Thursday, December 11, 2008

Putting today's kids into print... Good Luck!

Morning, all! Oh my stars, it feels good to be back here! I used my November spot to create great fervor by hosting Melissa Endlich of Steeple Hill, so it’s been two months since I bothered, scolded, nagged or harangued you guys. No doubt you’re needing a dose of Ruthyisms right about now. Today’s lesson is: Know your stuff, Cupcake.

I’m a hearth and home writer. I can own that. I enjoy creating the feel of home, regardless of setting. Small town, big city, rural country or mini-metropolises with qualities of all the above.

I like kids, cats and puppies, not always in that order, depending on who’s leaving wet spots on the hardwood floor.

W.C. Fields once said, “Anyone who hates dogs and children can’t be all bad.”

Wrong-o, bucko!

I think one suicide knell for a romance writer is the inability to accurately portray the little things that build a good story. We talked about settings a while back. I like a strong setting that puts me smack-dab in the middle of the town/city/house, making me see, feel, smell and hear what the protagonists experience. It takes a clever wordsmith to transport like that.

And we talked about secondary characters earlier this year. I’m a big fan of quirky characters, eccentricities (Jan Karon’s Mitford series is chock full of these) and the ease with which Southern writers cushion their books with peculiar people who round out a story. Margaret Mitchell, Harper Lee, Deborah Smith, and Karen White all come to mind without a Google search.


The show-stealers some actors refuse to work with: dogs and kids.

Tip # 1:

If you can’t write a realistic kid, don’t.

Think I’m kidding?

Nope. Either find yourself a somewhat normal person who has experience with kids to offer advice, then TAKE that advice, or make your characters and their families childless. Smacking a reader with unrealistic actions, voice, demeanor or childlike behaviors is like thrusting your reader into a brick wall, face-first. Total stoppage.

And today’s kids don’t move, act, dress, look or talk like kids from the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, etc. Do yourself a favor and rent a kid for a weekend. And if it’s your own absolutely wonderful, never-talks-back, obeys instantly grandchild, then shelve ‘em and rent a DIFFERENT kid because you’re still walking backwards.

Historical writers have it easier in this respect. Seriously. Either a kid was a homeless waif rapscallion or a family kid who may or may not have a problem. Who’s going to argue the point 150 years fast forward? As long as you get the mode of dress and speech in line with the time period, you’re good to go as long as the behaviors stay in touch with the story line.

Contemp authors have a responsibility to provide a strong, accurate setting for their characters which means presenting children, teens and their situations with humor, pathos, reality, strength and oh, yes, did I mention reality? As in TODAY’S reality???

Missy Tippens did a great job of this in Her Unlikely Family. Missy layered her teenagers with realistic actions, reactions and teen-speak that made them jump-off-the-pages real to this experienced mother. Loved it.

Margaret Daley’s Power of Love is a good example of strong presentation of children. Her divorced heroine returns home with her angry nine-year-old son and her Down Syndrome toddler after being dumped by her ‘wants-a-perfect-wife-and-children’, no-good, plastic husband. Margaret’s experience with special needs kids helped her paint an accurate picture of a single mother’s struggles compounded by genetics and emotional stress. Very nicely done.

Holly Jacobs isn’t afraid to present the funny side of children in her contemporary romances. And in Calico Canyon, Mary Connealy excels at presenting a family of motherless boys whose timeless and endless energy touch the heart of every mother, regardless of time setting.

Karen White’s Color of Light presents an older-than-her-chronological-years child that works well because the child’s innocent maturity balances the mother’s fragility. In this instance Karen took normal childlike reactions and dumped them in favor of creating a realistic, unique child whose actions help spear the book forward.

Another good source of good kid presentation: The Magic School Bus series of books. Great bunch of little characters abound in those pages.

If the children in your manuscript just stepped out of Pleasantville and took a left at Stepford, it’s time to change-up. Unless you’re writing 50’s retro, get with the times, Sistah!

While puppies remain substantially unchanged over multi-millenia, today’s kids’ antics dance to a different drummer. It’s our job as authors to keep up. And don’t be back-talkin’ me, girlfriend, tellin’ me that the kid in your book is SUPPOSED to be good. Please. Good doesn’t equate with backward or dull or totally predictable. And even good kids with a modicum (look it up, Mary…) :) of intelligence can sound normal for the times if the author presents them in a real-life setting.

So get to it, guys. A book is only as strong as its weakest character and that can be a fatal flaw for a manuscript.



cathy S. said...

I have a confession to make. I have a kid in my mss. eek!

I'm not so good with the fancy language you're using and it's a bit early in the day to pull out the dictionary.

