Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Some notes on writing fiction and writing for kids

"I think it'd be really funny if you became known for writing fiction," Alex told me Friday, as we lapped up our delicious Thai food, catching up after a week of busy schedules that had kept us apart.

He wasn't being mean, as if he had meant to say, "It would shock me if you became a famous writer."

He just knows how deep my love for nonfiction -- both reading and writing -- goes, and this recent turn in my writing goals has been a surprise to all of us, perhaps most of all to moi.

For those of you who are just joining us at the Daily Bailey, there are two things you should know:

1. I'm obsessed with memoirs, and have planned to write my own for quite some time.
2. I recently abandoned my memoir draft to work on a young adult novel instead.

If you're curious how the switch came about, I hope you're not on the edge of your seat expecting a dramatic tale of my change of heart. Here's what happened, in all it's glory:

I was driving to lunch.

I know. You were expecting more, weren't you? But that's all. I was driving to lunch, and it hit me. I should write a young adult novel.

It's a little more complicated than that, but mostly it's just that.

In addition to my memoir love, I do also quite enjoy young adult fiction, if for no other reason than it offers my brain a break. I love to think analytically, as memoirs and other adult books allow me to do, but sometimes I just want to sit back and read about why Amanda and Leo are fighting in 11 Birthdays (great book, check it out).

I also have known for a very long time that I want (need) to write about mental health.

So during my drive-to-lunch-for-a-tuna-sandwich epiphany, I suddenly put the two together: why not write a young adult novel about anxiety? Bam.

And from there, I'm happy to say it's been by and large a fun journey, and I am loving stitching together a life of my Morgan.

But why am I bringing this all up? Because I've had some thoughts about this fiction writing business, as well as writing for young people in particular, and I'd like to share them with you, get your thoughts in the comments, etc.

So let's move ahead, shall we?, with some things I've discovered in my fiction writing journey:

1. I used to think I couldn't create story out of thin air, and I'm realizing that's because it doesn't come from thin air. It comes from life.

Alex makes fun of me incessantly, because I'm all like, "I'm a writer I'm a writer I'm a writer!" but then I say things like, "I hate plot, and character, and setting."

What I mean when I say that is that books (and movies) like Lord of the Rings are not for me. I can't pay attention. In those stories, you're supposed to be so wrapped up in who the characters are, who their enemies are, what their environment looks and feels like, and, oh yeah, what happens in the story.

This is very hard to explain -- and in 11 months with Alex I haven't been able to successfully do so -- so bear with me here.

When I read a memoir, say, I could care less (usually) what the writer of the story looks like. I only care if she grew up in the Midwest if it affects her personality in a profound way. I only want to know about the people in her life who say key things to her at key moments. I don't care about every last night they spent together at the club throughout their twenties.

When I read fiction, I often think it's just a lot of filler. What the character is wearing, how the fly is buzzing around his head while he waits for his friend, where he sets his suitcase when he comes home from vacation.

Call me crass, but, um, I don't usually care about those details. Unless they're important.

There is an exception, and that's if the person writing the details is a freaking poet. In that case, I'm all ears (eyes?) for his well crafted words.

In a memoir, I feel like it's all about the analysis. The story is laid out for us in pages one through three, then the rest of the book is "This is how I felt about it, this is the wisdom I gained, etc. etc." This is more my style. When I see a movie, it's more about the little, poignant moments between characters for me than it is about the whole story itself.

I don't know if I'm making any sense, or just losing you here. Let's put it this way: I don't tend to care about what happens, I care about how everyone's feeling about it.

Now that I am reading more -- and writing! -- fiction, I am seeing the value in character and setting details in a story. I still struggle with plot. A friend asked me yesterday what the climax of my novel is, and I couldn't answer him. This might become a problem, but we will deal with that when publishers start rejecting me.


I used to think I just didn't have a good imagination, particularly for creating a story arc. I still think this is true of me. I think I'm better at telling you something that actually happened to me and how I processed it than I am at coming up with a bedtime story for my babysitting charges. And my novel has more to do with a girl fighting her emotions than it does her fighting with her environment, which I feel is (maybe?) uncommon.

What I am realizing, though, is that coming up with all those details that make a character who she is, is easier than I thought. Because it draws directly from life.

Whether it's something big (Morgan's brother draws from the personalities of my three brothers) or something small (her dad makes popcorn on the stove -- in real life, Alex does this), a lot of my narrative is coming from my life, past and present.

I consistently find myself surprised by the senses of humor that pop up in my characters -- they're an amalgamation of my humor, my dad's, my friends'.

