Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Day 1269 - How to write a children's book

How do I write the Cheer Chick Charlie books?

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Right now I am writing the fifth book in the Cheer Chick Charlie series.  I find it difficult to write at home in the land of routine and reality, so to write well I find it better to escape for a couple of days.  I either go to the coast to Derek's parents where I have a view of the ocean, or I go to the farm to my parents where I have a view of hills and paddocks. Being with them gives the added bonus of someone feeding me and bringing cups of tea so that I can continue to write without interrupting the flow. And that's all it takes. Just two days to get the story bedded down and weeks to get it edited and ready for print.

Of course the lead up to those two days of writing is full of other book writing preparation.

Step One:  Who is your main character?
For me to write Cheer Chick Charlie I had to get inside the mind of a child.  I had to spend time with children Charlie's age and watch their interaction.  There is a little piece of my kids in Cheer Chick Charlie as well as a piece of every child I've ever coached.  She's a conglomerate of real life characters, issues and circumstances.  I think about her all the time and keep her nestled firmly in my heart so that when it comes time to write she flows easily onto the page.

Step Two: Who are the supporting characters?
It was important to me that Charlie had a couple of best friends who she could rely on when times get tough. Those friends had to have their own distinct personalities with their own dreams, anxieties, talents and challenges. I wrote down these basic facts on an index card to keep me focussed.  It wasn't until after I created their personalities that I drew what they looked like. It turns out that Charlie's friendship group is multicultural but I didn't decide that until after character development because I didn't want racial assumptions to affect their personality type.  Charlie's parents are also in every book and yes, they are modeled loosely on Derek and me.  Hey, they say you've got to write about what you know! I know us. Having said that, the strengths found in Charlie's mother tend to be the things I wish I could master as a parent moreso than traits I actually possess.  And when it comes to Charlie's little brother William, again he was created from observing the kids around me and his character continues to grow as I spend more and more time with Darby's mates.  (Note: it has always been my intention that William will have his own spin off series for boys, but that will take me a few years to get off the ground given Charlie is set to run around 20 books in her series.)

Step Three: Who are the fringe characters?
There are a few characters who pop in occasionally and remain constant throughout the series, plus there are a bunch who we never see again. These characters often provide the challenges in the stories, or, in the case of Jane, become an anchor of sorts. Jane is the girl that Charlie meets while on holidays in book one. They become modern day pen pals (via email) with each story starting with an email exchange between the two of them to remind readers of the story line so far.  Jane is sort of like that voice on "Desperate Housewives" of Mary Alice (the dead woman).  To be honest, other than Jane and Ben (the cheer dude), the fringe characters often pop up unexpected even to me until the writing process starts.  While I have a general idea of the story line before I start writing and I know what message I want to achieve, I don't always know where I'm headed.

Step Four: What is the ultimate message of the book?
Every Cheer Chick Charlie book has a message to help kids with their confidence and resilience, and to also encourage them into health and fitness.  So before I start writing I need to work out what this message is going to be, and I need to get a few inspiring quotes or something to have up my sleeve that I can work around. Every time I produce a book, the title and front cover of the next book is advertised on the last page of the current book. So yeah, I kinda need to know in advance what the next book is going to be called.  Even if I haven't written it yet, knowing the message of the book in advance is really important.

Step Five: What challenges will the main character face? 
Every book has a major challenge Charlie needs to face which often requires the help of an adult.  Every book also has a number of smaller challenges Charlie or her friends need to face which they work out on their own.  I need a balance between asking adults for assistance and kids learning to work out problems on their own.  I usually have a clear idea of the major challenge for the book before I start writing, but to be honest, those smaller challenges often write themselves.  I know, I know, it sounds cliche. But it's true! Once Charlie jumps out of my heart and onto the screen via the keyboard, the story has a habit of writing itself.  It's all about getting fully into the creative zone.

Step Six: Find your creative zone
I guess this is the most challenging point for many people.  This is the stuff movies are made of where an author stares at a screen and hours later the screen is still blank.  Where balls of typed written paper are littered through the house as a writer scraps the last few hours work.  To be honest, since starting this Cheer Chick Charlie journey I have not had that problem.  Why? Because Charlie is already in my heart.   The character is now part of me because I've visualised her for so long.   Because I know who she is because she's a combination of a whole bunch of real life people. I surround myself with children all the time so I am in tune with their thinking, their speech, their ideas and the ways their bodies move. This in turn feeds my inner child. And it's often in your inner child that creativity lies.  That place where the sky can be purple and the grass can be blue.  The place unaffected by text book wisdom and scientific fact. Finding your inner child is essential for writing a children's book.  So start skipping down the road, cartwheel, ride your bike downhill with your legs spread and cry "weeeeeeee", roll down a hill, draw with crayons, do some colouring or simply sit down cross legged on the floor and watch Dora.  Get your cellular memory working on awakening your inner child, then find a spot away from any sense of responsibility and write whatever it is that jumps out onto the page.  Use your adult brain to guide you, much as you would guide a child in real life, but allow the writing to form a personality of its own.

