Now I have a child and another on the way I’m wondering what it would take to write a children’s story. I guess I’m talking about a book aimed at eight to ten year olds. It seems pathetically simple to write one of those “see spot run, run spot run” type of books. I feel it is significantly more difficult to write a book that a primary school kid would enjoy.
I don’t want to write a condescending book nor a book that introduces concepts alien to a child’s world. For example the ideas behind money and banking are a little abstract for even educated adults to grasp let alone an eight year old. I also doubt any kind of sexuality based concepts would strike a chord and complex emotional themes that lead toward cathartic drug use or self harm might be a bit much as well. So what does that leave? I think it leaves a great many things. For example loneliness, friendship and the joy of belonging. Ownership issues are wide open though just not the finer political points. I also don’t think you can be too subtle. It might be a bit much for a youngster to come to grasp with much subtext.
For a story to be understood it must be written in the language of the target audience. That means picking a vocabulary and grammar approachable by a fifth grader. While at that age I’d imagine they understand pretty much all the words you’d want to use, they may not pick up on some of the more technical aspects of grammar. While considering that I think I’d also want to make sure I challenge them every now and then; I don’t want to patronise them.
When writing for a young reader you have a responsibility to not frighten or disturb them. I remember I watched a bit of the movie An American Werewolf in London when I was seven and it scared the crap out of me. I had nightmares for years after. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point, I became immune to imagery based fear and suspense. My wife refuses to watch horror movies because she simply can’t bare the suspense. I don’t see what the fuss is. A monster jumps out and rips a character in two and it doesn’t seem to bother me; I’m more interested in how realistic the effects are.
I had an idea for a child’s book. It was that a young boy was born into a special family (aren’t they all?). It is a family of half dragons. Somewhere in the family’s past they descended from some legendary dragon who chose to live as a human. The special thing about this boy is that he has no dragon ability at all. Everyone else in his family can breathe fire, shape change a little, speak with lizards and are unaffected by fire and heat. This boy is perfectly human in all respects. Obviously this makes him the black sheep. He even has to go to a normal human school so he won’t be picked on. Well it so happens that his family, and the other half dragons, start to get sick. He is the only one to escape the terrible flu that has put his family and family friends in bed, unable to get up. He has to rise up and find a cure before his family all revert to simple lizards. I haven’t though much more than this, but I like the twist that he is special because he is the only normal one. Being normal of course means he doesn’t get the dragon flu but it also makes it that much harder for him to find the cure.
Maybe I’ll flesh this idea out a little.
Am I talking about the fun and exciting word game? Sort of, but not literally. In the game you have to describe something to get your partner to say a particular word but you aren’t allowed to use that word or any of a list of associated words. In writing are there any taboo subjects? Is there something you simply can’t write about?
Obviously different cultures have different taboos. For example in Thailand you aren’t allowed to criticise the royal family. This is both a cultural and legal taboo. In most countries you shouldn’t write about the abusive relationship between an adult and a child in any way but as an abhorrent deviation. But are these boundaries worth preserving just for the sake of preservation or is it an artist’s duty to deconstruct these taboos? A photographer in Australia recently (a couple of years ago now) released a photo series of nudes that resulted in protests both supporting his artistic merit and condemning him for perversion. The subject was a fourteen year old girl. None of the photos could be said to be sexually explicit as they involved heavy use of light and shadow and fairly neutral poses. But the question was raised of if perversion is in the eye of the beholder or if it is representable.
Art is often about challenging our perceptions. Sometimes it challenges our perception of colour, light and shade and at other times it challenges our distinction between real and unreal. Other times it asks us what is wrong with those things we all take for granted as wrong. More recently an artist inspired angry mutterings because his landscape portrait of Port Arther in Tasmania included a small, almost ghostly, image of Martin Bryant the infamous mass murderer of Port Arther. People raised their voices saying it glorified his actions, that it painted the town as somehow complicit in his actions. The artist said he included the image because, like it or not, the murderer has become a permanent mark on the landscape. We can’t just wash him away and pretend it never happened. The fact people got upset reinforced the requirement of the inclusion of the image. When you see the landscape painting you are supposed to be upset about that part of history. To ignore it is to disrespect the people who died.
