Ian McMillan: Why great writing hides much hard graft

Ian McMillanIan McMillan
Ian McMillan
Every so often somebody will come to a writing workshop of mine and gush enthusiastically about an idea they've had that will make them rich. '˜It's a story for children' they'll say, their eyes sparkling with joy and the prospect of lining their luxury yachts up in their private marina, '˜and I've read it to my grandchildren and they love it' and at this point I hope you'll forgive my eyes for glazing over.

My less-than-enthusiastic face won’t put them off. ‘It’s about a postman doing his rounds in a little village and he’s called Bill so the series of books will be called Postman Bill’ they say, or they’ll grab me by the arm and almost shout ‘It’s a great idea about a boy with magic powers and the school he goes to and he’s called Barry Trotter and the school he goes to is called Pigwarts.’ Yes, I’m exaggerating, but only a little bit. When you point out to them that there are already characters called Postman Pat and Harry Potter they always say that of course they know that but theirs are so very different. The postman’s cat will be a ginger one called Keith, and the girl in the Barry Trotter tale will be called Penelope.

The killer phrase in the pitch is ‘I’ve read it to my grandchildren and they love it’. Yes. That’s because they’re your grandchildren. I don’t want to be harsh here, and I really don’t want to tread on anybody’s dreams or sink their yacht but maybe (and I know this because I’ve got grandchildren and they like the tales I tell them) grandchildren aren’t the best literary critics in the world.

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You can’t put people off, of course, and maybe I shouldn’t try. I’m always happy when people sit down and write because just like playing the piano makes you a better listener, writing makes you a better reader, and of course there’s always the chance that the book about the fighter pilot called Boggles or the adventurous children called The Famous Six might make it big. As people never tire of pointing out to me, JK Rowling was so poor that she had to sit and write in a café in Edinburgh because that was cheaper than heating her home, and look where she is now.

Ok, that’s fine, I can see all that. All I’m saying is, as far as writing for children goes, just because there are fewer words that doesn’t make it easier. I had a meeting with a publisher a couple of years ago in a rooftop café in That London and the Southern breeze almost blew my flat cap off and we talked about me writing a very simple book for very small children and I went home fired up and sent off words of pure literary gold and the editor wrote back asking for rewrites and I sent them off and she asked for more rewrites and, well, that’s where we are; I’m still refining the simplicity, enhancing the rhythm.

Still, I’m sure the grandchildren will love it. They’d better!