Monday, June 27, 2011

Children and your Summer Writing; Mayhem or Masterpiece?

The first movie I saw this summer was Judy Moody’s not so Bummer Summer, a tale about a girl facing the summer doldrums with little to no hope of having any fun.  Boredom begins ten minutes after my children step off the bus on the last day of school and requires endless parental nudgings to keep it from destroying every heat-filled day. I am left with few quiet moments to write much less plot or edit. So what’s a mom to do? Especially a mom (or dad or grandma or grandpa) who relies on those quiet moments of a child’s self-entertainment to meet her writerly deadlines?

A child’s imagination contains more story fodder than most adults could muster in a lifetime, so in these dog-days of summer the author in me wants to tap my child’s creativity and see what flows. Last summer my two youngest children and I did just that. We worked on a plot line so wild and fun, it could only come from a child’s mind. Rock-hopper penguins, grizzly bears, and flying dog-eagles led a carrot-nosed princess and a ninja-in-training through a fantastic adventure. Excitement rang in their voices as the story took shape. By July, I promised to submit the book when we completed it and see what happened. The Wishing Ring releases from Muse in February. My kids are thrilled (as are their English teachers :D).

How did we do it? So glad you asked. It started on one of those long summer van rides, I asked one simple question, “If you could write a book, what would it be about?” A moment of silence followed, then a rush of words and characters and story lines broke through. The greybar was born. What’s a greybar? Why only the most loyal of all creatures with the head of a greyhound, body of a polar bear, and wings of an eagle. With those mighty wings it can take young children upon its back and soar to lands far from our own.

“Really?” I said. “But, what if…” 

And so began the summer activity. Every time they whined or whimpered, I whipped out my laptop or pad of paper and took notes. The what-if question ready for the moment. Before I knew it they took my notebook and critiqued my chapters (if you think an editor’s comments sting, you should try a nine-year old's).

But what if you write romance or sci-fi or suspense? Could a child’s perspective enhance an adult book? Absolutely. Their muse could inspire new characters with fantastic quirks perfect to thwart any romantic inclinations (kids can be good at that) or imagine the settings children could add to the sci-fi world—with a heightened sensory system their contributions to a created world could be limitless. Or perhaps they can devise an unexpected thread that could weave seamlessly through your suspense novel. 

Children and young adults have been writing masterpieces for decades. S.E. Hinton published TheOutsiders at the ripe age of seventeen. Alec Greven published his book How to Talk to Girls when he was nine. Arguably one of the most famous child authors, Anne Frank, wrote The Diary of a Young Girl when she was fourteen. 

But how do you tap a child’s creative stream? I suggest by starting with dinner and the what-if questions. What if the world we lived in didn’t have air? What would we breathe? What if no one could see? What if your neighbor were a spy? What if rocks could talk?

Take turns and let them ask the what-if questions once they get the hang of it. And should you catch a case of writer’s block try a few of these prompts:

  • If you could go anywhere on vacation, where would you go? What would you do? Why?
  • What would happen if there was no electricity and all power sources ran dry?
  • You wake up one morning and discover you’re sixty-five years old, what happens next?
  • A famous person comes to dinner, who is it and what happens at dinner?
  • What would happen if you became invisible for a day? Describe what you would do and hear (or rather overhear).
  • The mailman just delivered a large unlabeled box. What’s inside? What do you do with it? Who do you think sent it and why?
  • You’ve never believed in aliens or UFOs, but when a Frisbee-sized saucer lands in your backyard with a Barbie-sized alien driving, what do you do?
  • What would happen if you became a cartoon character? What would you look like? Talk like? Do?
  • What would happen if you got lost in the woods during a summer hike? How would you survive? How would you get out?
  • It’s in the middle of the night and the phone rings. Who is it? Why are they calling? What do you do?
In the end, you may discover the one thing missing from you novel, the part that makes your manuscript sing lay in the hands of a twelve year old. Perhaps the mayhem that summer brings includes an outline for your break-out novel. Then again, you may gain nothing for your writing, but you will have sparked a creative flare in your children and had a wonderful time doing so. However your summer sifts out, I hope your writing and your children play nicely together.

How do children inspire you?


Charity Bradford said...

Wonderful post! I like to write by the pool in the summer because there is so much to watch. I think the next time I'm in the car with my kids I'll start asking questions.

My two oldest carry around notebooks of their own already to write their stories in. Wonder if they would be willing to do a collaboration? Could be just what we need as we enter these teen years that are turning me gray!

Shellie said...

Hi Charity,

Gotta love those teen years:). I get some of my greatest lines from eavesdropping while shuttling kiddos to and from dance practices, friend's house, and school projects.

How awesome that they carry their own notebooks JIC :D. Your budding teen writers might be interested in an online teen writer's conference called NextGenWriters; check it out

In the meantime, I hope your collaboration results in much success:D Good luck, Shellie

jabberingjo said...

what a good idea. I'll tryit with my seven-year-old grandson when we visit them next month.

Shellie said...

Jo, I hope you come back and let us know how it went:). Seven-year-old kiddos have such amazing imaginations. Enjoy!

Sara Durham Writer ~ Author said...

Shellie, fun workshop blog! I wish I'd thought of this when my children were younger. It sounds like a summer blast! And the greybear...very clever!


Shellie said...

Thank you for the kind words. Hope the ideas work as well for you as they have for us. Most importantly, thank you for taking the time to stop by and read the blog:). Happy Summer!!

Lisa Forget said...

Hi Shellie,

What a wonderful and pertinent post!

I've often asked my 12, 14 and 19 yr old daughters their opinion about dialogue and a few other things regarding my YA wip but I'll be picking their brains with new questions in mind.

I appreciate your sharing the NextGenWriter's link. I'll be passing it on to my 14 year old who has enjoyed writing since third grade(and was published last month in an anthology funded by Concordia University)

Congratulations on your successful collaboration. Looking forward to reading your story.

Thank you and have a creative summer!!

Shellie said...

Thank you, Lisa and Congrats to your daughter's publication! That's awesome. Untapped potential. Good luck tapping into it:)!