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.”
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.