When I asked my friend Allison Rushby, author of many novels for children, YA and adults, to come up with a post full of writing tips for kids, I had to laugh when she sent me one with this headline:
Writing for kids: stay weird, stay different
But when I read further, I found myself nodding along at every point (well, maybe not the talking fox bit, but most of it). So here she is, with one of the best pieces of writing advice any kid will ever read.
Okay, so the number one question I get as a writer is probably one you can easily guess: “Where do you get your ideas from?”. I think it’s a fair question. After all, my latest book for younger kids (The Turnkey, Walker Books) is about a long dead little girl called Flossie Birdwhistle who lives in London’s twilight world and has the job of keeping the interred of Highgate Cemetery happily at rest.
To be honest, it would be perfectly fair to be on the receiving end of questions that go more like, “Where do you get your ideas from, because I’m a little bit worried about what goes on in your head, you very strange person”.
But wait, there’s method to my madness.
Of all the books I’ve written, I think The Turnkey is actually a really good study in where writers get their ideas from, because I approached the writing of it with a completely different method to my other books: I decided to cram everything I have always absolutely adored into the one book and I then formed a story around that.
Why? Well, at the time I wasn’t sure. I just felt like doing it—I felt like writing something very personal. Something just for me. I didn’t care what anyone else thought. I didn’t care if a publisher would buy it, or if readers would want to read it. I just wanted to write something that entertained me. So, once I’d decided on this strategy, I sat down with a notebook and started jotting down things I might like to include. This is the list I came up with:
A talking fox (every good book has a talking fox, right?)
and Victorian cemeteries
Now, I couldn’t tell you exactly why I love all these things. I just do. I’ve always been interested in history, my dad is English and my grandmother lived through the Blitz and told me many stories about the war years. I also once had a bit of a scary experience when I was little, my family getting locked out of our car in an old cemetery (I quickly convinced myself we’d have to live in the cemetery forevermore).
So, yes, it was a bit of a weird list I ended up with, but one thing I knew for sure—everything on it was something I was intensely interested in. They were all things that would make me prick my ears up whenever they were mentioned. Things that would make me listen harder. Ask questions. Want to know more.
You have things like that too. I know you do.
It took me several years to write The Turnkey. I’d just finished the first draft when I was watching the 2015 Academy Awards. A man called Graham Moore gave a speech that resonated with me greatly and made me think a lot about The Turnkey and my approach to the writing of it. In this speech he encouraged people to, “Stay weird. Stay different”. And, I’m not joking, I stood up when I heard him say that.
Because he was so right.
Graham Moore might have been talking about bigger struggles—personal struggles—but his advice still rang true.
To be a writer, you have to embrace your weirdness. Staying weird, staying different, is what makes you an artist in your own right. It’s what makes your writing unique. Writers are often told to “write what you know”. It’s a bit of a scary statement, because I think it often intimidates people (new writers especially). It makes them doubt their ideas and their ability to develop characters.
This is why I think Graham Moore’s advice is better. It’s not about writing what you know. It’s about writing what you love. What interests you. What makes you different. That’s where your best ideas come from. They come from your heart. From the things that make you prick your ears up and listen in. From the things that are what you are all about, through and through.
Like I said, I can’t tell you exactly why, for me, these things include talking foxes and tea. It’s just the way it is.
But I can tell you this: next time you’re worried about never having another good idea, don’t be. Look deep inside. Remember what you love. Consider what makes you you.
And, like Graham Moore said:
Allison Rushby is the author of more than 14 books, including three YA novels and six Middle Grade novels. Her latest novel, The Turnkey, is getting fantastic reviews. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.