How to write books and short stories for children and adults

How do you get your idea down and into a suitable format for printing?

Let’s start with the idea. Where do the best ideas come from?

Often they creep up on you, when you are not looking. For me, great ideas come into being… in the smallest room in the house…Let’s face it, we spend up to three weeks a year in there and yet how many of us can boast a loo with a view?

We are lucky. We live in a rambling cottage where the walls are a foot thick and the building pre-dates modern conveniences and Thomas Crapper by several hundred years.  The net result is that my ensuite had a previous existence as a corridor and boasts multiple levels, a great view over the garden and the valley beyond from a low window with yards of fat sill – plenty of room for books, binoculars, iPads and more conventional writing paraphernalia.

So the three weeks I spend in there often stretches to six, and much cogitation and twitching takes place. Birds recorded, life observed, oeuvres created, works drafted, edited, proof-read, lessons planned, faith restored. I feel it incumbent upon me to play the eccentric British English teacher and writer, editrix etc to the full…

So what is on your shelf? My tastes at present run to a number of biographies of Shakespeare. When I have the time, I intend to study his loss of faith, traceable through the tragedies, so research material collects in one corner, to be picked up periodically, annotated and left for great ideas to gestate…much poetry, my own, as a reference record of what I have done and more importantly others – a collection of Victorian worthies, of post war despair and of ‘grave’ humour side together with Alan Bennett shorts and Edwardian mysteries.

An apothecary’s joy of herbal and spiritual texts share space with the Dalai Lama and a fantastic little book of Lewis Carroll’s wordplays…and on my iPad, the beginnings of my next novel, Spider, a psychological thriller…

It is a wonder that only six weeks are spent in there…

But I digress…

The real purpose here is to consider the process of writing a coherent, cogent text..

The following articles from Mardibooks writers have come about in answer to the many questions we are asked by writers for help in organisation and in polishing their work. They will, we hope, bring some structures to support your creativity and help you to hone your writing into a publishable form.

Read on Macduff….

How to Structure Children’s Stories

Once the idea has come, it needs fleshing out to create a story.  Children’s fiction is much more specific than adult fiction, where audiences are self-selecting and have a wider tolerance for interpretation, filling in the gaps from personal experience, reading stereotypes and short cuts just as in screenplays.

As children acquire language at different ages and speeds, according to environment, to genetics, to various stimuli and intelligences, books need to home in on a key idea and guide the reader, enabling them to follow the abstract as well as the concrete and make predictions. Children have enormous imaginations and will happily suspend disbelief, forgiving and accepting what they read as ‘truth’ … after all, it is in print, so it must be true.

As writers for children, it behoves us to treat them with respect, maintain integrity, interest and fire imaginations, without lecturing or moralising.

How to Create Great Children’s Stories for the Under Eights

With young children, books come in formats for read to and for independent reading.  This is your first consideration. Children learning to read need patterns. Repeated words and rhymes work well and support progress and a sense of achievement in the reader. They also stimulate discussion about prediction with read to children. Images are key…consider the relationship between these and the text.

Remember, unlike books for older children or adults, young children will devour a loved book attaching themselves to its very fibre until it disintegrates.  The best children’s books work on many levels and even as adults we still love them. So think about which of your childhood books you loved and why…

I like to use a couple of grids to flesh out and plan.

C – content…what is the key idea you are selling? We are all selling something and readers are customers…will they want to buy your idea? Is it novel or trite? Is it well packaged?

A – audience...who are they? Age? Gender? Race? Religion? Status? Knowing their demographic will enable you to focus on the reader and what they might want,  rather than on you….it’s all about them dahling….

F – format…what will your book look and feel like? Ebook? Interactive? Size? Shape? Texture? Physical Activities? Use of colour? Design? Cover? Intertextuality? how do images and multimedia work with the text to develop imaginations and move your story forward for a reader to want to come back to it again and again? Weight of paper? Much of this will be budget constrained, so think big, but be practical.. All consumables are price elastic and even the most fantastic book will have its price point…

L – language...depending on age, ability, environment, the language you use will determine accessibility to your text and this needs to be considered specifically. The idea and the language are inextricably linked. They should support each other, moving literacy and reading skills forward.  The best books show, not tell…

I – imagery... works on many levels. Physical images we have mentioned. What about linguistic images? Your use of devices needs to be exciting but not overwhelming. Pathetic fallacy (atmosphere) the five senses, simple metaphors, similes work well at this age. Onomatopoeia is a must. Children love action and sound. Don’t get so involved in your imagery that the child becomes bored. Lists of adjectives only help if you are building an adjective bank as a function of the text…

T- themes…what is the purpose of your text? Imagination? Exploration? Humour? Comfort? Your story is not just a story…it has a key message. Stick with that and use thematic links to bring the point out in your story. You are the narrator and your voice should not be strident, but embedded in the themes and the direction you send them in to promote your message ( key idea ).

