The Curtis Brown Creative Online Writing for Children Course begins in a few weeks time – and applications for the course close on Wednesday 22 July. Anyone penning fiction for children and young adults is invited to submit 3,000 words of their work-in-progress and a one-page synopsis, though only the 15 strongest candidates will be offered a place. But what can those lucky enough to secure a spot expect from the course? In a piece from 2013, renowned children’s author and former CBC tutor Tony Bradman explains:
First things first. Aren’t children’s books just a more simplistic version of adult fiction?
No! It’s actually the other way around – I think children’s books are the more complex. In children’s writing, you have to pack in plot, character and theme into smaller spaces (perhaps sometimes in slightly simpler language to take into account the skills and experience of the audience you’re aiming at), but any good piece of fiction, whoever it’s aimed at, is a complex and difficult thing to bring off. This is serious, professional stuff at a very high level, and that’s the way we treat it on the Writing for Children course.
How do children’s books differ from their adult counterparts?
These days you can write about anything for children. The kind of books that have been published in the last 10-15 years show there are no boundaries and you can cover very difficult subjects. The way you tackle them, though, is the important thing. Obviously, all of us children’s writers have to bear in mind that our particular audience might not have quite such a deep level of understanding of some things, so you have to be careful about the emotional impact. I personally believe children’s writing is the most important area in fiction. Because unless you can create an audience for books and stories when they’re young, there aren’t going to be any people to read those adult novels, however good they might be.
Our previous Writing for Children course ran for six weeks; this one lasts for three months. What benefits does the longer time period bring?
I think it’s important to spend time working on every aspect of the craft of writing. Six weeks is fine; but the more time you’ve got, the deeper you can go. Understanding things such as what character or structure means to a story is very complex. I’ve been studying both for most of my working life and I think I’m still learning about them, and I’ve picked up things teaching on Curtis Brown Creative courses that I didn’t know before. It also means, for me, there’s more time to explore students’ work, see what they’re doing right and help them make that even better.
You’re the host tutor on the Writing for Children course. What can students expect from your teaching sessions?
The weekly teaching sessions involve taking a look at all the basic elements of writing fiction – character, structure, plot, etc – and really examining them in detail. What I try to do is to get the students to think about what they’re doing in a really practical way – the things they don’t think about when they sit down to write children’s fiction. Creating a wonderful story involves an incredible amount of pure mechanics and technique, and that’s what we explore. It’s a very pragmatic approach to children’s writing.
Each student will also get two one-to-one sessions with you. What will they gain from those?
They can expect a really straightforward, honest appraisal of their work. I always look for the good things; I find what they’re doing right and help them discover what it is they really want to do, and make the most of their talent. Often, when people start out as writers, they don’t know what talents they’ve got. Are they good at character? Structure? What kind of themes do they want to explore? You can spend 20 years trying to find that stuff out. A really good teacher will help you, talk to you, look at your work and say, ‘Actually, this is the area you’re good at. Why don’t you build on that?’
Do you help with the emotional side to writing, too?
Yes. My emphasis is absolutely on focus. One of the first things I always tell students is ‘Don’t think about money, don’t think about huge advances, don’t think about winning prizes. Think about the work, think about making the best of the talents you’ve got and creating the best work you can – and look at it honestly.’ That’s the key. The other side of that – the negative side – is that many people struggle with confidence to begin with. They write something and think ‘this is just no good; it’s not as good as the big names and the people that win prizes’. But, actually, if you were able to see first drafts by the big names and the people who win prizes, you’d see they have a long way to go as well. It’s a process; a craft.
You have a bit of a reputation as a talent-spotter, don’t you?
In another life I’d quite like to have been a full-time editor and I did think about being an agent for a while because I think I’ve a very good eye for spotting writing talent. It’s obvious when you see it sometimes. You read something and you think ‘yep, that’s really good, it’s got a voice, there’s something about it’. I don’t have any jealousies or feel resentful about people being far more successful than me!
Once in a while, I come across someone who really impresses me, and I try to give them any help I can. The best-known example of this was Siobhan Dowd. She hadn’t published anything before I got in touch with her about an anthology she’d edited, and she said she’d love to have a go at writing. Her story came in and it was so good I sent to my agent. And she became one of the major voices of the past 10 years. Her books have won every prize going. I think the job for anyone teaching or coaching – and that goes for agents and editors as well – is to help people develop their talent.
As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.