Wednesday, 27 March 2013

6 things kids can teach us about writing

1.       Scribble

The skill that gives rise to fridge masterpieces the world over. Kids don’t scribble their words intentionally (most of the time), they just have very few inhibitions. They have, initially at least, a confidence that they can do it any way they can and it’ll be great regardless. Just getting some shapes on the paper is a big enough achievement to generate praise from an adoring adult. And that’s what we lose sight of. Getting words on paper is such an everyday thing, something we’re expected to be able to do, that we minimise the achievement in doing it.

Every word you write is one step closer to a whole book. A few paragraphs and you’ve got a scene going, things are happening, we’re on the way. A few scenes and we’ve got a chapter, then an act. We’re looking at the old headlight analogy again, if you’re driving from London to Edinburgh at night, you know you’ll reach Edinburgh eventually, but all you can see at any one moment is the 300 feet in front of you which is illuminated by your headlights.

It’s the same with writing a novel. Concentrate on the present moment you are in and write like a kid with a crayon, freely, uninhibited and deal with any surprises as they appear. Be proud of the fact that you’ve written X number of words, no matter what that number is, because it’s all forward movement. Every author wrote their novel one word at a time. Be satisfied with what you did today and you’ll turn up again tomorrow.

As for writing without inhibitions, Ernest Hemingway would have told you “The first draft of anything is sh*t”. It takes repeated effort, turning up each day and carrying on with it that gets you to the end. You may not get praise for those individual slogs at the keyboard, but mention that you wrote an 80,000 word novel to your nearest and dearest and you’ll find most people are impressed. What they’re impressed with, this time, is your commitment.

2.       Read aloud

Kids do it so we can correct them and help them when they’re not quite getting it. Same rules apply. If you read your work out loud or better still, have someone else do it, you’ll soon see which words are blocking the flow, which ones sound awkward and where the dialogue sounds false. Having someone else read it will also show you how your readers will read it in their heads. You’ll be surprised how often they interpret a sentence differently to you, this may show up by your reader stalling and perhaps re-reading a sentence so it sounds right the second time round. For kids it’s learning, for us it’s editing, is there much difference?

3.       Words are MAGIC

And not just for levitating the lid off the biscuit barrel. Kids know the power of words, they spend enough time mastering each one, not to mention their reactions to “NO”, “I’ll count to 3…” and “Sweeties”.

Francine Prose gives many an excellent example of powerful wording in her book “Reading Like A Writer” (if you’re a writer and you haven’t read it, DO). In the following extract, she shows how a single word (or lack of something to accompany it) subtly alters the opening sentence and also serves as the first small mystery we want solved:

“crucial revelations are in the spaces between words, in what has been left out. Such is the case with the opening of Katherine Mansfield’s “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”:
                The week after was one of the busiest weeks of their lives…
…if you read it quickly, you might skip right past the fact that there is no object for that temporal preposition after. The week after… what?...By leaving out the object of after in the very first sentence, Katherine Mansfield establishes the rules or the lack of rules that allow the story to adopt a distanced third-person point of view along with a fluidity that lets it penetrate the dusty, peculiar recesses of the two sisters’ psyches.” [pg 19-20]

As author Isabel Allende said “It’s worth the work to find the precise word that will create a feeling or describe a situation”. We often strive for perfect wording, but having written several thousand sentences on a project, we can sometimes get lost in the sheer bulk of it. Sometimes we spend more time crafting the sentences we tweet than the ones we put in our books. Food for thought.

4.       We don’t think the same

Or, what I find interesting is not necessarily what you find interesting. Cardboard boxes, for instance. Kids learn this concept between the ages of 15 to 18 months (this fact from a great TED talk by psychologist Alison Gopnik) and yet we sometimes forget to apply this.

We’ve all read books where we’re tempted to skip entire chapters because we want to know what’s happened to our favourite character and he/she isn’t in this bit. Other times we want to skip because we’re just so bored of a character. The trouble is, your favourite may not be your readers’ favourite.
Now, we can’t please all the people, all the time and we shouldn’t try, but we can make sure we work on the balance of our stories. This is where a good editor or beta reader comes in handy. Remember that your subplots should support, be relevant and be crucial to your main plot. Don’t wander so far from the main action that your plot stalls along with your readers’ interest.

Robin Hobb’s solution to this in her Farseer Trilogy was through a type of psychic link she created called Skilling. This enabled her to show subplots through the eyes of her main character, FitzChivalry, occasionally with the audience understanding more than he does. Look at J K Rowling’s Ollivander. Sometimes a single meeting with a character can create a familiarity, if not a love, that makes us go “Look who it is!!” several books later.

There are many ways of keeping things balanced and intertwined, but maintaining your readers’ interest is key. Just remember that the necessary scene you’re rushing through may be the one that your readers were most eagerly waiting for… still give it your best.

5.       Description is boring

If you’ve ever read a school book with a child, you’ll know the danger signs; the glazing over, the fidgety bum syndrome and the excuses not to read that soon follow a dull passage. I’ve noticed it nearly always happens after a description. To be fair, kids have an incredibly short attention span and little tolerance for things that bore them, but reading is supposed to be enjoyable as an adult too, so we shouldn’t have to be tolerant of dull writing just because we grew up.
My general rule is, if you notice there’s description, then there’s too much. This is, of course, presuming you are engrossed in the forward motion of your book and not analysing it. One or two sentences are fine, but description doesn’t have to stand alone. Incorporate it into the action. Have your characters interact with it. Give the description a point. If it has to stand alone, don’t take too long over it. A publisher once said “I’m sick of hearing all the different ways you can describe a night”. Enough said.

6.       Everyone lives happily ever after

Unfortunately they don’t, but that’s not the underlying reason kids like their happy endings. No, they don’t want to be traumatised, but equally, they don’t want to be disappointed. This doesn’t change as we grow up. We don’t mind a surprise, a well done twist can be very satisfying, but what really gets our goat is disappointment that the story either doesn’t dish out appropriate levels of justice or it doesn’t live up to its promise.

Justice is an easier one. The horrific baddie should pay for his deeds accordingly, not suffer a merciful death or get away with the girl and the cash. The hero can die, but if he fails to meet his goal as well, that just doesn’t sit right and the reader is left dissatisfied.

Promise can be the trickier part. Much in the way you carefully set up the tone, style and premise of your story in the opening scene, your ending needs to match the rest of your book. Yes, especially if there’s a twist. Whilst you need to bear this in mind as you go, this is something that is best checked ‘in post’, during an edit, because your knowledge of, and your relationship with, your characters and the world they occupy will no doubt have changed as you write your way through your novel. It takes a while to get to know characters. Reading through your story as a whole, and asking others to do the same, can help pick out any discrepancies. Would your character really do the things you’re making them do? Your protagonist needs to have grown since the start, but a sudden change at the end won’t make sense unless you’ve built up to that. Making sure your ending lives up to your book’s promise will keep your readers satisfied and eager to return your next book.



  1. Great blog Heather! Picasso said 'when I was ten years old I could draw like Raphael, it took me a lifetime to learn to draw like a child.' Sometimes that's how I feel about writing.

    1. Hi Chris, thank you very much. That's a great quote and I'd have to agree. We have so many qualities as a child that are stamped out of us by education etc. it's good to go back to our simplest form, if you like, without all that social complication. Definitely helps with the creativity! (Sorry the reply took so long, apparently Google doesn't much like Firefox!)