What sort of writer do you want to be?

The viva voce for my MA in Creative Writing was on Monday. I have passed ( thanks to superb tuition from Greg Mosse) – and I am immediately wondering which subset in the Venn diagram of authors I should inhabit.

I’ve been asked to consider writing for adults. Straight off I flinch at that. I will admit to an entire Harry Ramsden’s on my shoulder about the status of children’s writers. It is compounded of my experience as a teacher that your rank is in direct proportion to the age of the children taught; the same impulse that made the ‘Children’s Writing IS a proper job’ badge sell out so quickly in November 2010, and Martin Amis’s remarks in February about brain injury and writing for children. The subtext is that writing for adults is somehow better, cleverer, more valuable.

Well, I’m with John Dougherty:

Don’t worry Martin. We can’t all be imaginative and versatile.

One of the things I admire most about the literature published for young people is the sheer range and breadth of ideas. Big ideas, written for people who will not be blinded by the effulgent beauty of your prose nor give one microfortnight of attention to reviews by your literary chums.

It is notable that David Almond (a literary hero to me) found a sense of liberation in writing for the young. I am put in mind of this concept:

Australian Aborigines say that the big stories—the stories worth telling and retelling, the ones in which you may find the meaning of your life—are forever stalking the right teller, sniffing and tracking like predators hunting their prey in the bush.

Robert Moss, Dreamgates 

Quite simply, I believe young people are more likely to be receptive to the stories following me about and asking to be told than adults. And I bother to write because of my belief in those same young people, and what stories are for.

 Every word written, every sentence, every story, no matter how dark the story itself might seem, is an act of optimism and hope, a stay against the forces of destruction.

David Almond, Hans Christian Anderson Award acceptance speech

Now before I get all too Messianic, I’d also like to point out that despite all the moaning of the pessimists, the children’s book market is thriving. According the ‘The Bookseller’ in 2001 it was worth £193 million – and in 2010 £325 million. Christopher Paolini’s ‘Inheritance’ sold more than 76,000 copies in UK in first week of publication this November.
Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ (Man Booker winner) ? 14,600.
Children’s books often demonstrate the effectiveness of long tail marketing: they carry on being bought long after the brass bands and banners have left town.
It’s possible for me and my colleagues to do well.
When I decided to get serious about writing, I read Alison Baverstock’s unsettling but finally very useful ‘Is there a Book in You?’. She made it quite clear how important a support system is for any writer. My best scaffolding comes from SCBWI – I know I can contact wonderful people who will talk me down off the parapet, sort out my formatting issues or just plain be there. The conference in Winchester is a highlight of my year.
What other sort of writer could I possibly want to be?
Then come the next questions: YA or middle grade? Fantasy or thriller? Ghost stories or sea stories?
 to be continued….

8 thoughts on “What sort of writer do you want to be?

  1. Such a good post Philippa. I don’t think I ever thought about any other kind of writer, than a children’s writer. I think you either have the ability to tell stories that children will both love and connect with, or you don’t. Personally I would LOVE to see Martin Amis, or any of the crowd who seem to think that writing for children is something you only do if you are incapable of writing for adults, write a successful book for children. Can’t see it happening somehow, can you? You’re right Philippa – children don’t go for pretentiousness, and they don’t give a monkey’s tutu about how many long words you can string together, they like stories, and that is something that for some reason is often lacking in adult fiction. Long reign children’s books, and long reign the ability of children’s writers to weave a cracking story.

      • Do you need to worry now about the middle grade vs YA thing? Write the story and see what it tells you about who it’s for… And thanks for a great piece: I love that David Almond quote about the stories as a stay against the forces of destruction, an act of hope and optimism. There’s a phrase of Yeats that rings in my head all the time, from his poem A prayer for my daughter: RADICAL INNOCENCE. I think of it a lot in terms of what the best children’s fiction is and can achieve. Not of course innocent in the sense of avoiding what’s difficult or dangerous or of being hidden from the harshness of life. But there’s something there about coming back to the roots of life: about telling the big stories boldly and clearly, not shying away from notions of love, loyalty, heroism, even good and bad, in the way that so much adult fiction does, wiith its ironic cleverness and knowingness. And about holding on to the explosive belief that we might be able to make things better….. Feeling the scope for this sort of exploration and optimism, was what drew me to children’s fiction too.

        • Beautifully said, Tracey. As for the story, it’s not playing fair -or I’m not . It came out an ineffective hybrid. So I am trying it in two versions (well, the first 4k) to see which works best. Thanks for the comment, Philippa.

      • Which one comes to you easiest? Do you feel it leans stronger one way or the other? I tried writing middle grade for ages but the writing always leaned much older! Never as old as adult obviously – I’m nowhere near intelligent to write all that ;o)

  2. Pingback: The cave you fear… | K.M.Lockwood

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