Novels have always been and probably always will be my writing project of choice. I simply can’t get enough of digging my teeth into a good character, riveting plot and entrancing setting, weaving everything together until it comes out as a (hopefully) seamless work of art, ready for others to enjoy. But that doesn’t mean there’s no space for other writing. I genuinely enjoy sitting down to work on one of these articles several times a week, and poetry and journalling have been long-time favorites. I also like to switch around genres and tones in my writing to keep things interesting, though most people agree that I’m strongest with my fantasy and science fiction. Lately I was thinking about how these different forms of writing have affected my approach to writing novels, and I realized that there’s quite a bit! So I’ve decided to share these findings in a series of “What I Learned by…” posts on a weekly basis. To start with, here are some things I learned just recently by writing my first chapter book for elementary-aged children, part of a series my husband challenged me to write.
1. Know your strong points and play on them. In a children’s book, you don’t want to spend hundreds of pages setting up more subplots than you could keep up with. You have one immediate story and possibly one subplot that you’ll keep up with throughout the series. You need to keep your writing simple and direct. For me, that meant evaluating my own strengths and weaknesses in writing, and using those as a compass. My personal strong points needed to be built up to their best potential–mystery, building suspense and adding surprises when least expected. At the same time, I decided to ignore my weaker points, sometimes completely–adult logic, continuity, and likelihood of my coincidences actually happening. It was intimidating and at times counter-intuitive, but it turned into one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever produced because I was focusing on all the areas where my writing was already strong, and making them excellent.
2. When dealing with your readers, be deliberate. I had to change my writing when I was writing for a younger audience. I had to simplify my natural vocabulary and shorten my sentences so that they would be easier for a young child to understand. That didn’t mean I couldn’t use big words. It meant that when I did use big words, I had to use them deliberately. I either had to define them in the writing or put them in a context that would enable people to identify what they meant. Usually in writing I advocate for writing for yourself instead of for your readers, but sometimes you need to remember that other people will hopefully be reading the words you’re putting down on the page now. When those times come, try to think of multiple ways to help your readers out. Adjust your pacing, shift your vocabulary and tone, and do what it takes. Your writing will only get better because of it.
3. Remember to have fun. When you’re writing a kids’ book, you can’t afford to have any boring sections at all. You need to keep things exciting, mysterious, or at least mildly humorous. You need to keep it moving. Whenever I got to an important scene, I would do something to make it more fun to write (and read) than I had planned initially. Sometimes that meant letting the villain tell a snarky joke, or a sudden twist in the plot that shifted things just enough to make it interesting again. It was a delightfully fun experience throughout the book, and it taught me that there is really no excuse for boring-ness in a novel.
Writing my first kids’ book forced me to take my writing to a smaller and more direct scale, which made me take an approach more akin to storytelling than to novel writing. It was a terrific experience, and I’ll definitely be writing more in the upcoming future. I recommend it, and come back next week for my next “What I Learned by…” article!