WRITING CHILDREN'S FICTION: interview with Yvonne Coppard and Linda Newbery - Dennis Hamley

Writing Children’s Fiction  by Yvonne Coppard and Linda Newbery  (Bloomsbury)
ISBN 978 1 408 15687 2
Yvonne Coppard and Linda Newbery interviewed by Dennis Hamley

When, a few month ago, I was asked to interview Yvonne and Linda for Armadillo, the on-line children's book magazine,  about their new book I was both pleased and slightly daunted. Yvonne and  Linda (herself once an AE blogger) are authors of high achievement and real quality - and also very different.  I knew there would be so much in this book and in the space of an 1800 word interview we were only going to scratch the surface. 

However, just three days ago, on Wednesday September 11, Julia Jones wrote a superb review of Writing Children's Fiction on Eclectic Electric and, if you haven't yet seen the book itself but want a good taster before tackling this interview, you can't do better than to turn back to it.

Don't go to Writing Children's Fiction thinking it's a 'How-to' book - although anyone who thinks hard about what it says will be a better writer because of it.  Rather, it's a distillation of the experience of two superb practitioners. In the first chapter, Yvonne introduces a profound quotation from Einstein about the 'gift' and the 'servant'.   How Yvonne and Linda go on to interpret it neatly sums up the practical philosophy, the left brain/right brain synthesis, which powers the book and which should be at the root of all creativity.  Writing Children's Fiction doesn't just speak to children's writers: it speaks to all writers, because writing as an art is indivisible.

I'm very grateful to Yvonne, Linda and Louise Ellis-Barrett, editor of Armadillo, for allowing me to  publish the interview on this blog.


Dennis:  First of all, I’d like to say what a super book I think this is.  Beautifully written, comprehensive, full of good sense and insight and a delight to read.  I was cheering all the way.  Yvonne, I was much struck by your early quotation from Einstein, about the creative mind as the ‘sacred gift’ and the rational mind as ‘its servant.’  He suggests that nowadays we revile the gift and value the servant.  You put a different gloss on it which is at the heart of the book and could almost be seen as its defining image.

Yvonne:  You need both.  The two in modern society are polarised, but they meet all the time.  You need the logical structure but you need the creative – as good scientists and mathematicians show us.  When the two come together then you have the real achievement, the real literature.

Dennis:  Linda, you point out the prevalent fallacy that anyone, especially celebrities, can write a children’s book.  Katie Price, for instance who doesn’t have time to type but has other people to put them into ‘book words.’  When we all started writing things weren’t like that.

Linda:  I think this attitude has come from the overwhelming concern to get children, especially boys, to read at all costs. Something has to catch their attention, for example. a footballer's name on the cover.  Frank Lampard has written a children’s book.  It may be very good, but, whether it is or not, it will be seized on by anyone encouraging reluctant readers just for the hook of instant gratification. 

Dennis: But how can Katie Price’s princesses and castles possibly entice  boys into reading?

Linda:  It’s all to do with branding.  Again, we might not like it, but it’s a short cut to get books into people’s hands.

Dennis: So, is it really better to read anything rather than read nothing?

Yvonne: Yes, every time.  As with baby-food, you usually start with the easy stuff and wean yourself onto something with more bite as your reading habit develops.

Linda:  That was always David Fickling’s policy.

Dennis:  Ah yes, the Scholastic ‘Pyramid’, where the popular fiction subsidised the ‘quality’ fiction..

Linda:  The series – Point Horror, Point Crime, Goosebumps: they were the start of branding.  And they did their job.

Dennis:  Linda I’d like you to talk about your chapter ‘Becoming a Writer.’  You quote this obviously marvellous book written in 1934 by Dorothea Brande.  I’d never heard of her and I feel quite cheated because of it.   But finding ‘the writer’s magic’?  Isn’t that rather a nebulous concept?  You talk about left/right brain activity, which takes us back to that Einstein quotation.

Linda:  I wanted to include Dorothea Brande.  I’ve read many books about how to write fiction which have a ‘nuts and bolts’ approach – characterisation, plot, etc ­­- but they’d left out the essence.  I was never convinced that ‘do it this way’ would always work. It’s not just about technique.  Dorothea Brande saw this all those years ago and put it so well. You don’t just turn writing on and off: being a writer is what you become.  Even when you’re doing everyday things you are always aware of your possession of ‘the writer’s self.’ 