Just spit it out. What are a handful of specific things you don't like about kids in contemporaries? I actually live with a kid the age of the one in my book. Maybe I should rent one, too, for perspective? Many editors talk about wanting kids and dogs. What's a newbie author to do?

I would hate to cut the kid this late in the game (in the mss, I mean, I'm keeping the real child) but I guess I could. I was going for this one being a little like the kid in Jerry McGuire. Did you see that?

A last question that's off-topic. Pre-publication, did any Seekers get a paid editor before submitting full mss? If yes, how do you find a good one? And is the kid issue something an editor could spot?

Julie Lessman said...

Ruthy -- kids, dogs and puppies -- I bow to your expertise! I'm convinced that I would have trouble writing a contemporary with a kid because I'd be inclined to want to discipline them. I tend to be the drill sargeant kind of mother, but they tell me I'll be different as a grandma. Uh, I doubt it.

Cathy -- in answer to your question, my agent suggested a paid editor for my synopses (not my ms., thank God!), and I used the services of our own Seeker bud, Camy Tang and her Story Sensei Critique Service. Or you could always post a question on the ACFW loop, and you'll get a number of good suggestions as well.


Glynna Kaye said...

Okay, Ruthy -- you know what you'll be doing after the holidays: reading my currently-in-revision WIP to see if you think I got the kid right! :) (You know, in all that spare time of yours when you're not chasing kids and 16 puppies.)

Janet Dean said...

Good morning Ruthy. Excellent points about the importance of writing believable children. Never thought to rent one. LOL

The children in historicals can't be the seen but not heard variety, even if that was true of the time period.

I've brought coffee cake topped with brown sugar and cinnamon, moist and warm from the oven and a pot of hazelnut cream.


Ruth Logan Herne said...

Cathy your kid in your manuscript is probably fine...

Since you have one of your own! First hand experience is a great teacher, but it's good to study what other kids do, from other environments.

Here are some things I've noticed (without specifically naming names)

Kids who talk in complete sentences all the time and never pick their noses.

Kids whose version of respect sounds phony or 'written'.

Kids who have no idea (unless there's a REASON they have no idea) what other kids say, do or think in a normal, modern setting.

Kids who are kept too sheltered, unless that's part of the story line.

Kids with 50's or 60's clothes or hair, except the sixties hair (which should have died with the 60's, 70's generation) is coming back... So if you're writing a book with a teen or tween today, like right now, the longish hair and bangs in the eye (think: Beatles) is raging in the high schools.

Kids who talk like mini-adults all the time... Not precocious kids, (like Jerry Maguire), but kids whose language outmodes their age and stage.

Hey, Janet! The rolls are wonderful. Great smell. Intoxicating. And I didn't mean that historical kids would be rubber-stamped, just that historical authors don't have to deal with these chronic trendy changes that a contemp author faces with global information, TV, Wii, cable, RoadRunner, etc.

Everything is in hurry up mode and changes happen in a blink of the eye.

Just saw a kid in the local high school. Mode of dress: very Kid Rock. Girl in the same class: preppy. Most of the kids: mix of grunge and casual blue/jean/t-shirt.

When I think of writing kids, I remember Bill Cosby's advice to his TV 'son' who did the initial screen play with BIG BAD attitude...

Bill took him aside, reminded him that he was talking to his 'father' and would he really speak to him that way?

They worked out a great balance of humor and respect which won them Emmy's and ended up as a long running sit-com.

My theory: Too much good or bad is unbalanced.

And Cathy, I'm glad you're not giving away the REAL kid, although the black market on kids (smaller the better) is a great way to make quick Christmas bucks.



Ruth Logan Herne said...

And, Cathy, I LOVE the fancy language comment, LOL!

I throw some in there because it tweaks Mary and that's more fun than fryin' a kettle o' catfish up on a July Friday under a new moon.



Myra Johnson said...

Excellent advice as always, Ruthy! You know, one of my motivations for moving from children's writing to women's fiction is that my live-in inspiration for children's & YA stories had the audacity to grow up.

And I've also read too many novels where the children just didn't come across as believable, for many of the same reasons you pointed out. The description or dialogue creates a picture in my head of a ten-year-old and in the next paragraph I find out he's only four. Or vice versa.

Mary Connealy said...

I have an excellent vocabulary and I can find in a HEARTBEAT if I need it.

So, I am able to communicate with Ruthy almost as well as if English were her first language.

You're coming along just fine honey.

I LOVE to write kids. There's just something about a kid in a scene. Done correctly that kid is a device for humor, chaos, cutting through crap, humiliation and action.

