Wow. Thank you so much to everybody for all your lovely comments in response to my last post and for your empathy and support - gosh, I never realised there were so many “cold fish” like me out there!
And sorry for the long absence on this blog (sigh – sometimes I wonder if I should shut this blog down since it is so neglected. If I’m not posting regularly, is there any point in keeping it going?) – it isn’t for lack of things to say since I have a TON of things I want to blog about here but just that same old monster: Lack of Time. I know it’s been said before by many but boy, do I wish I didn’t need to sleep. Then I could have another 6 – 7hrs every day!
Anyway, the good news is that one of the reasons I had so little time to come here is because I’ve been busy writing…writing ‘the book’, that is.
Yup, I’ve finally got my writing mojo back!
OK, first a bit of background: see, every year, I would come round to my birthday and have that same old “What have I done with my life?” conversation with myself and feel depressed because I hadn’t achieved what I really wanted and I wasn’t getting any younger…
So this year, I decided it was time I did something about it. My dream isn’t to be a successful journalist or great dog trainer or even celebrity blogger – it’s to become a published author. And I am never going to publish a book if I don’t sit down and write it. I even started this blog in the hopes that it would motivate me to work on the manuscript, so that I could chronicle my progress here. But so far, I’ve spent more time talking about the writing than actually doing the writing.
Part of the problem was confidence. This isn’t the first time I’ve written a manuscript – I’ve completed two in fact; both books for adults and the second even got so far as to be seriously considered by a big publisher in the UK (before the editor unfortunately left, taking all the interest and enthusiasm for my story with her). That’s years ago now and I decided after that disappointment to get a “proper job” with a regular income and stop being a silly dreamer…
Now, nearly 10 years later, I’ve decided to try again but this time with a children’s novel. And that’s where the confidence problem kicked. How did I know I could write for children?? How did I know I was using the right tone? The right style? How did I know I was talking in a way that would engage children? I sat down at the keyboard and was paralysed by self-doubt. It was like suddenly getting into a car in a foreign country where they drive on the other side of the road and not feeling sure how to handle the steering wheel, the gears, the brakes – all things which you had used before and were familiar with – but you knew had to be used slightly differently now…but still get around (ie. still tell the story).
I tried to bolster my confidence by going on that children’s writing course a few months ago – and it worked a bit by giving legitimacy to my novel. Suddenly, I was there with all these other people who were also hoping to write a children’s book and I didn’t feel like such a lone, silly dreamer anymore.
But as far as the actual writing, it didn’t help much. I still struggled to put words on the page; still struggled to feel like I knew what I was doing…re-writing the same sentences to death, tinkering around half-heartedly with the same few paragraphs that were my pathetic contributions to Chapter 1 – knowing instinctively that something was “wrong” but not quite knowing how to fix it. And feeling increasingly frustrated that I was getting nowhere with each passing day. Every week, I would feel guilty that I was not making time to work on “the book” but when I finally did, I would sit and frown at the same few paragraphs, whilst my mind groped desperately for answers…
And then…came the breakthrough.
It happened totally against expectations. I had agreed to meet up with a couple of girls from the writing course after the course ended, so that we could form a sort of informal writers’ critique group and give each other feedback on our projects. A couple of weeks ago, I went along to our meeting and read out an excerpt from Chapter 1 where Honey the protagonist (a Great Dane inspired by my own Dane, Honey) meets the Dane puppy who comes to live with her temporarily. It was meant to be a humorous scene, with Honey – a dog who likes being an “only dog” – suddenly having to cope with a rambunctious puppy in her household.
The main reaction from the other girls was that they didn’t like the puppy being a Dane and described as “big” – they didn’t think a big puppy sounded “cute” and felt that children wouldn’t find a “big” puppy cute or appealing. They urged me to change the character to a “small fluffy”, which is the standard cliché for “cute puppy”.
I went home and pondered their feedback – and I wasn’t sure I agreed with them. I knew they were both not “pet people” and so wouldn’t necessarily see things the way pet people do – and most of the target market for my novel would probably be pet lovers. Most importantly, they were not children themselves – they were simply making assumptions about what children would think, based on their own attitudes. So I decided the best thing was to ask children – real children – what they thought and so I asked on Honey’s blog for volunteer readers: anyone with children aged 8 ~ 12yrs (my target age group).
