging around the supermarket, or walking the dog or going to Boots to buy make-up, in your head, before you start writing the story, think about your characters and what might happen,” she advises.
If Jacqueline comes up with an idea she likes, she writes a few sentences about it and if it stays with her, she’ll write a few pages of notes about it, “And then by the time I’ve finished the book that I’m actually working on, the idea will have kind of gelled and I will be ready to write it.”
DEVELOP SUSTAINABLE WRITING HABITS THAT WORK FOR YOU
Procrastination is something many writers struggle with and even if you have an idea that you’re excited about, putting pen to paper can be daunting. Jacqueline advises that you set a date when you are going to start writing about the idea you currently have so you don’t put it off.
Jacqueline spends just an hour each day writing, usually in the morning before 9am. “It’s surprising what you can fit into that time,” she says.
Jacqueline is able to be productive during the limited time she spends writing by rarely reading back on what she’s written, something she advises all writers against when it comes to long form writing, explaining that, “You’ll lose confidence in it and then it doesn’t make you want to carry on.”
ENSURE YOU ARE ABLE TO EMPATHISE WITH CHILDREN
Many writers begin to write for children after they themselves have had a child but Jacqueline explains that she never wrote books that would appeal specifically to her daughter, Emma, because she enjoyed different kinds of stories to the ones Jacqueline wrote. “I think it can be a bit difficult if you feel like you’re trying to write for your own children and their tastes because it might be a very sort of idiosyncratic taste and not really suitable for lots of children,” she says.
“I don’t write down to children,” Jacqueline adds. “Imagine that you’re talking directly to a child that you’re fond of.”
Jacqueline advises against scolding young people. Children’s books do need to encourage positive values but you can be subtle about it by adopting a “show don’t tell” approach. “Nobody likes to be lectured to,” Jacqueline says.
UNDERSTAND THE GENERATION OF CHILDREN WHO YOU ARE WRITING FOR
Jacqueline explains that she almost always writes in the first person and the age of the child she is writing from the perspective of is usually the age of the child she is imagining will be reading the book.
Be wary of writing the exact same kind of children books you read when you were younger, advises Jacqueline, as times have changed and so has the children’s publishing landscape.
“I do think it’s good to be around children if you want to write for children,” Jacqueline says, explaining that she often asks children questions like what are they doing to celebrate their birthday and is always listening in on their conversations. “Fashions change,” she says, “So [speaking to children] is a kind of effortless way of keeping up with current trends.”
Jacqueline suggests that if you want to write children’s fiction, you should also read some children’s books that are popular right now. She cites Katherine Rundell as a contemporary children’s author she finds inspiring.
BE AWARE OF THE CHILDREN’S FICTION MARKET WHEN APPEALING TO PUBLISHERS
The other people you need to appeal to, in order to get your book out there, are publishers. Jacqueline’s biggest piece of advice for getting published is looking at what ideas and themes are currently trending in children’s books. “If you write for a particular series or you discover that a publisher likes a certain type of book, then to show that you know what you’re doing, don’t copy another book, but write something that would fit into that series.”
Jacqueline explains that when she was starting out, she saw a gap in the children’s books market for characters that represented the real experiences of contemporary children, “I was brought up on a council estate – we had very little money,” she says. “There weren’t very many books about working class children at that stage.”
She did find a particular series about urban children though, and she used the books featured in it for inspiration, “I took several of the books home, I worked out how many words there were to a page and I did my best to fit in with what was obviously a template for the way they wanted the books to be done.”
DEVELOP A CLEAR PLOT STRUCTURE THAT WILL APPEAL TO CHILDREN
Children’s books require a totally different structure to novels aimed at adults and one difference Jacqueline points out is that, “You’ve got to start the story straight away and grab children’s attention.”
“Have a first page that if a child just idly picks the book up in school or in a bookshop and just glances at that page, have something that’s interesting and intriguing and that will lead them on,” she continues. “Children are used to, if they’re watching television and they find a programme boring, they just switch to a different channel.”
Jacqueline explains that most of her novels follow a child who is facing an issue that they end up resolving. But she doesn’t always advocate for traditional happy endings in children’s books.
“I don’t want my stories to be like fairy tales with everything working wonderfully at the end,” Jacqueline says. “But the magic of being a writer is that you can engineer satisfactory endings whereas in real life, you can’t. I feel I’m giving children hope […] it is quite important not to let any young person feel that life is full of gloom and despair because it’s just too much at a certain age.”
REALLY GET TO KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS AND THE WAYS THEY THINK
“My novels are very much character-led,” Jacqueline says. “I’m just interested in what makes children tick.”