Is a novel art enough?
So in writing a novel can we use topics that disgust, repel or horrify? Certainly horror novels do, but they use those topics as their source of plot. You are intended to be scared and you know it is evil. Is it possible to have a serial killer who dismembers his victims in a cold and clinical manner be the hero? Could we have a book where we quietly barrack for the cannibal psychopath? It seems we can because they made Darkly Dreaming Dexter into a TV show and Hannibal Lector starred in Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon. But what about the quieter, more insidious taboos? Sure, Lolita very daringly explored the topic of a teen fascination with an older man and vice versa but it was written to be a literary novel. I’m talking about genre fiction. Imagine an urban fantasy about a forty year old man and his desire for young boys. Now imagine he isn’t the villain but rather the hero (or anti-hero). could that be done? Maybe it could but I’m not sure I’d have the stomach to try. How would you present the main character and his desire in a way that the reader felt some sympathy for him so they wouldn’t just hope he was caught by the police and locked away forever?
Stepping back from the brink
Now I’ve got you thinking in dark directions try stepping back a tad. Pick a taboo less distasteful (to you) and see if you could think of a way to make a protagonist sympathetic and heroic while engaged in your chosen perversion. Maybe your hero could be eighteen and in love with a sixty year old woman or perhaps he gains power by eating parts of willing victims. You’d need a strong background and powerful reason for such a person to be the way they are. It seems too easy to just have a guy who is honourable, charming and classy without any real background as to why. If your hero has a dark streak, especially if it is a rather dark streak, you need to provide background and you need to work constantly to keep the reader from turning away is revulsion. That is art surely? I might try it some time.
There is an important distinction to be made between premise, plot and setting. People read for the plot, imagine the setting and become intrigued with the premise. Come for the premise, stay for the plot you might say. It may seem obvious that there is a difference between all three but in practice it can be hard to understand how they work together or against each other.
The premise is the base concept behind your story. For example: An airliner crashes on a mysterious island inhabited by a strange and unseen monster. That is a premise. You can get a lot out of it without having any sort of plot. You could write about some characters getting on the plane. Then you could write about the way the plane crashes and the immediate reactions of each of the characters as they stand around in a daze wondering what has happened. Eventually though you’ll run out of premise and you’d better have a plot handy or people will lose interest.
The setting is the world the story takes place in. Sometimes this is tightly bound to the premise, but still separate. For example you could have your story take place on a tropical island cut off from the rest of the world. You could have mysterious anachronisms and misplaced animals and a force capable of healing people. The setting can be strongly in focus or just a backdrop to a dramatic plot. You won’t get much out of a setting without a plot, but you could have the before mentioned characters wander around bumping into polar bears and spotting ghosts of their dead fathers. Once that novelty wears off you’d better have a plot handy…
The plot is how everything happens and provides the motivation and direction for the characters and so indirectly the reader. It helps if your plot starts at point A, moves to point C through point B. Some authors get tricky and play with timelines by starting at B, head toward C but explain that direction through revisiting A. The point is you need to have an end point and you need to let people know you are heading toward it. A trick ending, like M. Night Shayamalan likes to have will only work if the plot looks like it is leading one direction before twisting. If the plot is directionless to start with it doesn’t matter what ending you have because the entire plot will feel like a trick.