Well! I was overwhelmed by the response I got. Just the number of people who rushed forward to volunteer and how enthusiastic and interested they were was a huge boost to my confidence. Suddenly, I wasn’t alone in this project anymore. I wasn’t just writing in a vacuum. I had people – real kids – excited and eager to read what I was writing. I had people involved. It was an amazing feeling.
And I was amazed too by the positive response to the samples I sent out. I had only really expected an answer to my question – “can a large puppy be cute?” – but instead, I was flooded by comments from everyone of how much they enjoyed the extract, the things they found funny, the things they could relate to. One lovely lady in the US who is an elementary school teacher even took it into two classrooms to test it out on the children and reported back all their laughter and enjoyment of the story and their thirst for more…suddenly, I began to think that maybe I was doing something right after all. (And by the way, the vote was unanimous: everybody loved the “big” puppy and didn’t want me to change it)
But wait – don’t think it was just me enjoying having my ego stroked! You know what else? The feedback from the children also gave me that classic “lightbulb moment”. I knew exactly what I was doing wrong at last and how I needed to write in order to “write for children”!!
See, there was one comment in particular that focused everything for me. It was from a lady with a 10yr old son who said that “he found the following sentence confusing and he didn’t know what was going on”. The sentence was:
One huge puppy paw stabbed into her left eye; she reeled to the side, then tripped as the puppy rolled under her belly
I suddenly realised what I had been doing wrong. How I had been writing wrong. I was trying too hard to be clever. When you write adult fiction, it’s OK – even expected – to have a bit of literary acrobatics. To have sentences where inanimate objects become active and things are described in ways that contradict reality. You know, instead of saying:
I felt a cold wind on my face, blowing my hair backwards.
You might say:
A cold wind slapped me in the face, tugging my hair back with cruel fingers.
It’s seen as being “original” and creative – but it makes no sense to children. They take things much more literally. They wouldn’t understand why a wind – an inanimate “thing” – would be able to slap you in the face or have fingers to tug your hair. It’s just a fancy way of saying the same thing as the 1st sentence and yes, it might give more atmosphere – but it’s a convoluted way to express a simple action. It’s just trying to be too clever. And I was doing that throughout my manuscript.
And this was what I had instinctively felt was “wrong” with my writing. All these fancy sentences with active passives and convoluted clauses and ironic imagery were giving it the “adult tone” that I was struggling to get rid of. But I hadn’t realised what it was until a 10yr old boy pointed it out.
When I was on this writing course, there was a lot of discussion about how not to patronise children or “talk down to them” when writing for them – and a lot of people thought it was to do with using or not using “difficult” or “big words” in the choice of vocabulary. But actually, I realised it has nothing to do with vocabulary at all. It isn’t the words you use – it’s how you use them. You can use “big words” and still write in a way that children find appealing – just look at Roald Dahl.
“The butler, an imposing personage named Mr Tibbs, was in supreme command of all the Palace servants and he did the best he could in the short time available. A man does not rise to become the Queen’s butler unless he is gifted with extraordinary ingenuity, adaptability, versatility, dexterity, cunning, sophistication sagacity, discretion and a host of other talents that neither you nor I possess. Mr Tibbs had them all. ”
~ The BFG by Roald Dahl.
By the same token, you could use really simple vocabulary but still make the sentences so convoluted and dense that children can’t understand it. That’s what I was doing. That’s what I had been doing wrong. That sentence the boy couldn’t understand could have been simply re-written as:
The puppy stabbed Honey in the eye with her paw. Honey reeled back and tripped on the puppy as it rolled under her belly.
Still not a great sentence (I ended up re-writing the whole section) but at least starting to make a lot more sense. And most important, just tell the story. That’s what I realised was the key to writing for children: just tell the story. Don’t get caught up in trying to show off literary prowess through complicated sentence structure and awesome alliteration and heady hyperbole and sneaky symbolism (OK, I’m doing some of that now ) – forget all the stuff you learnt in high school English … Just tell the story – in as simple and exciting a way as possible.
