Outlining for my Inner Child: Part 2

In part one I considered the difference between writers who proceed by outline and by discovery. In part two, we’ll look at imagined audiences: a classroom of kids, and the author’s younger self.

A lot of children’s writers have worked as teachers. It makes sense that people who like kids and care about kids would want to work with kids. It also makes sense that a person who has experience focusing a classroom would be able to know what they want. Whenever Rick Riordan questions whether to cut a boring part, he imagines that squirming kid at the back of the room, and there’s no question. (Relevant 0:15-0:30.)

Robert Munsch takes this a step further. When on book tours, he often stayed with families and ended up using those children in his stories. His first picture books were written orally, telling them to daycare kids. He revised based on reactions, and included visceral sound effects in his work. (This brings up the performative nature of picture books, which I’ll do another post about later.)

On his website, you can hear him read them all. Highly recommended. (Unfortunately, I can’t find any videos of full readings. Here’s a snippet from the Toronto Star.)

This undeniably works. It also seems to refute the common advice to write your stories for one particular person, because you’ll fail if you try to please everyone.

Other children’s writers do aim for smaller crowds. Often, family. After Kenneth Oppel starts drafting, he reads his novels to his kids and (like Munsch) revises based on their reactions.

But not everyone who writes for children feels the need to run their ideas past kids. Last year at the Vancouver Writer’s Fest, Shane Peacock, the author of The Boy Sherlock Holmes Series, was quite adamant that he did not care what anyone else thought he should write. He will write what he thinks is interesting. And as he read a dark, description heavy passage on the discovery of an eyeball in a cobblestone alley–everyone in the theatre was riveted.

Let’s go a further, because perhaps while Peacock wouldn’t ask for advice, he might still imagine a kid audience he’s trying to please. You can’t get clearer than Maurice Sendak’s denials that he doesn’t consciously write for children (1:15-1:50).

“I do not believe that I have ever written a children’s book. I don’t know how to write a children’s book. How do you write about that? How do you set out to write a children’s book? It’s a lie.”

Or how about this Sendak quote from the Believer?

“I never started out as a children’s book artist. What is a children’s-book artist? A moron! Some ugly fat pip-squick of a person who can’t be bothered to grow up. That’s the way we’re treated in the adult world of publishing. […] I’m an illustrator. I have to accept my role. I will never kill myself like Vincent van Gogh. Nor will I paint beautiful water lilies like Monet. I can’t do that. I’m in the idiot role of being a kiddie-book person. It sounds like I’m complaining, but it has no effect on me. I have a good life.”

Then there’s Katherine Paterson, who replied when asked if it got harder to write for kids after her own children had left the house, “I never wrote for them. I always write for the child in me, and she is still in there.”

Peacock, Sendak, and Paterson seem to be driven by more personal inclinations than Riordan, Munsch or Oppel. What’s the result?

It might correspond with another shift. From the 1940s to the 1980s, Ursula Nordstrom at Harper’s edited and published what she called “good books for bad children.” She is often referred to as the most important editor of children’s books for the last century. The list of writers she worked with is staggering: E. B. White, Margaret Wise Brown, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Syd Hoff, Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstien, etc.

A lot of books from my childhood that weren’t directly associated with Nordstrom still seem to fit her “good books for bad children” motto. Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins (1978) is a perfect example, as are Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee (1990) and Gary Paulsen’s Harris and Me (1993).

And then a boy with a lightning-shaped scar appeared.

People are still figuring out what the blockbuster success of Harry Potter means. Books are getting longer (extreme example: Tuck Everlasting = 28,000 words & The Amulet of Samarkand = 122,000), but is that it?

I see a change happening across the board in children’s literature–from picture books to YA–so maybe I shouldn’t just pin it on Harry Potter. The change I see is that the material is moving further and further into empowering kids by giving them ownership of their materials.

Picture books have less words than they used to. It’s now rare to see books with a paragraph on one side, and a picture on the other. The books are getting more immersive, with fewer words, allowing the kids to get deeper into the books themselves without the need of an adult bridge.

A spread from “Blueberries for Sal”, published in 1949.

Jillian Jiggs, 1985…

yo yes

and “Yo! Yes?” from 1994.

In middle-grade novels, I see the same trend towards ownership. Whereas the narrators of Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh often reference the fact that they’re telling you a story, most narrators today are invisible. So we don’t end up with an adult-writer telling a story about a kid-character to the kid-reader. The kid-reader just directly watches the kid-character.

I feel like the existence and surge of YA fits my theory as well. Many adults are still telling teens that they should be skipping to adult books. A lot of teens are choosing books where they feel represented instead.

I should note that I’m talking about trends, not laws. Green Eggs and Ham debuted in 1960, deliberately using only 50 simple words. Lemony Snicket is one of the cattiest, most intrusive narrators I’ve ever met. However, I think the trend is real.

An implication of this move towards children’s ownership of their books isn’t just format (narration) and subject matter (ex. Captain Underpants). I think it favours writers who write for throngs of kids, rather than the tortured artist’s inner child.

That’s a good thing, right?

Depends. What is art for?

According to David Foster Wallace, art should “comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable.” Which is often what good books for bad kids did. I remember reading some of those books in elementary school. They challenged me to become more empathic.

I still regularly here children’s writers talk about writing for their inner children, and I think I count myself as one of them. I often feel like I’m trying to write books that I wish I had read when I was younger. To push, nurture, and entertain young-Bill.

Like gardening and architecture, the categories I’m talking about here are not mutually exclusive. In A Sense of Wonder, Paterson talks about children who connect and respond strongly to her characters. And there are several moments in Riordan’s books that could inspire reflection.

