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.
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.
We’re always told the most powerful writing comes from experience. This, I suppose, is because we have a particular insight into the material. I hadn’t thought about it much, beyond what I’ve just said, until yesterday. Yesterday was my daughter’s first birthday party. We had about twenty friends over and numerous small children. They all enjoyed eating the food my wife and I slaved over all saturday. We could have bought all the food, but we enjoy cooking, so we did.
As if running a first birthday weren’t experience enough, on the saturday night, I discovered the hard way that the chicken was tainted. At about ten that night I went to bed feeling bloated and a bit sick. I figured it was just the beer I’d had combined with a long day and not enough sleep. At eleven thirty I yawned a yawn verging on the Technicolor. It went downhill from there. I’ll leave out the finer detail, but by the time I was at my in-laws farm waiting for the first guests to arrive I felt like death. I hadn’t slept all night, my guts roiled and churned and the mere thought of food made me swallow heavily. I spent much of the day in bed, rising occasionally to be sociable and to drink apple juice. The peculiar thing about this episode was that throughout it I was thinking of how I would describe it in writing. I was aware of my condition and was mentally taking notes about it. Before taking up writing I never did such things. I’ve found myself doing it with other experiences too. A delicious meal I had, a funny moment, the feeling of dread just as my little girl fell from the couch and others.
I wonder if it is something we should all do, regardless if we are writing or not? Since paying attention to my daily experiences I feel I’ve gained insight into myself and more fully appreciate things as they happen. When I was running my first marathon and my legs twitched with pain with each plodding foot fall I was secretly observing the sensation, documenting it even while I agonised through it. I think we should all pay attention to our experiences, even the bad ones. We don’t have time machines to allow us to go back so it is only memories that we have. The stronger those memories, the more rich a life we live don’t we?
Suffice to say I now have the “joy” of food poisoning to add to my experiences from which I can draw to add spice to my writing. Have you found yourself taking notes even as you are going through something great, or horrible?
No, this isn’t an emo blog about my life. I’m going to waffle on about these two most ancient story forms and how they are related. I personally think tragedy is easier to write than comedy. Why?
To start, I’ll define tragedy as I refer to it. I may well have the same definition as in a dictionary, but I can’t guarantee that. Essentially a tragedy is a story that you wanto have a happy ending, but you just can’t see it having one. You hope against all odds that things work out, but you know they won’t and in the end you are right. They don’t work out happy. Probably the most famous tragedy is Romeo and Juliet. Two lovers separated by a feud between families, they try a desperate plan to be together. As you know, they do manage to be together, but only ironically in death. Right until the last moment, just before Juliet (I think it was Juliet) stabs herself in the heart you are hoping the monk arrives and tells her Romeo is just asleep. Even if he did, is there any way they could really be together?
Comedic writing is difficult. I know this because I’ve tried it and I’ve read a fair bit of it. There are many, many comedic writers but only two that really spring to mind; Romeo and Juliet. No, just kidding. I was trying to demonstrate the similarity between comedy and tragedy. The two writers are Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. They both write in a similar style, though different genres. Comedy works in many different ways, but in particular when comparing with tragedy you can think of it as anti-tragedy. You see the end coming from a mile off and you think you know how it will be but at the last-minute it turns on itself in a happy way. Like I attempted with my sentence above about there being two writers. I was hoping you were thinking of two writers, most likely Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett but then I turned back and brought up the same example I used for the tragedy. The juxtaposition and disruption of expectation should have made you split your sides laughing. I know it didn’t, though, and that’s just something I’m going to have to live with.
Which do I prefer?
I think, like everyone, I have a perverse love of the tragedy. You see the build up, you know it is hopeless but you really wish for something to happen, a deus ex machina like superman to save the day. In Romeo and Juliet you are left with a bittersweet ending where the two lovers express their eternal devotion in the most dramatic and permanent way they could. Though they died, in truth they managed to be together. It is that ironic poetry that calls to me and I think to everyone. The mysterious popularity of vampire romance stories amply demonstrates our love for tragedy. What could be more hopeless than a romance between predator and prey? (Other than the wagon loads of appalling fan fic it generates)
Why do I write these blogs? In part it is to keep myself writing, in part it is for me to practice writing and in part because I’m so vain as to think I’ll be famous one day and people will care. Mostly it is the vanity. OK, it is entirely the vanity. My blogs will be the first digital exhibit at the Louvre that will draw crowds like the Mona Lisa. There I said it.
In trying to make characters more lifelike we often push hard to examine and explain to the reader the character’s feelings. However, if it were that easy we wouldn’t need psychiatrists and therapists would we? Sometimes we feel inner turmoil, a struggle with something that we can’t understand. Sometimes there is just a coiling feeling of ‘something’ that gnashes and claws at our guts, pushing us to act, to do anything to try to relieve that feeling.