Bring it all together
The best thing to do is bring it all together. Have a powerful, driving plot exploring an intriguing premise in a rich and interesting setting. This is much harder than you think. Many stories come out of a premise or a setting. You might be thinking “Wouldn’t it be cool if when Niel Armstrong landed on the moon he discovered what looked like an Egyptian ankh medallion inside a mystic circle.” That sort of premise can excite you to start writing. You think you’ve got a plot but really you only have a premise. Once the medallion is found and Armstrong says “Wow” then what? Likewise you can have an exciting science fiction setting with spaceships and aliens but if your plot is simply an alien drug dealer murders a guy and the good guy has to catch him then why bother with the spaceships? Why have an alien drug dealer? You’d better make sure you have something in your setting that means your story couldn’t take place in any other setting without completely changing everything.
The West Queen came about as an organic mix of setting (an old world I created for a roleplaying game), premise (What if a god was a force of change only and it was people who made that change good or evil) and plot (the rise and fall of a number of powerful people / families). So I’ve reached book 2 and I’ve plotted out book 3 to an extent (the final). On the other hand Angel Bones is all premise and setting and I ran out of plot. I like the premise and love the setting so I’ll be taking a step back and coming up with a plot before resuming writing of that book.
Well, I got a free e-book. The Intergalactic Medicine Show is a science fiction and fantasy magazine that publishes short stories. They recently released a compilation of their best short stories. For the first couple of days it was available for free from Amazon and so i got it. The stories are really interesting and very entertaining, so well worth it.
I don’t have a dedicated reader so I just used my Android with the Kindle app. The screen is a little small, but I got used to it. It is really convenient because my phone is fairly small and I carry it pretty much everywhere. I can pull it out, fire up the book and have a read. With a physical book I need a little more planning and lugging it around everywhere is a bit of a chore. This book was free (I think it is $3 now) so very good value for money. I could definitely see myself buying books like this.
As chance would have it, I was also cleaning out the spare room to turn it into another nursery (because one baby is never enough). I had to shift a book-case and all the books out. While I was doing it I was looking at the covers and remembering the good times reading them. It was amazing to see so many books all piled up and to think they could all easily fit on my phone. But you know what? Both my wife and I have read all those books. Many of them came from my mum or she has read while staying. My dad also has read most of them and we’ve lent a number of them out to friends. The e-book I have on my phone isn’t really capable of the same kind of use. I haven’t looked into it, but even if there isn’t any DRM I would have to take a bit of effort to copy and send the book and then whoever got the copy would have to some how organise it in their reader. Oh, and being a good little boy I would have to delete the copy from my phone (bollocks the lot of it). Certainly less convenient than just pointing at my shelf and letting my mum rummage to her heart’s content.
Are They Good or Bad?
It an e-book cost the same as a physical book I’d say go for the physical one unless you specifically need it to take no room (you’re travelling) and you didn’t intend to lend it to anyone (that’s theft remember? It’s called copy right violation letting anyone else enjoy the words you’ve read). I would say the e-book would have to be significantly cheaper than the physical version to worth buying. As it happens, in Australia a paperback will set you back about $20 (yes you lovely people in the US, that’s a lot). But when I buy a book I expect at least three people to read it (me, my wife and my mum) so I think an e-book would need to be at most $6.66 so I could buy three copies. But considering I wouldn’t then have the option of donating to the Salvoes or lending to a friend or just filling my bookshelf for my kids to eventually read I would say the upper limit for an e-book would be about $3 if it was any good, $1 if it was only acceptable and free otherwise. Just think of it. I bought David Eddings’ Belgariad to re-read (I originally read my mum’s copies which have since gone separate ways). I stacked it on my shelf and thought to myself it would be perfect for my little daughter to read in thirteen or so years. She wouldn’t need to re-buy it or have a special reader. She could take it from the shelf and snuggle up in bed and read like I did when I was in highschool. Had I bought the e-book version that would not be possible because in thirteen years the format will probably be out of date and I doubt I’d still have it on a storage medium that worked.
How Many Are Lost?
