Subverting the obvious from Tuscany to the bathroom: Writing for children with Linda Strachan – 20 January 2021

To do justice to the wealth of advice and ideas Linda Strachan shared with the assembled Zoom Squares on Wednesday evening it would simply require a transcript. Alternately, you could buy her 2019 title Guide to Writing for Children and YA (Go on, I’m sure you got some book tokens for Christmas). The pearls and insights just kept on coming, accumulating like the snow that must have been falling outside her Tuscan writing den. In the confines of a mere blog however, the highlights, the essence and anything I can decipher from my hastily scribbled notes will have to suffice.

It must have been encouraging for Linda to see so many hands raised and waving when she asked, “how many of you write for children?” But those thinking this was going to be a narrow exploration of a single genre were swiftly disabused. From picture books to series fiction for reluctant readers; from illustrated stories of Greyfriars Bobby, Hamish McHaggis and the Singing Beetles to gritty realistic YA crime; from factual fiction to the variety of Americanised middle-graders, Linda demonstrated that the possibilities were endless. We learned that:

  • With picture books focussing on a dozen double-page spreads into which your story must fit, sheets of A4 will now be spread out across living room floors across Ayrshire
  • Emotional tags, positive outcomes and motivation built on hope will characterise these and other short fictions
  • Insights into lives and relationships – at the “clean” end or the “older” end – will furnish plots for teenage / YA
  • Those with a special expertise or experience will be exploring opportunities offered by non-fiction – or even factual fiction
  • Copies of catalogues and brochures from educational publishers will be prompting ideas and requests for commissions

Amidst all that and more, I highlighted so many snappy one-liners that my notes are a technicolour explosion. In no particular order:

  • Read, read, read – and then read as a writer
  • Rhyme is really difficult to do well – but rhythm is important
  • Kick the adults out and let the kids tell the story and find the treasure – but safely nowadays
  • Children want to see themselves in the story
  • If you’re stuck – subvert the obvious and take things in a different direction
  • Beginnings must grab, set the scene and create an atmosphere – go back and re-write it at the end once you have a better feel for the story
  • Imagine you are watching a film – then write the scene you see
  • Make up a picture scrapbook of ideas to reflect some of the scenes and characters that will be central to your story

And we even had time to do some writing.

  • We took an everyday walk with our little sister – then did something quirky or unusual to make it different – discovering how many variations there can be involving dogs and cars
  • We swapped genders and changed ages to get into the minds of characters –telling us things we didn’t know or appreciate – making us sad at the thought of little boys who didn’t understand birthdays or who might be afraid of clowns at the party
  • We wrote simple five-line blurbs – naming our lead, giving them a characteristic and asking a question about their future or fate – from Robbie meeting Sandra in her dressing gown to TV-obssessed John becoming a pixelated spy in the screen

By which time, we’d run out of time.

An endorsement on her book Guide to writing … declares that Linda “nails it on the page – and is a master at explaining how.” After a couple of hours in her virtual company nobody could disagree. With all that inspiration and information, and the way in which so many of us joined in then shared Linda’s exercises, the evening epitomised why I joined Ayr Writers’ Club – and I don’t even write for children – but I might try now.

Finally, have you been waiting to find out the importance of the bathroom? If you can’t find anywhere else to be alone, get in there and read your material out loud, over and over again. And as for that corner of East Lothian that is forever Tuscany, you’ll have to visit Linda’s website to find out (no quarantine required).

Nigel Ward

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