- Think outside the box
It is so important to be original and fresh in your ideas. Agents, publishers, editors and readers need to see something new; something eye-catching and refreshing. And if you are publishing independently, having an ‘edge’ to your creation could make the difference between your book being lost in the multitude or being the one that people are tweeting about.
A brilliant example of this originality is Super Happy Magic Forest series by Matty Long (published by OUP, 2015). The book tells the story of five unlikely heroes (a unicorn, a gnome, a faun, a fairy and a mushroom – yes, a mushroom) who go on an epic quest to save their lovely forest. The book works on different levels, so while younger children enjoy the tale of the quest, there are plenty of humorous asides and references to amuse older children and adults.
2. Blend ideas together
Sometimes ideas become stronger when they are merged. It’s easier to do this at the beginning of the creative process rather than after you start writing, so examine your ideas before you begin.
Say, for example, you had an idea for a young fiction chapter book about a pet talent show that’s won by an unlikely down-on-their-luck hero and their pet. This could be written as a contemporary, real-life story with a young child as the hero. But have a look through your Notebook Of Magnificent Ideas. Perhaps you’d also like to write a story about a well-meaning but disastrous fairy who causes mayhem in Fairyland. Could the two ideas go together? ‘Fairy pets’ offers a whole new dimension to the idea. What might fairy pets look like? How would they behave? What abilities would they have?
One caution with this approach: take care that your ideas aren’t shouting each other down. If you find the plot is getting difficult to manage because your two ideas try to take you in different directions, then merging probably isn’t working. But if the two ideas complement each other, enhance the story and take it to another level, you’re in business.
3. Finish what you start
Hands up if you’ve got notebooks full of brilliant ideas? Or ten different stories started and at various stages, lingering half-forgotten on your laptop? Most of us are guilty of this. It’s very easy to be inspired and excited by a new title: filling notebooks, dreaming up characters, even writing a few chapters. However, after a while, it’s quite common for a story to peter out.
Why? To successfully get over this barrier, you need to understand why your plot has ground to a halt and your characters are floating in Limbo Land. Here are some suggestions:
- Do you feel excited about your story? Are you motivated enough to commit the time and energy to writing your book? Is the scenario interesting enough? If not, how can you address this? Change the setting? Strengthen the underlying concept? If nothing springs to mind, is it perhaps time to put it to one side?
- Is the main character a problem? Is the character original or does he/she/it feel a little uninspiring? Are the internal and external conflicts strong enough to carry the story? If not, can you think again about what the character’s ‘problem’ is? How could this become more original? Do you know your character well enough?
- Is the plot heading in a difficult direction? Can you backtrack in your writing and find a place where a character made a decision which has lead you to this tricky place? Could you rewrite and create a version where different decisions are made and see where it takes you? (You can always save your current version so you have different drafts to work from. It sounds laborious but could make the difference between a story that is successful and a story that stays on your laptop). Could you try writing a more detailed plot outline to help guide your story?
- Is the pace wrong? Would a faster pace keep your interest? Could you try writing a very rough draft quickly and then going back and adding more imaginative detail as a second draft?
Keeping up momentum also helps you to finish what you start. Of course, sometimes there are external reasons in life which mean we cannot write as often as we would like to. Demands on your time can make it seem impossible to find time to write. Can you find a way that works for you? Perhaps arranging childcare, giving up television viewing for a couple of months, minimising social media time or getting up an hour earlier to write?
4. Utilise Thinking Time
Even if Writing Time seems impossible and you’re pushed for time, you can get into the habit of having Thinking Time – a time to ponder on your story and how it might move forward, ready for when you do have more time.
The advantage of Thinking Time is that you can do it anywhere – on the train, when you’re washing up, walking the dog, and so on. A change of scene can help stimulate the brain, so rather than sitting in front of a laptop, banging your head against the screen, go for a walk and ponder over your story. Not only does exercise make you feel better if you’re feeling frustrated with your writing, but the extra oxygen pumping around your body can boost your brainpower and help overcome stumbling blocks.
If you’re feeling creatively exhausted or you’re struggling to concentrate, use the Thinking Time to focus on what you want from writing. Where do you want to be with it this time next year? What are your short-term and long-term goals? What do you need to achieve them? How do you want to grow as a writer? What books are in your head and need to come out?
All those precious, snatched minutes can really add up. And the more you train your brain to focus on Thinking Time, the quicker you’ll be able to ‘jump’ into it when you have a few spare minutes.
5. Try new things
Finally, if you feel that you’re not getting anywhere with the work you’re doing, try heading in a new direction. When your work is feeling a little lifeless, could you try adding another dimension to it? This might be including an element of comedy in the form of a sub-plot or a character who enters the story. Or perhaps changing the format of the story.
Challenging yourself can help develop your writing skills and enable you to discover new interests and talents. If you always write middle-grade stories, why not step out of your comfort zone and try writing a picture book for a change? If you always write picture books, have a go at young fiction chapter books for the next age group up. Having more than one stream to your writing can increase your productivity, your readership and your income.
There are many children’s authors who successfully write for different age ranges. Julia Donaldson, for example, is well-known for her rhyming picture books like The Gruffalo (Macmillan), but she has also written several young fiction books, such as her Princess Mirror-Belle series (Macmillan), a middle-grade book called The Giants and the Joneses (Egmont) and a young adult novel called Running on the Cracks (Egmont).
You could keep within the same genre as your usual writing if you prefer. So, if you write fantasy novels for 8+, you could try creating a fantastical picture book idea. Or if you like writing picture books about animals, try developing an animal-based idea for a chapter book. When you make the switch from one age group to another, bear in mind that the vocabulary and attention span of your readers will change. Read as many books as possible for your intended age group for direction on these areas and inspiration for topics.
Enjoy exploring these ways to grow as a children’s author. By implementing the ideas here, you should become a stronger and more creative writer. Have fun and see where it leads you!