She explains that it’s important to create characters who you are genuinely interested and invested in. This is why Jacqueline rarely makes boys the central characters of her books. She says that she has a better understanding of young girls and is, therefore, able to empathise with them more.
If you are struggling to create convincing characters, Jacqueline suggests asking yourself questions about the character you are trying to construct that go past basic personality traits, like:
- Do they have lots of friends?
- What sorts of things do they like doing?
- What would happen if a barking dog came up to them barking? Would they love it and pet it or would they run a mile?
“Asking yourself these sorts of questions makes the characters suddenly become much more real,” she says.
EMPATHY IS KEY IN ORDER TO WRITE ABOUT DIFFICULT TOPICS FOR CHILDREN
Jacqueline’s children’s books have spanned topics including grief, divorce, abuse and poverty. She explains that she thinks it’s important to cover these topics because many young people have to deal with these issues in their own life.
“I haven’t experienced all the things that the children in my books have experienced, otherwise, I think I’d be a nervous wreck!” Jacqueline says. “But I’ve always had a good imagination and I’ve always been quite good at putting myself in another person’s shoes.”
Empathy is key to the process of writing fiction for children, she explains, “Although nothing terribly bad or dramatic happened in my own childhood, it wasn’t a desperately happy one because my parents really disliked each other and yet, didn’t really have the means or money to get a divorce so it was quite a tempestuous upbringing and I had an inkling of what it must be like to be in certain circumstances.”
Jacqueline explains that she draws on her own experiences of difficult times and periods of loneliness and imagines how she would cope in order to depict these experiences. Drawing on emotions that almost everyone has experienced, in this way, makes these difficult issues accessible to children.
WORK TOWARDS A SPECIFIC WORD COUNT BUT DON’T FEEL TRAPPED BY IT
Jacqueline explains that she tends to aim for around 60,000 words when writing children’s books but they almost always end up being longer. “I think length, if you’re lucky, will be decided by the sort of story you’re writing and the kind of age group you have in mind.”
The younger the reader, the shorter the book is the general rule for children’s fiction but this isn’t completely prescriptive as Jacqueline says books she intends for very young readers are often read by teenagers and vice versa.
Jacqueline writes, on average, 2 books a year and generally spends 6 months writing each one. “While I’m writing one book, I will be thinking about the one that’s going to come next,” she says. “Surprisingly, so far, I haven’t got muddled up! And so as soon as I finish one book, I am ready after a week or two break to start the next one.”
WRITE FOR THE CHILD WITHIN YOU
Jacqueline has been passionate about children’s fiction all her life, which has allowed her to develop an authentic voice and a distinctive place within the children’s fiction market. On finding your own voice as an author, she advises, “I don’t think you should try for a certain voice. I think it just comes out. It’s part of your personality and the way you communicate.”
“I think most children’s writers write for the child within them,” Jacqueline says. “They write the sort of books that they would have liked when they were young.”
“When I write the first draft of the book, I am writing it straight from the heart,” Jacqueline continues, explaining that it’s mainly during the editing process that she makes sure that the book will appeal to her readers, removing long passages of description and making sure it is suited to a modern reader.
DEVELOP A POSITIVE RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR ILLUSTRATOR
Illustrations are a vitally important part of children’s books and Jacqueline has worked with the same illustrator, Nick Sharratt, for 30 years. “It’s the first thing you do,” Jacqueline says, “you look at the cover of the book.”
Jacqueline explains that it’s important to develop a good relationship with your illustrator so they can really understand the way in which you think without you having to provide too much direction.
She says you should be willing to compromise in order to develop this positive relationship, “I’m very happy to accommodate illustrators because, for me in my text, it’s very easy for me to just change a sentence or a description of an outfit but they’d have to spend a whole day drawing it and getting it right.”
4 KEY LESSONS TO TAKE AWAY FROM JACQUELINE’S ADVICE
There is so much to learn when it comes to writing children’s fiction but the lessons at the heart of Jacqueline’s advice can be easily applied by anyone, whatever your experience is with writing children’s fiction:
- Don’t burn yourself out by writing too often
- Spend time with children to understand them better
- Have an awareness of the children’s fiction market
- Be true to yourself in your writing
Jacqueline Wilson, children’s author
Jacqueline Wilson is the author of 112 children’s books including The Story of Tracy Beaker and Hetty Feather. She has won a number of awards for her writing including the Smarties Prize, Guardian Children’s Fiction Award and the Whitbread’s Children’s Book Award and she is one of the most beloved children’s authors in the UK.