I've done a few books without kids and I find it very hard to keep the humor up to a level I'm happy with because kids just say the darnest things. :)

And, if you want to see more cute PUPPY PICTURES. Go to Hearthside Kennels

Ruthy's side business. We're just so relieved she's finally managed to control herself from having more babies and transferred her maternal instinct to puppies.
If she hadn't there wouldn't have been an places left in the corporate world for our children.

I thought those gorgeous golden retrievers were so beautiful but those little Golden Doodles are so perfect under the tree with their little bow collars and of course KIDS cuddling them.

I love it

vince said...

Hi Ruth:

You hit a familiar note with your comments about children in romances. I have a chapter in my WIP romance book called: “They Are Not Like That!” which is a familiar refrain found in ‘Letters to the Editor’ in romance magazines. When magazines have surveys of what readers want to see less of, often the number one request is less books with children in them. Often there is a comment like, “they are not like that” -- sometimes the letter writer adds something like, “children are selfish, uncivilized, beasts”. A survey not too long ago said that a majority of women wound not have children if they had it to do all over again. (It would be interesting to read how the question was worded and the average age of the children.)

However, editors are not stupid and women vote with their dollars. The women who wanted romances with children were also very outspoken. They often did not have any children of their own but wanted to have children and they wanted to enjoy the vicarious experience of being a mother to wonderful children. Some of the fans with children wrote that they read romances to “feel good” and they did not want problem kids in their romances because they had enough of problem ‘brats’ in real life.

Personally, I don’t think fans read romances for realism. They read them to feel good, feel loved, feel cherished, and feel what it is like to have things go right in life. Talk about not being realistic: how about romance heroes? How many short, fat, heroes have you encountered? I’ve read just about 1000 romances in my research and only in four was the hero specifically stated to be less than six feet tall. One of those short heroes was a professional bull rider who, as a group, actually are on the short side. Evidentially the author felt obliged to explain why her hero wasn’t the required six feet tall. (My chapter on heroes is called: “Heroes: Most Men Need Not Apply”).

In selling any product you need to know your customer. I love romances with wonderful kids in them. I especially like it when a child tries to ‘be the adult’ and comfort the parent, usually a single parent, at his or her wits end. Margret Daley has written at least two books with special needs children but they were wonderful kids who had special needs. Darlene Graham has also done this. But it is so unusual that I can remember these books. Cheryl Wyatt had what looked like a very problematic teenager but in reality he was trying to stop a more troubled teen friend from getting into big trouble. Besides, 'trouble’ because the child needs a mother or a father in their life is much different (and more happily curable) than trouble because the kid is just a bad kid.

What I am saying here is only meant to be applied to typical genre romances and not general fiction. In short, make your children realistic at your own risk.



Sandra Leesmith said...

Hey Ruthy, You're great at writing kids. I love all your characters actually. You have a real grip on that skill.

Thanks for the helpful hints in developing characters. The books you used were great examples.

Hey, what's for breakfast? Or in your neck of the woods-lunch???

Ruth Logan Herne said...


I'm really working hard on the ESOL training, hence the incessant need for throwing big words into the mix. Crucial for the developing mind. ;)

And for those among us whose minds have ceased to develop, there's always!!!


Mary knows I love how she develops kids, so I knew I'd have a cheerleader in her corner. She does a great job of having children work as scene catalysts and that's an important part of layering.

And Myra, I know we've talked about this in Seekerville, how you can read what could be an otherwise good book and cross your eyes at how they present a child's age and stage, leaving the reader saying, "HUH???"

Vince, I loved your shameless plug about your book because that's what blogs are for. Good job, my man. And didja notice that Mary got
Hearthside Kennels in there for me??? Of course I used puppy pics in the blog as subliminal messages, LOL!

Vince, you raised interesting points. I'm not a big fan of books with out-of-control children whether in romance or most mainstream because I wanna smack 'em. The parents, that is, not the kids.

Well, sometimes the kids.

So I agree, I bet most people like a story with more manageable offspring (if any), with the problems falling to adult hands. Although I've got a soft spot for kids in need of saving.

Country singer Jimmy Wayne
has a great brat-needed-saving story. What an incredible young man he is. His life IS a country song, but he's risen above with help from strangers who became beloved.

So much comes back to the telling of the story, right?

And not being afraid (I've got your back, Glynna!!!) of asking for opinions or seeking help like you would any other kind of research.


Jessica said...

