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How to write for a new readership

Guest blogger and award-winning children’s author Brian Keaney has a vast and remarkable collection of both fiction and non-fiction literature to his name. In this blog post, Brian shares his experience of writing for adults after three decades as a successful children’s author.

If you’ve ever wondered whether you can (or should) experiment with writing for different audiences, remember it hasn’t held back Neil Gaiman or J.K. Rowling.

There’s just no need to box writers in.

I got my first children’s book published in 1985. In the intervening thirty-two years I’ve had another nineteen published. I’ve also written plays for children’s theatre and text books for schools.

But this year I did something different. I published my first novel for adults, The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire.  It was something I’d wanted to do for a long time, but the transition was by no means easy. People like to put you in a box. They don’t like it when you get out again.  So why did I bother? Why do writers ever bother? You get an idea and the damn thing won’t leave you alone.

It all started when I was wandering through a junk market and I came across a copy of The Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey. I’d heard De Quincey’s name before. I vaguely knew that he was a friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge but that was about it. The woman running the stall only wanted ten pence.  So I bought the book and took it home. As soon as I began to read, I was gripped.

The book is mostly an account of De Quincey’s struggle with opium addiction, but it’s also the story of a love affair. One night, when he was living rough on the streets of London, he collapsed in Oxford Street where he was discovered by a young prostitute called Anne who took him back to her room and looked after him.

As he recovered, De Quincey became infatuated with her and he began to hatch a plan to get hold of some money so that they could start a new life together. But then one day she vanished and, despite spending weeks looking for her, he never saw her again. He couldn’t find her, but he couldn’t forget her, either. In fact, even when he was an old man, he said that he could never find himself in a crowd without scanning their faces in the hope that he might catch sight of her.

I wanted to solve the mystery of what happened to Anne. So I set about doing so in the only way I knew – I began to write a novel. Tracking down a penniless young woman who disappeared in the back streets of London two hundred years ago was by no means easy, but it was not as difficult as trying to interest my agent in the project. This person wanted me to write another children’s book, not mess about with something like this.

So I put it on the back burner. When I had some spare time, I worked on it. But it was slow progress. I spent hours researching the opium trade and learning about the lives and deaths of prostitutes at the beginning of the nineteenth century. I discovered all sorts of surprising facts. (For instance, did you know that the prostitutes of London had their own cemetery because they couldn’t be buried on consecrated ground?)

I found it difficult to get the voices right. They were very different from the kinds of voices I’d been writing for the last thirty years. So I did a lot of rewriting. At one point I threw away 55,000 words. It was a very painful decision, but the manuscript was much better consequently.

I finally finished last year and gave it to my agent, but this person didn’t want to know. That was a blow but, after some consideration, I did the only thing I could – we parted company and I set about finding a publisher myself.

It hasn’t been an easy journey. I could have given up along the way. I nearly did. Perhaps some of you reading this have probably felt the same way at one time or another. There are always voices telling you that you’re wasting your time.

Take it from me, the voice you need to listen to is the one inside your head, the one that says, “This is what I want to do and I’m going to keep trying.”

Of course, things won’t necessarily go smoothly all the time – remember those fifty-five thousand words I had to throw away. But if you keep going, you just might manage to pull it off.

There’s no reason why writing well for children means you can’t also write well for adults. Or vice versa.

So what are you waiting for? If there’s an idea that won’t let you go, follow it.

Join me and break out of your box.

Brian Keaney has published books with Penguin Random House and Orchard Books, part of Hachette Children’s Group. His latest book for adults, The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire, is available on Amazon.

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