Sunday, 4 October 2015

Dr Barbara Henderson (Bea Davenport) Writing for Children Masterclass, Ilkley Literature Festival

'One of the greatest mistakes people can make is to start writing a book for children with absolutely no idea of what age group they are targeting' - Alexander Gordon Smith, writer of The Inventors series

Went to this Masterclass yesterday with two of my fellow CWG members.

The workshop started with every attendee introducing themselves and saying what their favourite book as a child was.  Then we had to consider why we wanted to write for children and then Barbara shared the common misconceptions of writing for children, e.g. that it is easy (simplified language), to make lots of money and to teach/moralise.  The attendees agreed one of the reasons was to let your imagination free and that we enjoy it.

Barbara then shared the age groups for writing for children so that we would have a clear idea of the group we are writing for - beginner readers and young fiction.  Starting from babies (6 months to 2 years), simple picture books (300-1,500 words), beginner readers age 5-7 (500-3,500 words), young fiction age 6-8 (up to 10,000 words), core fiction age 8-12 (30,000 words but Harry Potter went to 100,000) and teen or young adult age 12 and up (50-80,000 words).

We then started with settings as they are vital, they have to be convincing so that the world feels real.  Think of it as stage scenery and be sure you know it very, very well, e.g. the comparison between the Dursley and Weasley homes.

We then took part in a writing exercise where we had to do a setting that involved something we are scared of.  We described the setting using all of the senses, the fore and background, then we chose a 'concrete prop' in my case a tree, and give it a human characteristic.

Then we started work on characterisation, we had to write a short profile of our hero/ine as though on Facebook/twitter and describe them.

On dialogue, we discussed the functions of it and that teachers find that children often scan down to the dialogue of a book as they think that will be where something is happening.  Dialogue is best if you keep it real and Barbara recommended reading it aloud to avoid convoluted sentences and using dialect with caution, if you use it, do so sparingly and watch out for slang as it dates quickly.

Barbara mentioned that the rules on swearing are changing (since Robert Westall's book The Machine Gunners in 1975) and that dialogue can be used to reflect age.

We then did a writing exercise where we had our character explain an incident to two different people, for example a teacher and a best friend, and show how this affects the language they use/choose.

The workshop finished with hand-outs and discussion on agents/publishers.  Barbara recommended the site for searching with distinct specifications at a cost of £5.

This was an excellent workshop and I hope that we can welcome Barbara Henderson to the Cleckheaton Literature Festival in the future.

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