In September 2017, I interviewed Cas Lester about some of the differences between writing a children’s TV series and writing a children’s book series.
Cas explained for both children’s dramas for CBBC and her children’s books she always looks for a fresh idea or contemporary ‘spin’ on an existing idea. For example, Mischievous fairy Nixie wears ‘doc martin’ style boots and keeps a wand in one and a spanner in the other because she’s better at DIY than she is at magic. Her Harvey Drew books are based round the contemporary topic of space trash.
When she is developing her characters and their world she researches the story territory and then does a huge amount of playing around with the idea – she revealed usually way more than is strictly necessary. She wrote a post-it note to make herself actually start to writing the first Harvey Drew manuscript, which she stuck to her laptop. It read: Stop mucking about and write the book.
Cas told me she plans everything as she is not one of those brave writers who can simply start writing and see where the story takes them. She believes this is because she is used to multi-episodic TV dramas where there are multiple writers and they all have to go in the same direction. All the episodes have to head towards the series finale, and the various subplots can’t conflict or be inconsistent. She also writes lots different scenes and chunks of dialogue until she can see the world and hear the characters speak. She explained she can’t write unless she can run the scenes in her head like an animation or a movie.
“I always write a series bible. For the Nixie books I included a calendar of events, the fairy realm, the fairies’ characters, jobs, and catchphrases, what their little houses were like and, crucially, the rules of magic. I am fanatical about consistency of rules. Again, I think this is because of my experience of creating multiple storylines with multiple writers. Inconsistency irks me, and I can’t bear it if rules are broken or fudged for narrative convenience. It’s cheating! My books are inspired by children – sometimes my own.” (Cas Lester)
Cas siad that one of the great things about writing children’s books is that they’re often illustrated. This can help fix the characters and the settings in your head. But not when you write the first book in any series, of course. She think in pictures. So she downloads images to help her get a handle on her characters, settings and key locations.
Cas loves subplots. She explained this is because when you’re making a children’s drama series, the UK law limits the hours a child can work on any day (and rightfully so). So you have a good proportion of scenes without your central protagonist. Inevitably, this usually means having at least a B and probably a C plot too. Children’s books seem to be more linear.
“My writing is powered by chocolate – not always my own!” (Cas Lester)
She told me how one of the big differences in writing children’s books rather than children’s TV is that the characters on the pages don’t age the same way real children do. She elaborated:
“The fabulous Dani Harmer was, I think, 12, when we cast her to play 10-year-old Tracy Beaker. With every following series she, and the entire child cast, grew a year older. We had to reflect this in the writing. Four series on, you couldn’t have 14-year-old Tracy behaving like a 10-year-old. It also meant we had to add some new, younger, characters in the following series in order to keep the age pitch right for the audience. It was always a nightmare when the children came to the first rehearsals of any follow up series. The boys changed more than the girls. Sometimes they’d shot up several inches, their voices had broken and they’d started shaving.” (Cas Lester)
In her book series there is no passage of time between the books. The characters don’t get older. They stay exactly the same, which Cas finds a lot easier. But she does have an ongoing story line. In the Harvey books it’s the on-going story line about Harvey trying to get home to Earth. With Nixie it’s about how Adorabella the Goody, Goody Fairy is always getting her into trouble with the Fairy Godmother.
When she is pitching an idea for a series, she drafts several story lines – even if only to convince herself that the idea really does have ‘long legs’.
“I always pitch at least two or three more books in the series. It’s important to show that the subsequent books won’t be formulaic and that there is sufficient (ideally endless) fresh territory to plunder. Interestingly, when OUP commissioned the four Nixie books they wanted one for each season of the year, to tie in with publication dates, which isn’t something that would have occurred to me.” (Cas Lester)
Her tip for other writers interested in writing for children, whether for print or TV, is to remember to write for children as they are NOW and not as they were when you were a child.
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