Monday, 13 July 2015

Writing for Adults and Children, by Colette Victor

What’s the difference between writing for adults and writing for children? This is a question that was put to me recently.

My first reaction would be to say there’s not that much difference in writing for these two audiences. You get into your character’s head, you listen to them and you tell the story like they’re experiencing it. 

This is true, of course it is, it’s the very basis of good storytelling, but there’s more to it than just that. I’m used to writing for adults. I’ve written seven novels, four of which never made it to publication, all of them for adults except one. 

What to do with lobsters
in a place like Klippiesfontein
(Cargo Publishing, 2015)
These are the aspects that, for me, typify writing for adults:
  • I can write about any subject matter; difficult social issues, sex, characters who might be morally dubious but interesting all the same…
  • My characters can speak any way they like. If they want to use a four-letter word, they can. If they are morally inclined towards blasphemy, that’s OK. They speak like they speak and I don’t stand in their way.
  • I know my end reader is a fully formed adult with a mind of his or her own that won’t easily be corrupted by the words I write. I can experiment with form or style because I know my readers are well read, have been exposed to all manner of stories told in the widest possible variety of ways. They are, in most cases, sophisticated readers and often expect things to be a little difficult and are stimulated by a challenge.
This translates into a lot of freedom for a writer of adult fiction but, at the same time, where there’s freedom there are also fewer rules and boundaries. And rules and boundaries, for all their restrictiveness, also offer certainty and a sense of knowing where you’re going.

And it’s precisely here that I often find myself stumbling. My biggest problem with adult fiction is plot. No matter how well I plan and structure my story at the start of a new project, my characters ignore my efforts and go off on tangents of their own. This inevitably leaves me with heaps and heaps of rewriting and restructuring in the end.

Head over heart
(Chicken House, 2014)
This, to an extent, is where writing for children is easier. I’ve worked with a lot of young people from all races, religions and creeds. There was a particular story idea that grew out of this experience and just wouldn’t let me go so, after a few years, I decided to simply write it. Being a complete novice at writing for young people, I bought myself the book How to write for children and get published by Louise Jordan (Paitkus 2010). In this book, Jordan likens the structure of a children’s book to a three-legged stool:
1.One leg is the beginning; What is this story about?
2. The next leg is the middle; What is the problem?
3. The last leg is the end; What happens?
Without all three its legs the stool will topple over.         

I know, I know, this structure can just as easily be applied to an adult novel and that would solve all my plotting problems, wouldn’t it?

Well, no. By strictly adhering to this structure with my YA novel I was able to write a good book in a relatively short space of time. But applying this to my next book, an adult novel I just completed, did not lead to the same satisfying result and I was left wrestling with my plot just like all my previous adult novels.

But then in writing for young people (in my case, young people between the ages of eleven and fifteen) I had a whole list of other pitfalls I had to watch out for:
  • Bad language and sexually explicit content are not acceptable.
  • Sensitive social issues must be dealt with in a safe or politically correct way (even my politically incorrect character had to be toned down despite the fact that the whole reason I created him was to highlight a politically incorrect viewpoint and challenge it.)
  • My scope for experimenting with style and form was more limited because my audience was younger. They are, by definition, less experienced readers who need to cultivate the sophistication that most adult readers have. My story had to be cleaner and more straight forward.
No matter how much I believed I was in touch with young people and their views, I had to remind myself I was an adult with no experience of being young in the world they’re living in today. I made sure I consulted them about sticky points along the way. I often sat down with these young girls (in my case, Muslim girls, because the book I was writing was about the hijab) and asked them how they saw the world. They were very generous with their time and flattered to be consulted by an adult.

So which do I prefer? I’m not sure. I suppose I’m in my comfort zone when I’m writing for adults but, at the same time, writing for young people was a challenge I really enjoyed - so much so actually, that the next book I’m doing will be YA too.

What, in your experience, is the essential difference between writing for adults and children?

For more from Colette, visit her website,
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