I have to wonder how many wonderful books and other works of art are lost because we are not allowed to make copies of them. Already there are many e-books that are never released in hard copy format. When you buy one of those it is illegal to print it out because that apparently is theft and you wouldn’t steal a car would you? How many books never see the number of readers they deserve because you can’t loan them to another person? That’s also theft. Heaven forbid the words you paid to see are seen by anyone else! Imagine if you accidentally said one of those words out loud? That would be like stealing all the money from a bank and throwing it up in the air wouldn’t it? I think e-books, when combined with ridiculous copy right laws will result in the loss of untold number of books and all the art, culture and entertainment they contain. Will book collectors in the future hunt down old Kindles with first editions on them or will anything not published on paper be lost forever? This is the same for movies and television shows. Because of the length of copy right we have lost many wonderful things because no one was allowed to make copies to preserve the work. Oh well. I think at some point I’ll have to put my money where my mouth is and freely distribute my work so it has the best chance of living on beyond me.
I read a comment, and I’ve heard it before, that vaguely medieval European settings are a bit old hat in the fantasy genre. The Lord of the Rings set the standard, C.S. Lewis did little to break the mould and David Eddings and Robert Jordan took the ball and ran with it. So has it been done to death and is there room for more? Oh, no! The West Queen is set in an essentially European setting with swords and armour and horses. Am I done for?
Short Answer Yes.
The longer answer, ironically is no. Yes, medieval Europe has become a cliché. To such an extent that it is common to find whole books in the setting with little or no world building besides a couple of fantasy sounding names like The Forest of Doom and Zal’Ach-Kador. But I don’t think the rules have ever changed with regards to the setting or story. I don’t doubt Stephanie Meyers was told a vampire love story would never sell, but it did.
The key is to have something that makes the reader stop, cock their head to the side and squint trying to fit your world together. Meyers did it by having sparkly vampires and by having the misfit at the new school not immediately get bullied to the point of near suicide. David Eddings did it by having literal gods walking about and talking to people and by making everything so quaint as to feel like it came from a fantasy theme park. Jordan took the world’s cultures and mixed them all up so that one racial type wore another cultures clothes and had names and society more similar to another altogether.
The rules haven’t changed. It has always been that you should not rely on cliché except to break that cliché. However there is another important factor to consider. One I call the Gardening Australia / Better Homes and Gardens model. Each year Gardening Australia has a segment on how to prune your fruit trees and Better Homes and Gardens show you how to train a dog or paint a wall or something. If you’ve been a regular watcher for years you will have seen the same information over and over. This is much like if you’ve read enough fantasy novels you’ll have come across the same cliché over and over. The idea is that each year there are new viewers, new gardeners, who haven’t seen the pruning segment. If you only catered to the people who started watching the series from the very first episode, by year ten you’d be up to advanced horticulture including latin naming and discussion of the exact bio-chemistry taking place inside a tree. This is also how Justin Bieber succeeds. The current crop of thirteen year olds didn’t live through the boy band explosion of the nineties, the new romantics of the eighties, sugar pop of the seventies and so on. They can’t see that Justin Bieber is a manufactured sweetie engineered to sicken because to them he is original and fresh. Imagine if you could that you had never heard pop music before. Imagine also that you are a young girl as yet unscathed by the harsh realities call “men”. A cute, slightly effeminate and inoffensive boy with a sweet voice who sings catchy rhythm and blues oriented pop would be like seeing Jesus come back from the dead. To me, a man approaching middle age he is just another face stuck to the front of a song writing and promotion team. So yo can write a purely cliché fantasy in a stock medieval European world as long as you expect to catch only the people who have never really read any fantasy before. Each year millions of people enter that market. All those kids growing up and discovering books for the first time or the long time romance reader who decides to take a stab at an epic fantasy will be your market.
The West Queen
Having said all of that I like to think the world of The West Queen has just enough difference in it to lure people in. There is no storyteller guiding a young man to the fulfillment of his destiny. There is no prophecy and no princess to rescue. More or less everyone knows their ancestry and those that don’t aren’t from lost royal lines. The real difference comes from the mysterious and morally ambiguous story. And the insanity of at least a couple of the main characters.