I’ve been working with young people since 2004. I have lots of practice at making kids laugh and keeping their attention. After I type out a draft, I visualize it through their eyes. And if I feel like a paragraph is boring, or irrelevant, it’s going to be crossed out.

Because at the end of the day, kids’ books are for kids.

My next post will be the first entry in my “Five Great Things” category. First up, great children’s book concepts!


Outlining for my Inner Child: Part 1

image from flickr user Sarah (Rosenau) Korf

In a conversation with the Sydney Morning Herald, George R. R. Martin describes two kinds of writers:

“I’ve always said there are – to oversimplify it – two kinds of writers. There are architects and gardeners. The architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running, and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But the gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up. I think all writers are partly architects and partly gardeners, but they tend to one side or another, and I am definitely more of a gardener. In my Hollywood years when everything does work on outlines, I had to put on my architect’s clothes and pretend to be an architect. But my natural inclinations, the way I work, is to give my characters the head and to follow them.

That being said, I do know where I’m going. I do have the broad outlines of the story worked out in my head, but that’s not to say I know all the small details and every twist and turn in the road that will get me there.”

My brain likes logic. It likes categories and lists. Until I got to calculus, I was actually better at math and physics than language arts. My current writing ability is highly influenced by knowledge of grammar. Therefore, outlines and architecture.

To be honest, I think most of my favourite writers are gardeners though. Not all, but most, especially in fiction for adults. Neil Gaiman compares writing to driving on a foggy road where he can’t see very far ahead. George Saunders says it’s useless to think about writing when he’s not actually sitting with his work, because everything is determined by what the words on the page are, what they imply and require.

I often say my favourite writer is Kurt Vonnegut. Although he talks about outlines in the introduction/first chapter of Slaughterhouse 5, his architecture doesn’t sound very solid.

“… I had outlined the Dresden story many times. The best outline I ever made, or anyway the prettiest one, was on the back of a roll of wallpaper.

I used my daughter’s crayons, a different color for each main character. One end of the wallpaper was the beginning of the story, and the other end was the end, and then there was all that middle part, which was the middle. And the blue line met the red line and then the yellow line, and the yellow line stopped because the character represented by the yellow line was dead. And so on. The destruction of Dresden was represented by a vertical band of orange cross-hatching, and all the vertical lines that were still alive passed through it, came out the other side.”

That sounds beautiful, but not very solid…

As such, it was a great relief when I heard Kenneth Oppel talk at the Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable last year. His presentation showed the process he uses to write a novel. After spending time in a “dream phase”, imagining the world and drawing diagrams, the second step he takes is to create a beat sheet of every single thing that will happen in the novel.

Oppel’s diagram of the ship from Airborn

After that, I started to see evidence of architecture more often. Screenwriting requires heavy outlines because the process is so long, and there are so many people involved. Chris Sanders talks about the importance of getting the structure for How to Train Your Dragon right on the first try, because they wouldn’t have time or money to fix it later.

At the Vancouver Writer’s Fest, Arthur Slade talked about how important his planning phase was. Then I came across/remembered a few outlines I’d seen online. And from authors I really liked.

This is one of Scott Westerfeld’s meta-documents for Behemoth, called a “Pace Chart”. He has other documents that show the timeline for his events, so he can figure out whether it’s Wednesday or Saturday. The red/blue pins indicate POV characters. Notice the importance that Westerfeld places on building tension before the action sequence. (The program he’s using is Scrivener.)

This is J. K. Rowling’s outline for Order of the Phoenix. The only part I can read are the months along the left side. Personally, I love the smudges. It’s a great visualization of how many different plots she’s kicking along at once. I’ve spent the most time studying the Philosopher’s Stone, and the rhythm of set-ups is relentless.

Joseph Heller’s outline for Catch-22. Another grid chart, like Rowling. Maybe I should try this format.

Brandon Sanderson identifies strengths and weaknesses to each approach. He says gardening leads to realistic characters and smaller more interesting details. I think it also works better for yearning and motivation. Architects are better at plotting–ensuring that you have a dark moment at the end of Act 2, a few big action scenes, and a show-stopper at the climax. If the pages fly by and you’re impressed by the ending, there’s likely been a plan.

When you start to think this way, you can get a feel for how a book was probably written. I don’t have evidence, but I would bet that the Hunger Games and the Grapes of Wrath were both heavily planned. The plots are evenly divided into thirds, and the finales are airtight. The push and pull of emotions, shooting from positive to negative, also points at an outlined plot. Furthermore, Collins has a background in television.

If something is madcap inventive in a certain way, like Half World by Hiromi Goto or the The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente, I suspect gardening. I also see it in introspective characters, or when conventional plot pacing stretches to fit the character’s needs (we can’t have that moment yet, she’s not ready for it!) as in Plain Kate by Erin Bow or Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

Sometimes I’m wrong.

I expected Susin Nielsen to be an architect, based on her experience with TV, but when I heard her describe her process, it sounded more like Martin’s. She said she knew things that were going to happen, but she mostly followed her characters. Which shows. They are highly relatable, and we get to know them instead of speeding off to the next plot point. When her climaxes do come, they’re compressed and intense.

As Martin said, the binary is an oversimplification. In reality, all writers do a bit of both: gardening and architecture. The desire to even divide this way feels like a product of my logic-brain getting loose. If I didn’t actually see patterns I’d stop thinking this way though. For me, it’s a helpful framework. Even if only to know there’s more than one way to write a novel, and that my way is valid.

In my next blog, I’ll discuss another fundamental division I see among people who write for children. There’s a hint in the title of this post. 😉