Anne Fine is the judge of this year's Commonwealth Class Story Writing Competition - open to children and teachers around the Commonwealth. Here she gives her top tip to writers to encourage and inspire stories for and by children!
Ten Tips: story writing for children
1. Get your bottom on a seat. Ignore the dust, forget that phone call, shut the doors between you and the mess in the children’s bedrooms. Take your tea or coffee and sit down.
2. Keep a tally of hours spent writing. Decide what’s reasonable. Triplet babies? An hour a week if you’re lucky. Retired? Three hours a day and you’ve still time to garden. Count up the writing hours and feel guilty enough to catch up fast if you fall behind.
3. Create a sense of progress. The end can seem horribly far away. So guess the final length, and make a chart with squares to blacken out for each 100 (or 1000) words. All written work is finite, after all.
4. Write for the reader inside yourself. Write the story that you yourself would most like to have read when you were the age for which you’ve chosen to write your story. You can use any combination of memory, intuition and observation. Especially observation, if you’re setting your story in the present. Look around you. A child’s life these days is likely to be light years away from your own experience.
5. Write as if no one you know is ever going to read it. Self-exposure can be hard, especially for women. (My word! She really thinks that?) Try fooling yourself by putting a false name on the front page, and decide whether or not to come clean only after you’ve finished.
6. Don’t show work in progress to your partner. Your beloved loves you, not all the books and films you adore. There’s no reason to think them a good judge of your work, and however they respond won’t be right. Give them a break. Let them be.
7. Pitching it right. Never overestimate your young reader’s knowledge but don’t underestimate their intelligence either. A child’s credibility levels aren’t sky high. They might, for example, accept the idea that the boy in your story rescues a pony and hides it for two days in the garage. But they will find it hard to believe that Dad didn’t notice it when he came in to empty the washing machine.
8. Scrolling to cut-and-paste can get you in tangles. If you’re losing track of the shape of a lengthy piece, consider printing it out into a ring binder to see it more as it will be, and using real scissors to move things around.
9. There’s no one right mood to write. Readers come in all varieties: easy-going or picky, cheerful or miserable, distracted or focussed, tired or fresh. If the words you leave on the page have survived all your changing moods, they may well have wider appeal.
10. Don’t get too confident that it’s already perfect, but don’t think you’ll never get it right. Bertrand Russell said that what you write is never as good as you hope or as bad as you fear. Take this as both warning and comfort.
Ten Tips: for children story writers
1. If you don’t start, you can’t finish. Remember how homework hangs over you till it’s finished, and after that you feel free? So just get started. Sit in front of the paper or keyboard and the words will come.
2. Keep your story hidden unless you feel like sharing. Half the world likes discussing ideas and sharing what they’re writing with others. Others prefer to keep their work secret till they’re done. Choose what works best for you, and only show others what you’re doing if you feel like it.
3. Write the story you’d most like to read. If you love fairy tales, write one. Prefer adventure stories? Scary stories? Tales about pirates? Then write one of those. If it’s the sort of story you like to read, you’re more likely to do a good job.
4. Start with a hook. Draw your reader in with something intriguing. ‘It was a lovely day’ won’t grab our attention nearly as quickly as, ‘It rained all morning on the day Jonty finally escaped.’ Who – or what - is Jonty? Where’s he escaped from? And after how long? We have to read on to find out.
5. Feelings can be a lot more interesting than actions. It’s fine for cartoons to just show one thing after another happening in front of our eyes. Written stories don’t work that way. We need to know what the characters are thinking and feeling. So keep us up to date on that.
6. Keep it simple. Writing is a little like juggling. Throw in too many things and you’ll not be able to keep everything going to the end. Decide what’s most important in the story and stick to that.
7. Don’t write about twins. “I’ll write about a boy. No, a girl! Oh, I can’t choose. How about one of each? Yes, twins!” But that won’t work. We need to know how each of the pair is responding, so (unless they’re clones) you’ll simply slow your story up.
8. Don’t overcook your writing. Don’t feel you have to add interesting adverbs and adjectives to every verb and noun. A varied vocabulary is one thing. Drowning your story in unnecessary words is another. ‘She grabbed’ does the job better and more simply than ‘she quickly grabbed’, and ‘his cold, wet, icy, frozen hand’ is overdoing it horribly. ‘His icy hand’ was all you needed to write.
9. It looks good, but is it? Don’t spend ages choosing fancy fonts and downloading designs for the title page. It’s the words that matter. And handwritten stories can still win competitions, so long as they’re neat enough to read.
10. It’s hard not to rush the end. After you’ve finished, take a good long break before reading it through again. Have you forgotten any characters, or failed to wrap up any plot points? Sort out all your fraying edges, and rewrite the bits where you raced too fast to the finish. At last you can press Copy, Print or Send. Good Luck!
The Commonwealth Class Story Writing Competition is open to teachers and students aged 7 to 14 from Commonwealth countries. The deadline for story submissions is 9:00 AM on Monday 14 November 2016.