Added: Wednesday 13th December, 2017
Interview with Alan Durant
Children and Young Adult author Alan Durant is interviewed by NWS Young Writer Izzy Waters about writing for children and the challenges of getting published.
I know you’ve written poetry for adults in the past but as you are predominantly a children’s writer, were you always interested in writing specifically for children and teenagers or did you ever think about going into adult fiction?
I suppose before I got published I didn’t particularly think that I would end up being a children’s book writer. What happened really was I worked in publishing for a publisher called Walker books and my job there was as a copywriter so I was reading a lot of children’s books. Mainly picture books at first but after I’d been there for maybe about six months they started to publish fiction for older children. Mainly for middle grade (seven plus) and then also young adult fiction and really it was that which got me into writing initially young adult fiction.
What do you think is the most challenging thing about writing books for children or teenagers?
I think they’re different. I think I’m unusual in that I write for all ages, usually you get people who write young adult fiction or people write picture books but you know it’s actually quite unusual to have people who write both because there are different challenges. I think obviously the challenge when you're writing for young adults is getting that kind of edginess in a way and really getting inside the mind of a fourteen, fifteen, sixteen year old which is difficult. I think the challenges of writing a picture book are really are that you have to get into the mind of a three year old or four year old and that’s really hard. Also the thing about picture books which I find really fascinating is the fact that you have a dual audience. You have the reader who is simply reading the book and you have the child who is having it read to them. You’ve kind of got to take both into account, obviously you’re really appealing to the young child but you’ve also got to think of the adult or the person who is reading and so you’ve got to keep them interested enough in the story that they’ll want to read it. I think there are different challenges all the way through and it’s not always easy to know because even if you’re writing for a seven year old you’ve still got to think about what vocabulary they’ll understand, what ideas might go over their head and how the humour works. For instance in young children’s fiction the humour is really in your face, it’s slapstick you have people falling over and that kind of stuff. Word play doesn’t come into it and irony doesn’t come into it which is kind of a bit weird when you’re an adult and you use irony the whole time. Obviously when you get into writing for young adults that’s kind of much easier in a way because all that stuff becomes available. I think in many ways, although it’s the shortest, writing picture books is the most difficult.
Do you think the children’s book industry has changed much since your first book was published? If so how?
I think it’s changed enormously. I mean the thing about the children’s book industry is it’s faddy. For example, Harry Potter was in and suddenly there are loads of books about wizards. Then there’s Twilight and there are loads of books about vampires and then you get the Hunger Games and it’s all dystopian fiction, that’s the way it goes. It goes like that even with the picture books in the sense that there’s a way that picture books at the moment are kind of short, quirky, a bit gimmicky not really particularly strong on story but then that’ll change. There was a time not that long ago maybe about fifteen years ago when very lyrical longer texts were in. I think in terms of the children’s book world one of the biggest changes is the way that the role of the agent has absolutely changed it completely. When I started I didn’t have an agent, there were few agents in the children book world and they were kind of frowned upon. I worked for Walker books, Sebastian Walker wouldn’t let an agent in their building, he thought they were leaches, bloodsuckers on the industry. In that twenty-five year period it’s totally changed, now you can’t really get a book published unless you’ve got an agent. The only way you can get it to a publisher is through an agent and publishers love agents because a lot of agents now are former editors and of course they do all the publishers work. They’ll edit a book before it even gets as far as a publisher. By the time it gets to the publisher they are looking at something that’s pretty much finished. When I started it was pre-internet so you typed it up and then send it off in an envelope to publishers and you’d wait forever for them to read it and get back to you but eventually they would. Now they won’t it or at least it would be very unlikely that they would get back to you because they’d say go to an agent.
So do you think that the role of the agent has made it more difficult for writers to get into children’s writing?
Yeah possibly although maybe it’s also helped writers in some ways because of the Agents’ editorial backgrounds, they can give a lot of advice at the early stages before it even gets as far as a publisher on what needs changing, developing, that kind of thing. In some ways that’s helped writers but I think the problem is it does mean there are extra gatekeepers involved in it. Also what’s happened now is there are quite a lot of agents who won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts because they’ve got so much stuff but then you think hold on a second how are you supposed to get published? In that way I think it has got more difficult.
What advice would you give for someone interested in writing books for either children or teenagers?
I think the first thing is to go out and read loads. You have to read lots of stuff that’s written for whatever age you want to write for. Go to bookshops and see what’s being written now. The problem I find with a lot of people is that they write books based on what they liked as a child, which is all very well and good but of course it’s different now. Lots of people are still writing like Enid Blyton but that probably wouldn’t be published now. I think if you’re writing for young children the best thing is to be doing is trying it out on young children. Not really asking them whether they like it or not that’s not the important bit it’s more seeing where it works or not, where they’re not following, where they’re not laughing when they should be laughing that kind of stuff. With older fiction it’s just the same thing, if you want to write for young adults try it out on some young adults, see what their response is. Then, when you get to the stage when everything is good enough, go and research agents. The best place is in the children’s edition of The Writers and Artists Yearbook, that’s really good guide as it lists agents and all the kind of things that they’re looking for and not looking for.
Are there any common mistakes you find people make when first getting into writing for children or teenagers?
I think a lot of it is slightly what I’ve touched on, I think one is writing being a bit out of date. Thinking that the things that you’re interested in or the style of writing you’re interested in is going to appeal to people now. Styles of writing have changed hugely over the years. Or sometimes people say they want to write for a young child and then you read it and you think how are they going to understand this? People think it’s just about vocabulary but it’s not it’s about ideas it’s about an experience. You can go into as much fantasy as you like but still if you’re in the real world there’s got to be something that children can cling onto from their own experience. I think a lot of the time people have a tendency, especially for young children, to make their stories too complex. Also with a picture book you have to remember it’s going to be illustrated so there has to be enough in there for an illustrator to be interested in and to illustrate.
What are the main challenges you think new children’s writers face when trying to get their books published and what do you think they can do to overcome this?
The agent thing is the hardest I mean I know a few people who are really good writers but have never been published. They’ve been turned down by a lot of agents because it’s incredibly competitive I know getting published in any field is but I think getting published in children world is particularly competitive. It seems like there are a lot of books published but I think the number of books published now is probably fewer than it was twenty years ago because I think publishers realised that they couldn’t just keep on publishing forever. However now there are probably a lot more opportunities in other areas as well, things like games and other platforms like eBooks. Although I think things like eBooks is less of a factor for children books, in adult fiction it’s huge and has taken a huge share of the market but in children’s writing there isn’t really of a way replicating a picture book where you turn the page and share really. I think in terms of opportunities for writers I think they’re still there. I think maybe it’s more difficult because of the way of getting in because you have to go through an agent.
Do you think it helps when writers have children of their own?
I think it’s massively helpful and pretty important to be honest with you. I don’t know if I would have written half the picture books I’ve written if I hadn’t had children myself because a lot of the ideas, the things I wrote about, the issues they came about from things that were in my children’s lives or things that they said or they did or they were interested in. I think it does inspire you and I think it’s quite hard to write in a kind of children free vacuum. Some people can do it but not very many I mean some people can remember what it was like to be five or something and they can write about it. I know some children’s book writers who don’t have children but I think most certainly do. A lot of writers also come from teaching and have children around them all the time so they have a fantastic captive audience to get inspiration from.