Yvonne:  That’s an important point. Am I writing just to be published or is it because I just want to write?  There’s a big difference.  Nowadays, I think there are many people in the second category. The two approaches should go together but, like the creative and the rational, are too often polarised.

Linda:  Jan Mark used to say that on courses you got those who just wanted to write and those who just wanted to be published.  They blog and they network and imagine that being published will be the automatic reward. 

Yvonne: You write a story and you’re pleased with it for its own sake – and if it’s published that’s a bonus.  When I teach on creative writing courses, I want to ask the students, ‘Why are you here?  To write because you can’t help it, it’s in your blood, or to find out how to be published?'    There’s a trade-off between writing for its own sake and being professional. Left brain, right brain activity and their interdependence again.

Dennis:  I’d like to move on to the guest writers’ contributions.  I thought these were marvellous.  What a terrific set of insights.  I think my favourite was Helen Pielichaty’s conversation between two paragraphs.  This was so funny – and also very true about ‘murdering our darlings’ and the need to draft and redraft.  Its conclusion also had a little touch of sadness in it.  The paragraphs had come to life. And they might yet be resurrected in the final draft!

Yvonne:  Yes, we are very pleased with this section. We asked a number of writers we admired to send us 500 words with only a little direction from us.  We were worried that we might have to do a lot of editing if they all chose the same topic.  But it was wonderful. We hardly had to edit them at all.  

Linda:  We did ask one or two writers for specific contributions.  For instance, we suggested to Marcus Sedgwick that he wrote about being edited because we knew he’d had the same editor since he was first published.   And we wanted Mal Peet to write something about Tamar.

Dennis, I was very struck with Mal’s remark that with his first novel, the wonderful Keeper, he had written a sonata but once he started on Tamar he knew it would be a symphony.  This ‘Guest Author’ section is full of such incidental, thought-provoking insights.  And the book as a whole is a real intellectual feat which reads beautifully.

Yvonne.  At the start, we worried that we wouldn't be able to agree on what to say, or what is the 'right' approach. But our core ideas and passion for writing are the same and it was stimulating to have ideas challenged. 

Dennis: Let’s look at the Writing Workshop, which takes up the last third of the book and is a mine of experience and good sense.  For a start, we’re often asked: ‘Where do the ideas come from?’  Can such a question be answered in any but the most general terms? Linda, could you expand on the idea of thinking of yourself as a writer and then making the jump to actually writing?

Linda:  It might mean a detachment from your life, when you’re sort of aware that you’re working something out but not yet quite sure what.   Yvonne astonishes me with all the ideas she has - all of them ready to go!  She went for a walk on her own to the village this morning, and said that a new idea came to her in the churchyard.

Yvonne: And I’ve written the first page, although I might do nothing more for a long time. I can't seem to stop the ideas coming, but I'm easily sidetracked. I admire Linda's ability to focus, properly, on one book at a time. That’s the problem.  I've no time to chase up all the ideas in my notebook.  My granddaughter has volunteered to be my literary executor - maybe she'll write the stories herself when I’ve gone!

Linda: Yvonne, you said you could work on two books at once, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.  But my sense of being a writer means a lot of my time seems to be spent waiting.  I’ve got the germ of an idea now but I’m just letting it lie and waiting for it to develop - I know it will.  But I can only focus on one idea at a time. Yet having so many ideas crowding in all the time works for you.  And I've heard Berlie Doherty say the same, - that she often works on two books at once.

Yvonne:  I think the fizz of ideas is both a gift and a curse.

Dennis: Take Susan Price’s Sterkarm novels.  How brilliant they are.  And what an amazing idea in the first place.  You rightly call it ‘The slow, tortuous birth of a cracking good book.’  And yet, to change the subject completely, the third in this terrific series was rejected.  This sort of thing makes  the rise of the Indie author not something to be surprised by - not only with ebooks but the appearance of the small, ‘do-it-yourself’ publisher.  Gillian McClure and Julia Jones with her Golden Duck imprint are good examples.

Yvonne: It’s leading to a new definition of the ‘published author.’

