Becky Levine (beckylevine) wrote,
Becky Levine
beckylevine

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The Joy of Writing for Kids

One thing I haven't blogged much about here are my own writing projects. I think it's that don't-tempt-the-fates kind of thing. If I blog about my writing, what might go wrong with it? What might I not have success with? I know, I don't seem the doom-and-gloom type, but ask my family and close friends. Worry? Anxiety? Some of my strongest skills.

However, I am having so much downright, all-out, pure & unadulterated fun with this latest project, that it's time to share. Lucky you! 

I've spent many years working on a mystery novel. I started it WAAAAYYYY back when, and it's been a huge part of the learning curve about my own writing. In the last year or so, I've felt like it was definitely coming into its own; all the things I've learned from practice and from my critique group have started paying off and showing up and turning it into a real book. I've gotten (FINALLY!!!) attached to my protagonist and care about what happens to her.

And then I got this other idea. Blame my addiction to children's fiction. Blame my son for getting older and loving mysteries like Bruce Hale's Chet Gecko series and Wendelin van Draanen's Shredderman. Blame my mystery critique group for saying, sure, start a kid's mystery and we'll welcome it here. (All right, I think, at first, they said, "Okkaaayyy," and exchanged those looks that said, what the heck is she doing?!) Blame it on April Kihlstrom for teaching the Book in a Week seminar that got me on the roller coaster that was my first draft (30+ pages a day for five days of sheer highs, followed by two weeks of an absolute crash).

Or, if you have to, blame it on Joel & Victoria--the two detectives in the middle-grade mystery I've been writing since last spring.

Everywhere you listen, you'll hear people telling you that writing kids' fiction is no easier than writing fiction for adults. And they'll be right. First of all, you rarely get as many words or pages in which to tell your story. (Yes, J.K. Rowling has totally broken through that wall, but J.K. Rowling is J.K. Rowling.) You have to step back in years to find that attitude and perspective you've "grown out of." And you have to write incredibly tight for children; they will readily put down any book that isn't holding them. I've seen my son do it time and time again.

However, I do think there are some ways, at least for me, in which writing for children is easier. First of all, the word-count limitation is working magic for me. One of my first jobs was doing closed-captioning for television. We had to caption television shows and movies for deaf and hearing-impaired viewers. We had a reading rate to "edit" to, which meant we had to listen to on-screen jokes, cut out words, and keep the humor. Okay, granted, sometimes that humor was hard, if not impossible, to find, but--in any case--the punchline had to stay. I loved that work. And it was the best training ground in the world for trimming out excess words and phrases. I now keep a word count going on each chapter, and when I know I'm going too long, I go back. I reread, and I trim. It's a blast, and the writing always comes out better.

Here's another thing. I write mysteries. In "grown-up" books, this means bodies. One body in the first few chapters, another somewhere in the middle, and--if there isn't a third one at the end--there's a serious threat that it may pop up on any page. I don't mind bodies. I like bodies. What I don't seem to enjoy so much is the angst around them. In my grown-up mystery, the victim is a close friend of the heroine. That means that, every time I sit down to write a chapter, I have to keep thinking--how badly does my heroine still feel about this death? How can I show that, weave it in with the action and dialog. How much can I put in, without irritating--and losing--my reader.  Guess what? In kids' mysteries--no bodies. Phyllis Whitney warns us children's writers not to go there. Now, she hasn't written any juvenile mysteries in a good, what, 30+ years, but look around. Most people are still following her advice. The only bodies I've seen in kids' mysteries show up in a couple of the later Sammy Keyes books, and the victims aren't people Sammy knews. Plus, there isn't a lot of violence or emotion around the murders.

So what do kids solve? Robberies, vandalism, bullying. And, guess what? Without bodies, the kids have a blast. So do I.

But the most fun? For me, I'm finding out it's the voice. Yes, it's also the hardest part. Here I am, a forty-four-year-old woman (I refuse to call myself middle-aged; I've got at least another six years until then!), writing in the first-person point of view of a twelve-year-old boy. Talk about twisting your brain into knots. Talk about staring at the screen and trying to remember every conversation you've heard on the playground, between your son and his friends, when your nephews visit, when you're in the movie theater. You tell me--what do kids today say instead of "For Pete's Sake!"? 

At the same time, however, it's incredibly freeing. I just get to be sillier and sillier and sillier. I get to stage food fights and have my kids swing from doorways. I get to use words like "wacko" and "nut case" and call people "dude." Instead of saying "vomit," I get to write, "barf." I get to call people names--my favorite so far is, "Miss Limp Noodle." 

Yes, probably, in the final passes, a lot of these things will get changed. Probably I haven't yet got the hang of it, don't really know the right middle-school slang. I'm going to have to find tweens to read my book, and they'll laugh at parts and (hopefully!) tell me all the things I've done wrong. And I'll have to change them.

You know what? That's going to be fun, too! 

I'm a little worried about the heroine from my grown-up mystery. I haven't talked with her in a while. I miss her. A voice in the back of my mind tells me I have to go back to her, I can't abandon her. I think she still has a place in my life.

Today, though, I'm concentrating on the kids. They're lightening my days and sending energy through my fingers onto the keyboard. And, like a dream, they're letting me put page after page into my computer and out my printer. 

And, really, if anybody tells me I'm on the wrong path, that I should be taking things more seriously, dedicating myself to a novel with more depth, more profundity? To them, I send a big, old, juicy...RASPBERRY!
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