Dawn Colclasure's Blog

Author and poet Dawn Colclasure

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Writing the Way I Don't Talk

As a writer, you must do one thing: Write for your audience. Before beginning a nonfiction book or a novel, the writer must ask themself: Who is my audience? Specifically, who is your book written for? What kind of readers will it appeal to? If you can’t narrow your audience down to a specific kind of group, try to think of a specific kind of reader. One way to do this is to figure out the age group your ideal reader would be in. If they are an older crowd, then it’s perfectly fine to write at a college reading level. But if your ideal reader is much younger, that’s where things can take a turn. A young reader won’t understand technical jargon or big words. If you want to appeal to young readers, then write in “their” language. Use words they’d understand. Write in a character voice that they can relate to.

I was reminded of this necessity as I worked on typing up the first draft of the second book in my middle grade series. These books are written for kids age 8-12, so it's important that I write in a way that my readers will appreciate. One way to do this is to make sure my main characters, who are 10 years old, speak in a way expected of a child at that age. Of course, two of these characters, who are gifted, are allowed to use the occasional big word or two, or show off their smarts, because they are intelligent. But, for the most part, I have to make sure my young characters talk and act the way someone their age would talk and act.

In order to decode this mysterious language, I did what many savvy authors of kid lit books do: Try to remember what I was like at that age, and what my friends were like, too. Unfortunately, at that age, I was not allowed to hang out with friends that much. We were pretty much kept at home a lot. So I’d have to try to remember how I spoke, thought and acted when I was 10 years old.

Unfortunately, my memory is not that sharp, and, doubly unfortunately, I don’t have any diaries or journals I may have kept from back then to go over. (My daughter keeps a journal, so of course I’m making sure we save ALL of her journals!) Also, a lot of my memories from my childhood involve stays at various hospitals for various kinds of reconstructive surgeries (on account of that accident I was in as an infant, which resulted in my third degree burns). And I can’t remember the words in my vocab back then, or how I thought or acted. So, trying this method in order to write the way a child that age would speak is not all that useful.

Another method is to read several books which include characters that age. My daughter is a HUGE fan of Junie B. Jones, and I have often gotten a good chuckle out of reading how Miss Junie B. spoke or her many antics. However, my characters are a little bit older than Junie B., so I’ve had to check out other novels with characters closer to that age. The character in the Martha Speaks books is 10 years old. The main character in Ben 10, another favorite of my daughter's, is 10 years old. And I've just learned about a book called The Twelve Quests, which has 10-year-old twins as the heroes of the story. I will definitely keep an eye out for other books with 10-year-old characters.

Another method for ensuring your dialogue is age-appropriate is to ask someone in that age group to read the story. My daughter is 9, which is close enough, I think, so I have occasionally ran things by her to gauge her understanding and interest. I would also have to check with some other parents -- find any with 10-year-old kids who wouldn't mind reading over excerpts to give feedback.

After I did some checking on what books I could find, I got started checking my characters’ dialogue to make sure it resembled the way a 10-year-old would speak. The kinds of words they’d use, slang, their speaking patterns and habits. Of course, this differed dramatically with what I am used to. Most stories I’ve written had adult main characters, so I’m used to writing dialogue and actions the way an adult would speak and act. This shift was not an easy change for me. In fact, I kept fighting the temptation to go back and correct a line of dialogue or two, just so it would look more “grown up” and correct. I don't talk like that! I have thought many times. What if people think I'm an idiot because I'm writing this way? But in this case, however, with fiction, I am NOT writing the way that I talk. I am writing the way my characters talk. In fiction, it's so important that dialogue reflects the intelligence, background and personality of a character. And this is why I must make sure the dialogue in these stories, written for kids, reflects that. At least I can take comfort in the fact that there is the occasional appearance of a grown-up in the story, so I can use "grown-up" language with that kind of dialogue.

These books are NOT written for grown ups. They are written for kids. I have to constantly remind myself of this as I plod through the stories. On one hand, it’s fun to “cut loose” and “write like a kid” again, because in some small way, I get to relive being a kid, if only through the lives of my young characters. I didn’t exactly have a happy childhood, so this is especially appealing to me, because I get to recreate a childhood for myself that is fun, exciting, adventurous and mysterious. (After all, the stories ARE mysteries!)

So, in a way, writing for my audience – kids – has its perks. That’s the positive aspect which I will focus on. Sure, they may not speak correctly, and they may even repeat themselves from time to time, but these stories are written in a kid’s world. These books are a kid’s life. For the time being, until I finish this series, that is the kind of “life” I will indulge in as a writer. That is how I will write as a writer, even if it isn’t the way that I talk. I don’t talk the way I write, but I do write the way my audience talks. And, ultimately, for a book, that is what really matters.

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