Dan Smith on writing for children

Posted by Dan Smith

I didn’t always want to be a writer. What I really wanted to be was Han Solo. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be Han Solo? I couldn’t be him, of course, but that desire, along with my wonder at first seeing Star Wars in 1978 is probably what fired my imagination into overdrive and gave me my love of stories – films, comics, TV Shows, books… and it was books in particular that became an important part of my childhood – much of which was spent living abroad where there was nothing to do in the evenings other than read. And when I wasn’t abroad, I was at boarding school where books provided me with an escape from the humdrum existence of daily life. But if, for some reason, I didn’t have a book to hand, I would make up stories of my own.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started to write down my stories and harbour thoughts of becoming an author, but what cemented the idea was the inspiration I drew from Stephen King. I had read that when he received his first rejection letter, he put a nail in the wall and punched the letter onto it. As the months went by, the nail disappeared beneath countless rejections, but he kept on sending out those manuscripts. From that, I learned that becoming a published author would be a long road. It wasn’t just about being able to write, it was about perseverance – something which I now know applies to every day of a writer’s life, published or not.

I’m not sure I ever had a first break. There was no single moment when my life changed. Life rarely works that way. The movies lie. Wishing for something to happen – wanting it badly enough – will not make it happen. Hard work, talent, and perseverance will give you a better chance, but even then…well, you only have to browse your own bookshelves to see that there a many poorly written successful novels and many brilliant unsuccessful novels.

Looking back, my path to publication feels more incremental. Praise from an acquaintance in the publishing industry, winning a NWN Northern Promise Award, publishing a short story in an anthology, endless submissions, and then finally securing an agent. It was a long and slow process, I had my fair share of rejections, and I became well acquainted with the writer’s constant companion, Self-Doubt, but I remembered Stephen King’s nail on the wall.

The publication of my first novel – the adult thriller Dry Season – was exciting. Of course it was exciting. It was the beginning of something new, the promise of seeing my book in print, with my name on the cover. People would be talking about it, discussing what a marvellous novel it was, praise would be heaped upon me, I would be declared a genius, and then would come fame and fortune.

What actually happened was that it received excellent reviews, then quietly sank into obscurity and became a novel that the occasional person would discover and enjoy. But I pressed on. I kept writing.

My fourth thriller was a hard book for me. There were plotting difficulties, a deadline was looming, panic and self-doubt (him again) set in, but with the support of my super-amazing wife, I battled through. By the end of it, I was exhausted, but immediately began working on something new. Hey, I’m a writer, that’s how I roll, man. I mean, what else would I do?

The ‘something new’ became my first novel for younger readers.

My Friend The Enemy was a little unexpected for me, but when I shared the manuscript with my agent, she was keen to find a publisher for it. I had hoped that Orion would take it on, but for a variety of reasons they chose not to, and that gave me the freedom to look elsewhere. A few more rejections and a lot more perseverance (yeah, that again), and it was published by the wonderful Chicken House.

Writing for younger readers is, of course, different from writing for adults, but maybe it’s not as different as you might think. The language can’t be as complicated, sure, and I try to maintain a faster pace to the stories, but it’s essential not to patronise young readers. They’re young, not stupid. They can understand complex issues, they can cope with all kinds of themes, and their enthusiasm and excitement for stories is overwhelming. I am always nervous when I visit schools to speak to students, but always come away feeling inspired. And what could be more satisfying than a teacher telling you that your book was the one that encouraged a reluctant reader to enjoy reading? Give me a room full of twelve and thirteen year olds over a room full of stuffy grown-ups any day!

For me, being a published author is a constant internal battle. Everything is drowning in self-doubt, and it’s impossible not to cast sideways glances at other authors and wonder: Do their books sell more than mine? Are they invited to more festivals? Do they get better reviews? Are their school events better than mine? Does my publisher like them more than me? Do they have a bigger marketing campaign? Are they more successful? Behind every tweet that I post, linking to a great review, there’s an author desperately hoping that the reviewer wasn’t lying, desperately hoping that people will read the book, and desperately hoping his publisher will like the next one.

I try not to cast those sideways glances, I really do, and when those black thoughts start to weigh heavy, I remind myself that even though it can be tough, trying to chisel a story out of nothing, it is what I do. It is who I am. I wanted to be a published author, and that is what I am. I am lucky enough to call it my job, and it’s the best job in the world. I wouldn’t swap it for anything – except maybe the chance to be Han Solo…

Okay, so a little advice for people wanting to write for children. Well, I’m not usually one to give advice because what works for one person might not work for another, but here goes…

5 tips

1. Never patronise younger readers
They’ll spot it a mile away.

2. Let your imagination run wild
Younger readers are receptive to all kinds of ideas and stories, and are often far more adventurous than adults.

3. Don’t be boring.
I know this is easy to say, because what is boring to some people might be exciting to others, but if your story doesn’t engage them quickly, they’ll be bored, and that is the worst thing. I’ll say it again – Don’t. Be. Boring.

4. Imagine that you are writing your book for a reluctant reader
Imagine that yours is the first book they pick up. Give them the best story you can. You’re not just a writer, you’re an inspiration; you’re trying to encourage in them a love of reading.

5. Decide what age group you’re writing for…
…and then write the book you would have wanted to read when you were that age.


Dan Smith’s website