I have three little monst-uh-munchkins and I LOVE them. Nobody likes to read about spoiled kids but the fact of the matter is, kids are kids. Willful, cute, charming when they want to be, not charming when they want to be.
I don't where all the statistics about "brats" are. That's a horrible word and I don't know many moms who regret their kids. Age would definitely make a difference.
I love how Cheryl Wyatt portrayed Javier. Also, I think her hero was pretty short.
And Mary, your kids in Calico Canyon were awesome! I loved it! They're just like my boys *snicker*

This is such a great post Ruthy! You're so right. And now that I'm getting older I have to be careful not to fall back on the slang that was populare when I was a kid.

Very, very good.

Mary Connealy said...

Ruthy figured out FINALLY how to do live links.

She's out of control.


Ruth Logan Herne said...

Sandra, I brought some fresh, homemade apple crisp for us to snack on, all melty-cinnamony goodness!

And thanks for the kudos, kid. Sandra was brave enough to work with me when I was a know-it-all newbie, God love her, and she helped shape me up.

Thank heavens!!!

And Jess, I know what you mean, those stats don't ring true with anyone I know, but I wonder if those results are skewed by HOW the question is phrased, like Vince suggested, or the demographic that was presented with the question in the first place.

Mary, that's demographic. D-E-M-O..


And hey, Mare, I'm loving the live link thing!!! I got pushed for time when I posted or else I'd have been clever enough to put one in for Missy Tippens, Margaret Daley, and Karen White.

If those all came through, I'm rewarding myself with mega-chocolate.


Arianna said...

LOL, well, I've never had the problem of writing something a teen wouldn't really say in modern day. Because I can sort of relate, since I'm a teen myself. Living in Europe has, believe it or not, changed my personality and the way I talk a lot. So the teens in my story probably wear European fashions and use European expressions. (OK, now I'm going to have to look through my novel, and see if that's true or not)

As far as younger kids, as characters, go, I probably don't do the best job. I have a bunch of brothers and sisters, but I'm the youngest, so I haven't been around little kids a lot. Especially since I was raised around mostly adults. Oh, well. I generally just remember what I was like when I was 4-10 years old, and compare that to the kids I know today. It usually works. I think. =)

And wow, where did this idea that sometimes kids are bad, come from? I mean, we're all angels, didn't you know? ;) LOL.

Margaret Daley said...

I am so honored. Thank you for the kind words about The Power of Love, Ruth.

Sandra Leesmith said...

Hi Ruthy, Thanks for the apple crisp-one of my favorites and Janet I hadn't read your reply this morning so am thankful for the cinnamon cakes too.

I'm impressed with the live link thing Ruthy. You will have to email me and tell me how you do that. I know it was discussed once, but I need etxra attention when it comes to technology.

Love the puppies.

Missy Tippens said...

Goodness, I'm late! I'm probably arriving as Ruthy is heading to bed!

Great post! And thanks for the plug for my book. LOL I did have a teenager while writing that book. And he had lots of friends to observe, too (although none had green hair). :)

I am having more trouble right now, though, writing a 4-year-old and a 5-year-old. It's been a long time since I had them that little. So I've been observing kids at church, trying to figure out which children to use to model my characters after. A fun challenge! :)


Mary Connealy said...

I'll reward you with mega-chocolate, too, Ruthy. Great idea. I'll eat it for you and tell you exactly how delicious it was.

I'll report back asap.

Missy Tippens said...

I agree, Arianna! We're all angels. And our own kids are angels, too. ;)

Ruthy, my linked worked! It's the first time I've seen my website in ages. I guess it's time to do an update!

Audra Harders said...

Good plug for normal kids, Ruthy! I have kids in my mss, but not modeled after my own. Eeeek, I'd never get an editor to talk to me again, LOL!

I agree with your examples, especially Missy's and Mary's. You guys created the real thing, complete with all the luggage that goes with ANY kid.

Any Ruthy, who better to know the young'ens than you?? Kids, grandkids, puppies. . .at this rate, the rest of us will age right past you!

Good post, kiddo!

Audra Harders said...

Whoooops, that's AND Ruthy, not ANY. ANY Ruthy just wouldn't do, LOL!

vince said...

Hi All:

The famous survey that said 70% of parents would not have children if they had it to do all over again was by Ann Landers and it received enormous publicity. I imagine it was more antidotal than scientific but it was at least a very large sample. You can read the article at the link here.

The Letters to the Editor that were asking for less children in romances were in RT which I think is the largest circulation romance magazine. I just could not understand these letters because there are more romances published every month without children in them than anyone could ever find the time to read. It was almost as if they didn’t want other women to read them either.


Ann said...

My kids -- all loud and strong-willed like their father ;-) -- love it when I read the Junie B. Jones books out loud. By Barbara Park. They are hysterical.