The feedback also made me realise something about humour and “voice”. Children like straightforward humour and express/experience things in a much more straighforward way. None of that wry, ironic, self-reflective stuff – trying to be too clever (we’re talking middle grade here, so I’m not insulting any teens/young adults! ) So my initial opening scene had Honey wondering about the visitor at the front door as her human comes into the room and announces that she has a surprise for Honey.
This was my original version:
“I’ve got a surprise for you,” she smiled over her shoulder, as she headed for the front door.
Hmm. Honey sat back on her haunches. In her experience, when humans said they had a “surprise”, it was time to be wary. Humans have a strange idea of what dogs might like as a surprise - things like dressing up in Silly Costumes or even - Honey shuddered - the dreaded Bath.
But a Great Dane lives forever in hope, so Honey ambled over to the front door, thinking that perhaps this time, Olivia might have finally got it right. Perhaps this time, the “surprise” would be a nicely stinky, rotting bone…or a pile of duck poo, just perfect for rolling in…or maybe even –
The front door swung open.
After getting all the feedback from the children, I re-wrote the opening scene to this:
“Hey, Honey…have I got a surprise for you!”
Honey turned around. Her human, Olivia, had come into the room and was smiling as she unlocked the front door.
Ooh, a surprise? Honey wagged her tail and tried to push past Olivia to see. Maybe it was the Pizza Man? Honey loved the Pizza Man – he would always bring a big, flat box that smelled oh, just heavenly and Olivia would let her have something called “crusts”. Mmm…Honey started drooling just thinking about it.
Or maybe the Post Man? The Post Man was cool too. He would bring cardboard boxes sometimes and Olivia would let Honey play with them once they were empty. Yah! Rrrrrrrip! Honey loved to crash around the house, tearing up the boxes with her teeth and shaking her head, throwing the pieces everywhere.
Or maybe it was -
The front door swung open.
OK, I’m not saying it’s wonderful or perfect but I think it works better than the first version. Because the first one shows Honey wryly thinking of all the things that she hopes the surprise is NOT, then backtracking to the possibilities of what the surprise could be…it’s all a bit convoluted, whereas in the second one, she just thinks directly of all the things she hopes the surprise IS. It might have lost some of the ironic humour of the 1st version but I think the tone of the 2nd version also sounds more appealing to children. Aside from anything else, I also think it’s more representative of the way a dog would think – in a much more straightfoward, linear fashion – and the “voice” sounds more realistic. The voice of Honey in the first version sounds a bit too adult and self-aware, I think.
Anyway, it’s been a eye-opening week for me and I have been so grateful for all the feedback I have received. I think I’ve learnt more from the feedback from “real” children than from all the courses and books and articles I’ve read on writing for children. Suddenly, I feel like I know what to do – how to go about it. That doesn’t mean I’m going to write a brilliant children’s book now but at least I feel that I have a better undestanding of what a children’s novel should be like and have a better chance of producing one!
In fact, the first morning after I received all this incredible feedback, I was so encouraged and motivated that I sat down at my desk and ignored the usual distractions of blogging, Facebook, emails, admin, Google Reader…and just wrote and wrote and wrote.
I re-wrote Chapter 1 and finally finished it. Since then I’ve powered through Chapter 2 and today, I wrote Chapter 3 – that’s 2,000 words in a day. I’m smokin’ , baby!
Oh, and there is a bit of irony in all this after all. While the feedback I got from my writers’ group wasn’t actually that helpful or relevant in the end – if they hadn’t made that comment, it would never have spurred me to ask the followers of Honey’s blog – and I would never have tapped into this wonderful support group of volunteer readers I have now nor gained all this enlightenment and motivation which ha helped me get my ‘writing mojo’ back. So in a weird roundabout way, the writers’ group did help after all!
Well, I’m sorry for this long, self-indulgent post but I was just so excited and happy to be back on track – finally! – that I just had to share it. And perhaps what I’ve discovered about “writing for children” might be useful too to any other aspiring authors out there reading this.