Ultimately, remember, the best ideas are the simplest ones, clearly executed, focused on the reader and their enjoyment… 

KISS – so keep it simple, stupid. 

If you would like help fleshing out your ideas, contact Mardibooks, we offer workshops to support writers in all genres.

How to Write Children’s Stories for Young Readers  (9-14)

With older children, we are prisoners of fashion as much as of our talents, but children are loyal. If they like your style or your characters or narratives, they will lap them up…

A great grid to support you initially is:

P  – plot…what is the story about? Consider a problem, the rising action, the moment of discovery, the falling action and the solution. How will you structure your story? What will be your starting point? Will it follow chronological events?

I – imagery…where does it take place? When? Who is involved? How does it unfold? Why?     You need to answer all these questions before you start.

L – language… this must be appropriate for your audience…have you defined your target reader? How will you engage them? What language do they use? Are you writing to educate? To entertain? To inform? Children love mysteries and feeling they are in control and clever. They don’t want to be patronised or lectured at, so consider your motivations. Complex stories require simpler language and structures, as do large abstractions. The simpler or more recognisable the story, the more complex the language and structure can become.

A – author’s voice…what is your key message to your reader? Writing longer stories in greater detail and depth means your views will come across, consciously and subliminally…keep them clear and be aware that children and young adults are impressionable. Do not overpower them with essence of you. Let them discover you in your stories.

T – themes...consider the discoveries in stages, the beginning, middle and end …the themes you address may be difficult and abstract. Consider how you couch them in events, language and images.

Children, like adults, do not like to be fed. Let them discover and explore through your characterisation and creativity, but remember their life experiences are limited and different to yours. Universality is key. They, thank goodness, do not reside in your head.

Above all, enjoy your creations and they will come alive on the page.


How to Write Short Stories for Adults

‘Short stories’ can be very brief. The long out of print Penguin Book of Short Short Stories was a mainstay in my smallest room for many years, until someone borrowed it permanently. I still accord the event the status of personal bereavement.

If you are starting out with your prose, it can be a challenging way in to attempt the task of writing a short story in just 500 words or fewer.

As with all writing, you need to have something to say if you are going to write, and you should write about what you know. There should be a central conflict in the piece, but with a unity of action. My personal preference is that a short story should be sufficiently long to accompany me on a forty minute train journey. Most of Laurel and Hardy’s shorts are just twenty minutes long, and still give you the feeling of substance when they finish.

I need to be interested in the main character, whether he is a serial killer or the latest pope. How that interest is cultivated is key. A journey for your main character is important; whether they are physically travelling, metaphorically encountering or just having a moral moment. Dialogue and first appearances are even more significant in the short story; remember the first words of a character on stage will have been shaped to engage, and perhaps even toy with, the reader. If you can set up the whole premise of the story in the opening paragraph, you are halfway towards writing a decent short story. The following sets out to do that in just 68 words.

The return of Cindy Watson is something I have secretly longed for, but the message she left on my answerphone tonight, using an almost forgotten code word like a terrorist bomb warning, suggests she’s after something other than me.  Last time I saw her she was leaving my apartment in a hurry and getting into that car of hers. She didn’t look back. That was six years ago.

 We don’t know the why, but we have the who. Both of the whos. And we are likely to be interested in what is about to happen, because the woman’s hurried departure six years previously has already been placed like a carrot in front of our reader’s nose. ‘That car of hers’, is a clear hint about her ‘no nonsense’ personality. So why would someone like that come back?

Are you hooked yet? Now it’s your turn.


The ideas and structures/grids in these articles are copyright protected © Mardibooks 2013

Some useful links


100 Best First Lines

Unexpected Tales

Mrs Godbothers

In The Eye of the Beholder

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