Step Seven: Write
The writing for me is the easy part. Once all of the above points are taken care of I find that I can write a Cheer Chick Charlie book in two days. Charlie books are always twelve chapters in 14 font text and around 13,000 words in length. I don't stress about punctuation, page spacing, spelling etc at this point because I have editors who will take care of that. I just write.  To get me started I think of a typical circumstance on any given day that has involved my own kids (getting ready for school, a birthday party, going to the park, packing for a trip) and I start to describe it using Tahlia as my muse and I just go from there.  I have sign posts in my mind showing places the story has to go (challenges, situations, interactions) but other than that I let my inner Charlie write herself.  I write and I write and I write, and I don't interrupt the process until I hit a point where Charlie herself needs a rest.  Then I eat, go for a walk, stretch and drink water and green tea.  The whole time I relive the story so far in my mind.  I retrace each of the steps Charlie has taken and then allow her to make decisions about where she is going to go from there. Then I sit back at my computer and we go again.  I follow this process until the book is written over the two days.

Step Eight: Edit
After I've written the book I let it rest for a few days.  I don't look at it again for a while.  I need to let it settle.  I return home and switch my focus to my own family and other business activities.  I need to leave Charlie behind for a while and remove some of the emotion that is attached to her.  The next time I read the book I have to do so with fresh eyes.  I have to dull the feelings I have for her so that I can look at the book again with my "factual" brain rather than my emotional one.  The first edit is done by me just to be sure I haven't made any huge mistakes.  The moment I close the book on my first edit I send the manuscript to my main editor.  She looks at it thoroughly for obvious punctuation, grammar, spelling, but also determines if my words are kid friendly and whether the story line with its little challenges fits.  Once this is done the manuscript is sent to my sub-editors (mum, mother-in-law, cousin and bestie) who all look at it with different eyes.  Cathy looks at it with American eyes to be sure there is nothing too Aussie that US kids wouldn't comprehend (or phrases which might have a completely different meaning), Estelle looks at it with parents and teachers eyes, Mum looks at it with life's wisdom eyes and readability, and Irene looks at it from a copywriter's point of view.  I compile all of their notes, make changes and return it to my main editor for a final check. I then read it about twenty more times before it goes to print.

So, there you have it. That's how I personally go about writing the Cheer Chick Charlie series. Other writers may do it differently but this is the process that works well for me.  And here I am in the middle of it.  As you read this I am sitting at the dining table of the farm with the window view to one side and the screen in front of me allowing Charlie out of my heart and onto the screen.  This post has been pre-written and scheduled so as not to interrupt my process.

Are you creative?

How do you get your creative juices flowing?

Are you able to tap into your inner child?


  1. some great tips here. The time is the biggest issue - so I think the going away for isolation is brilliant. Might have to work that into the year somehow...

  2. I love that you get to escape to spend time focusing only on writing. I really crave this sometimes. The hustle and bustle of every day life make it very hard sometimes to switch focus and channel all the right things you need to get the creativity and words flowing. I think it is awesome that you are writing and writing for children xx

  3. You make it sound so easy :) I am impressed you have such a streamlined system that works. I like the idea of getting away for a few days to write - paints a very olde worlde romantic picture :)

    Hello from #teamIBOT

  4. I love reading your writing progress, and can feel through your words how much you love this character.
    It must be so satisfying to see your work in print :)

  5. I dream of being able to have a day or two away to just 'be' and write. I'm years off attempting to write a book but it's on my bucket list. Hope it's going well! Emily

  6. I have had the idea to create a kids book, but I haven't really taken myself seriously. Self confidence issues!
    I like the way you have outlined your process and think it will be helpful when I finally get over myself and take the plunge :)
    Becc @ Take Charge Now

  7. What a great post! This step by step guide is just the type of thing I've been looking for. I've got a few ideas of my own for kids books but have never been able to get them any further past that. And congratulations on your books - thye look delightful :)

  8. Loved hearing your creative process Leanne.
    And I know one little girl who will be thrilled to bits you are working on the next book. She's asked me a few times when she can read it :)

  9. Oh, Leanne! These are fabulous tips! And I think that they can also apply to writing a book in general!
    It's that creative zone that is the hardest, you're right. But it is really about getting in that character, isn't it?


I love hearing your thoughts! Keep them rolling in :)

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