The Butterfly Heart is my first published novel, so I feel slightly awkward about classifying what follows as a set of tips. I am surrounded in Ireland by great writers for children, young teens, young adults, old adults… middling adults. Nearly all of them more qualified than I am to be giving tips. However, the opportunity arose for me to write this – so I have called it Things I have Learned.
With the proviso: each to their own.
I think I might enjoy this.
- Do not patronise your readers. Ever. They will not love you for it. They have minds that are open, eager and willing to learn and absorb new facts. They have minds ready for wonder. They will always know more than you give them credit for – so write accordingly.
- Be truthful. To yourself and to your readers. It shows.
- Anything is possible. This does not contradict 2. Given the freedom with which the minds of the young roam, so too can yours. Do not restrict yourself through convention or fear.
- Be careful. Unless you are a teenager writing for teens, be very careful with e.g. the slang you use. We have all had teenage lives, we have all experienced the highs and lows of those years – and these emotions we are fully equipped to write about. Our memories in fact often intensify them. But most of us are not teenagers now – we may be observers of the culture through our own children, younger siblings or students, but we are not in it. We need to mind ourselves and get it right.
- If you can, create a world outside of your readers’ own. Not always possible and not a fast and hard rule. Just an ‘if you can’. My own book, because of my particular life experience is set in Zambia. It has been a privilege for me to share some of this country and this continent with children reading the book. It is mostly outside of those own lives and so brings them something different, something they do not already know.
- Make your characters real. Give them an inner life, perceptions, understanding, irritations, feelings, humour (above all humour), significant others. Make them matter. And for this age group (maybe 10 upwards) do not write adults out of the script. They do not have to loom – but neither are they limited either to being invisible or awful. As in life, some will be awful – but a few might not be.
- Clean simplicity, give it a chance. When writing for any age group, the cleaner the better. Cut out the fussy bits – or as Elmore Leonard would say (in a cleaner way) ‘try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.’
- Hold their attention. In my own case, as I do not plot beforehand, I try to do this by ensuring that I hold my own attention as I write. As I do not know how the story is going to unfold it is an easy test for me – do I actually want to know what’s going to happen next? If the answer is no, I change direction. If I can’t keep myself amused how on earth can I presume that my readers will be?
- Write what you want to write. When I set out to write this story, it just ended up being put into a particular age category. I did not set out to write a story for ten to twelve year olds, (and am happy to report that I have had good feedback from people aged nine to eighty!). So, I do not believe it is the age group that should determine what you write – it is the story you are going to tell and how you tell it.
- Do not be afraid to Edit. With a capital E. We all admire our own lovely turns of phrase, our deep insights into the human condition, our subtle jokes. But sometimes they don’t work. So, do not be afraid to edit your own work, get it right. And, do not feel slighted by an editor’s interventions. Sometimes they are wrong, and you can tell when they are, but sometimes they are just right. Editing is a lot less exciting than first draft writing, but has to be done.