Simply the way a parent puts a hand around a shoulder of Morgan is a drawing from how my parent would do the same.

Namely, I'm realizing I don't have to go to Morgan's school, live in her house, have her family, etc. to write her life about them. Because I have gone to a school, I have lived in a house, and I have a loving family to draw from for realistic and relatable inspiration.

2. Dialogue is easier than I thought it would be.

That said, I don't know yet if my dialogue's any good.

In the same vein as the discussion above, however, I'm finding that dialogue is easier to write than I previously thought.

I'm not a big dialogue person, as a writer or a reader.

As a talker, I'm big on dialogue. Real big.


In the same way that I can draw from my own life to craft Morgan's, I am finding that to write dialogue you simply have to do one of two things:

a) Think of what you would say in a particular moment, or
b) How you would expect someone to respond to what you've just said.

Again, I never [spoiler alert] went to a therapist during middle school, so I don't know what a therapist would say to me or I to her at that age.

But. I can remember how I felt in middle school. I can imagine what I would ask a middle schooler if one were plopped in front of me. I can imagine how my middle school self would reply: shy, but once opened up, excitable, fun. Honest.

That's the key. Honesty.

If you're -- hopefully -- crafting a book that tells the truth, just be true to the truth. Be true to the emotions you have felt in your life.

You've -- hopefully -- never been in a burning building, but you've been frightened.

You've never been the president faced with a global crisis, but you've been in situations where you didn't know what to do.

You've maybe never had an eating disorder, but you've looked in the mirror with a frown and wondered how you could change.

What I'm finding is it's all there inside of us, as cliché or nauseating that may sound.

Want to evoke rage in your reader? What would the character say to your protagonist to infuriate him? Need to evoke rage in a younger audience? What kind of phrases made your blood boil when you were a kid? (I bet we can each think of at least one choice phrase our parents used that to this day irks us).

You can write dialogue. Just take it slow and listen to your feelings. Again, cliché and nauseating, but true.

3. The line that determines what's appropriate for children and what's not is a tricky one.

Finally, I'm finding that perhaps the most difficult piece of writing this book (other than deciding what my climactic moment will be...) has been deciding where the Line of Appropriateness lies.

A recent op-ed by a Parisian brought up some interesting, varying viewpoints on what we should expose our children to and what we should shelter them from.

I don't have any easy answers to this conundrum, but I have noticed that a lot of children's books don't shy away from real struggle, real heartbreak, real muck. Divorce, death, illness -- I've seen it all in the last year or so that I've really dove into children's literature.

It seems children can -- or at least we think they can -- handle more than one might expect. And if we've been putting it on the pages of their books, then maybe it's not all bad; perhaps it's even beneficial to them in some way.

In seeing such grit on the pages of books meant for innocent eyes, I find myself sometimes giving myself a free pass. Why not expose Morgan to really tough emotions, since other writers are doing it?

But then I think: but she's young, and I don't want to scare my readers. I want this book to be a reprieve for them, not another thing to worry about. I'm exposing my protagonist to some major roadblocks, and she's going to have a challenging sixth grade year of school, for sure, but I want her to walk out stronger yet relatively unscathed.

So I have no advice for you on that topic, just sharing some thoughts I've had. Would love to hear your thoughts on any of this.

Thanks for reading through all this babble! Back to the book!



  1. Working backwards, no problem. Recalling my own world at a Morgan age was really small and petty, so big world questions and problems really weren't even part of the experience. I was more concerned with immediate material and relational things, and sometimes I still am! I regretfully assert the linked piece is fabricated trash, which may be a different topic that can raise thoughts as to what even adults are really prepared to hear. I like your dedication to the truth in your storytelling, but I wonder how that plays out in a fiction, where truth is up for creation and subjective to created characters. Will there be dishonest or morally ambiguous characters? Don't answer that. I was imagining (since I don't write like you) that an author might, upon inspiration sometime, write a brief skeleton outline of a story in a short time, then flesh out pieces while recalling the concept of the whole. I forget what is meant by 'what is the climax of your story?' I am brought back to introductory high school English class reading Old Yeller and SPOILER ALERT telling everyone that it's where the dog gets shot. I don't believe that anymore. I feel that to read (or write) a novel for a singular 'climax' of an 'arc' is to miss the point and trivialize the art. Anyway, good luck to you with your writing.

    1. Edit/note: I meant the NyT piece, and while not necessarily fabricated in the traditional sense, it exemplifies a new order of journalistic integrity that puts the likes of Stephen Glass to shame.