Sunday, March 3, 2013
Tuning Your Ear
I volunteer to coach young writers at my daughters school, and yesterday I helped teach a writing workshop at the local library. I did it to help the kids, but it has tuned my ear for what kids sound like.
There's a reason so many teachers write for kids -- they have so much source material! But for the rest of us, working with children is a great way to re-tune our ears and eyes to stories. Even for parents, meeting kids helps expand story ideas.
It's not like I don't spend time with kids -- I have my own daughters, and they have friends. I have nieces and nephews. But the wider world of kids sounds very different than just the one I know well. Real kids sound so much younger and naive than I expect sometimes. Other times they sound so much older and smarter than I think they will be. And most individual kids will fit in both categories at different times.
I read a lot in my genre. I love kids' books -- picture books, easy readers, middle grade, young adult. It's a great way to learn about how to structure a story for each age group. It's not a great way to learn how kids sound, feel, or act -- many books get it exactly right, but emulating other writers is a game of telephone. Eventually, what you get at the end doesn't sound like much like a real kid at all. And there are certainly a lot of books like that on the shelves too.
It's not like kids even want books that sound exactly like they talk -- the hesitancy, the silliness, the lack of continuity sometimes. There's a reason actors on Disney and Nick sound like they do, which would be nothing like kids at all if they weren't imitated so much.
So wittier and more articulate versions of themselves are fine, as long as they would be recognizable as the juvenile stage of human development and not a child-sized puppet mouthing adult words, feelings, or sitcom badinage.
No experience is universal, so the more we interact with young readers, the more we will find those particular experiences that resonant with many readers. I think all writers should do it -- all agents and editors too -- if we want to create the stories where kids recognize a version of themselves, if we write the stories they really want to read.