Happy ever after: How to write a bestseller for children

Happy ever after: How to write a bestseller for children

With the success of the Harry Potter series and David Walliams’s books, you might think writing for kids is easy. Think again, says Áilín Quinlan.

SO YOU want to be a children’s writer? The hype surrounding David Walliams — that he’s the biggest-selling author of 2017, has overtaken JK Rowling herself, and notched up sales of over £16m (€18.2m) from his children’s books — is enough to make anyone want to put pen to paper.

Walliams, a TV presenter, not only outsold top children’s authors such as Julia Donaldson and Philip Pullman, but also beat thriller writers James Patterson and Dan Brown, and TV chefs Jamie Oliver and Mary Berry to the top spot.

Although he only published his first book for children a mere decade ago, Walliams has become the poster boy for wannabe children’s authors.

David Walliams
David Walliams

But don’t assume that children’s books are easier or faster to write than books for adults — or that you can expect to chuck in the day job straightaway.

“I think some people go into children’s writing because they mistakenly believe it’s easier than writing for adults. But you have to give it your all. A lot of children’s books are masterpieces,” says the best-selling children’s writer Eoin Colfer, who is internationally recognised for his Artemis Fowl series.

“Children’s literature is not a stepping-stone to adult literature — you won’t dash a book out in six weeks.”

And, although Ireland punches well above its weight as regards public interest in children’s literature, he warns, it is still a relatively small children’s books market in international terms.

Most children’s writers, says the Wexford-born author and former primary school teacher, hold down another job to make ends meet — at least until they make it into the big-time.

“For years I worked as a teacher as well and I kept the two going for a long time,” says Colfer.

“It wasn’t until Artemis Fowl came along that I could quit teaching.

“Nearly every writer I know has something else going.”

He’s ‘cautiously excited’ about the movie version of Artemis Fowl, directed by Kenneth Branagh. Filming is due to begin next month on the project, which is predicted to be the flagship summer movie for 2019.

“Much of it will be shot outside London and I’m hoping that they will do exterior shots in Ireland,” says Colfer.

Eoin Colfer
Eoin Colfer

His books are very popular but children’s writer Gerard Siggins still works as a journalist.

“Realistically, you have to keep working until you get to the level of someone like Eoin Colfer and be able to concentrate full-time on writing,” says the author of the Rugby Spirit series — Rugby Roar is Ireland’s 2018 World Book Day novel.

“I sell in Ireland and in the UK — the Irish market is small on its own”

The good news is that the Irish children’s books sector is in a very healthy state.

“The children’s books industry is in a very healthy position — back in the 1990s when we started publishing children’s books, people said we were mad,” says Ivan O’Brien, managing director of O’Brien Press.

“They said there were enough children’s books in the market, and that they came from England.”

However, O’Brien instinctively felt that there was a big gap for books by Irish authors about Irish people and Ireland — and he set about filling it.

His instincts proved well-founded — among the books first published by O’Brien Press, in 1990, was Marita Conlon-McKenna’s Under the Hawthorn Tree. It became an international success and was published in 15 languages.

“Children’s books are now bigger than general fiction,” he says.

“They’re the second-biggest element in the bookshop — and that’s because they’re really valued by people.”

O’Brien points to last year’s Nielsen ratings, which showed that books for children and young adults accounted for 30% of all books sold here last year, compared to about 25% five years ago.

“The children’s book industry is in an energetic state and a lot of amazing books are being produced,” he says, adding that last year customers spent over €26m on children’s books (excluding schoolbooks) in bookshops, up from around €20m in 2012 and 2013.

Among the first things O’Brien looks for in a new manuscript are “a damn good story” and “strong believable characters”.

Poolbeg publisher Paula Campbell says she always looks for a “good engaging writing style which is accessible to children while at the same time challenging”, as well as a “page-turning plot with lots of activity”.

Another note of reassurance for the budding children’s writer is that publishers have generally become more confident about investing in children’s literature as a result of the massive success of the Harry Potter series, according to Brian McManus, children literature scholar at Trinity College Dublin.

“I also think it had an effect on authors because writing a children’s book was, for many years, seen as something quaint and niche, and not something that would bring worldwide recognition or huge financial benefits that JK Rowling has earned.

“After that, it was seen as a viable enterprise and something that talented people could make a career out of,” he says, adding that becoming a successful children’s writer is also “about luck and convincing someone to take a chance on you”.

12 tips for budding authors

1. Research your market, advises Paula Campbell of Poolbeg Press. Decide what area you are comfortable writing in — humour, historical fiction, or fantasy? Once you have decided on your genre, read lots of it, to see what other people are doing, she suggests.

2. Try to get off the beaten track and find something different to write about, advises writer Eoin Colfer. “David Bowie once said that if you treat creativity like going for a swim, you should always be slightly out of your depth and a little scared and excited.”

3. Write at the child’s level and treat them with respect — don’t talk down to them, says Ivan O’Brien, MD of O’Brien Press.

4. Books that are successful make a conscious effort to identify with children’s lives as they are — it’s about engaging with the children, identifying with the child and their lives, says children’s literature scholar Brian McMahon.

5. Create strong, believable characters a child can relate to, says O’Brien. Children often love the darker elements of life such as the distortion of traditional adult/child power dynamics that is found in the work of writers like Jacqueline Wilson and Roald Dahl, says Brian McMahon.

6. Humour is good: “Kids love humour — David Walliams is very good at this,” says O’Brien.

7. Write your book from beginning to end and don’t worry about getting everything perfect in the first draft, explains O’Brien. 

“Write the whole story because you need to know where it’s going, what will happen to the characters, and why the reader will care.”

Once you have completed the first draft, go back and start to tweak and perfect it.

8. Join a writers’ group to get genuine feedback on your manuscript before submitting it to the publisher, suggests Poolbeg publisher Paula Campbell.

9. Research publishing companies to find those most suited to the kind of manuscript you’re submitting.

10. Before submitting your manuscript read the advice on publisher’s website on the required format.

11. Have patience. It may take six months or more to get a response to a manuscript. If you haven’t heard anything after a few months there’s no harm checking in by email, says Campbell.

12. Last but not least, don’t be embarrassed to have a good business head on your shoulders once you are offered a contract, says Colfer.

“It’s a good idea to have a bit of a business head in terms of contracts and appearances.”

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