Dennis:  I would like your feelings about an important element throughout the book – Plot and Structure.  When I was at school I was told that you had to plan a story out meticulously before you started writing.  I was so disappointed – I couldn’t do it to save my life and so I could never be a writer.  Some writers can do this. Robert Leeson didn’t write actual narrative until he had a plan for the whole story.  Do you find many writers who do such meticulous plotting?

Linda:  I think there are quite a few, especially if they’ve done series work, say with Working Partners.  Both the writers and editors seem to have trained themselves to write that way.  Most authors, I think, inhabit the middle ground - starting off with some idea of what will happen, but not knowing everything. 

Yvonne:  I’ve done both, depending on the book. Sometimes I think I know perfectly well what I’m doing in a particular chapter  but then the characters turn on me and say, ‘I would never do anything like that,’  and I realise they are right.  So the story I'm writing sometimes changes even in the short journey from my imagination to the paper.

Dennis: I’d like to turn, right at the end, to the sometimes vexed question of revising, cutting and drafting, which Helen’s two conversational paragraphs illustrate so well.  Yvonne, you say a lot about this in the book.

Yvonne: Yes, It’s hard for readers sometimes to realise that what appears so clear and fluent on the page is probably the eighth draft in a long and hard process. 

Dennis:  Dennis Pepper used to tell children on writing courses that ‘Writing is making a mess’ and that’s the first thing they have to learn.

Yvonne:  It’s hard to come to terms with how often you have to take out whole chunks of a book.  But when you have bitten the bullet and done it, you realise how much better it is as a result.

Dennis:  It’s part of fostering the professional approach - a theme which pervades the whole book.  So, just to end, could you both sum up the whole process and what it’s meant to you to collaborate in such a significant enterprise?

Yvonne: For me it’s been a wonderful experience.  Linda and I share a general understanding but sometimes we are each surprised by unexpected elements in the other’s thought.  And we didn't hide that, or edit it out. I wanted the book to be above all a chatty, personal journey by guides who would say to the reader, ‘There's not only one way. Have the confidence to DO it, your way.  Decide whether it’s any good afterwards.’  

Linda:  For me, it proved immensely satisfying to bring together so much.  I started off wondering how would we fill the book, but that was never a problem. But, apart from our own resources, we could draw not only on the expertise of our guest authors but also many others - agents and editors as well as authors - who have offered their insights.  There was always someone there at the end of an email who could supplement and sharpen our ideas.  So it’s not just our own experience here; it’s the experience of many others as well.

Dennis:  Well, I think this book is the most complete and satisfying statement about writing for children that I’ve read.  So thank you both so much, both for writing it and for letting me interview you.

*   *   *   *

Yvonne Coppard's novels include Bully, Not Dressed Like You, The School From Hell and Ten Steps Forward.  She also writes non-fiction. She has been a Royal Literary Fund fellow and teaches creative writing in schools, colleges and within the community.

Linda Newbery's many novels include Set in Stone (winner of the Costa Children's Book Prize), The Shell House, Lob, Sisterland and The Sandfather.  She too teaches on creative writing courses, in schools and for the Arvon Foundation.


julia jones said…
Yes - a complete and satisfying statement about writing for children. Of course not THE complete statement because there'll be as many of those as there are writers for children (or, simply, writers) but this book is so good because of its inclusiveness. It's completely professional -- by and for professionals -- but has so much for the amateur and the new writer and the as yet unpublished writer. AS LONG AS THEY WRITE they are writers. I loved that attitude.

I also especially like the way you use your interview to bring out the differences between Yvonne and Linda's approaches. What could have been a weakness in their joint authorship is a major strength as it means they must always be considering an alternative point of view.
Lydia Bennet said…
Great post Dennis, and excellent interview, so well-informed on all three parts! So much of this applies to writing of any genre and for any age. It tickles me to know you and others were involved in the 'Point...' series, when I was teaching way back before I was disasbled, and head of year five/in charge of the year group library choices, the bairns used to love those - boys as well as girls.
Dennis Hamley said…
I'm glad the kids like reading Points. I LOVED writing them. Especially Death Penalty, about a serial killer loose in a football club. I'd ebook it if I wouldn't have to go through the whole thing laboriously modernising it, because how football was organised in 1994 would completely bemuse today's readers. But Point Crimes weren't just entertainment: they were serious stories. The Joslins were originally Point Crimes - in fact, the very last, which is a doubtful

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