Kids Can Write--Three
edited: Saturday, August 04, 2007
By Elaine Olelo Masters
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Monday, May 01, 2006
Become a Fan
How-to for writing children's books and short stories
Kids Can Write--Three
Looking at the 70 earnest little faces before me at Iolani School, I realized these kindergartners were trusting me to solve their writing problems. After listening to a “real writer,” they would be able to write great stories. Yeah. Right.
I’m the kind of person who thinks better in retrospect, so I’ve come up with some additional tips that may help them, other writers, and their teachers.
WHERE DO YOU GET IDEAS?
Ideas come to me from many places: watching the news on TV; reading books, picture books or chapter books; conversations; while taking a walk; observing people around me; in dreams, sleeping or daytime. Of course we never copy other people’s work, but it’s fine to use their ideas as a springboard for our own.
Sometimes after a character forms in my mind, s/he takes over the story as I write and then some of the plot twists “just happen.”
Sometimes a story is a long time coming. It’s hard when a teacher tells you, “today you’re going to write a story,” because sometimes stories come in bits and pieces. For instance, the seed for THE ROYAL WAKER-UPPER came to me when a docent at Iolani Palace told our group, “King Kalakaua didn’t like alarm clocks. He had a boy start at the far end of the palace grounds and sing as the boy walked toward the king’s bedroom.” Aha! That would make a good children’s book!
But not quite. A plot must have a problem.
In Thailand, seated at an outdoor restaurant, I kept hearing a motorcycle go by, but there was no motorcycle. Then I heard a high voice speaking English and a low voice speaking Thai, but there were no people around. I finally spotted a mynah in a nearby cage making all those sounds. Aha! I’ll put a mynah in the story.
But there’s still no problem, no crisis that will make the story exciting.
Well, what if a very important person was coming to visit Hawaii. What if the boy lost his voice and couldn’t sing the king awake. When the king slept through the dignitary’s arrival, the kingdom would be disgraced. What if the mynah could sing just like the boy and hence save the day? Another person suggested that the dignitary be Robert Louis Stevenson, since he did indeed visit Hawaii during the reign of King Kalakaua.
It took about two years for all of this to jell, but the final product was all I wanted it to be.
In a short story, everything should relate to the basic plot. In chapter books, you have time to develop sub-plots and go off on tangents, but in short stories such as elementary school students would write, you have to hone that plot straight down the path.
This takes a real balancing act, because you want your characters to come alive but you can’t have too much description. In FOOTLOOSE THE MONGOOSE AND THE JUMPING FLEA, you know by their names and a few actions that Footloose is irresponsible (his father wants him to learn to take responsibility and his mother wants him to clean up his room) and his friend Shifty is, well, shifty, with a devil-may-care attitude.
In MOMI IN THE LAND OF DELIGHT, we know when the little mermaid is impatient (she wiggles her tail) and gets tired on the journey (are we there yet?). But she redeems herself in MOMI’S BIRTHDAY SURPRISE by taking care of the old eel, Elsie.
All of these actions and character names help us to “see” the characters and live out the plot.
In picture books, you don’t have to put in too much description because the illustrator will show much of it in the pictures.
HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN IT’S GOOD?
I find critique groups most helpful, and this can be done even at the kindergarten level. Children can pair off, with each child reading the OTHER person’s story out loud. As the writer listens to his/her story, s/he will probably notice things that don’t make sense or that don’t flow right. The reader can pause to make comments such as, “That’s really good. I like that part,” or “I don’t understand what you mean right here.” Or, “Why did the character do that?” showing lack of foreshadowing or motivation.
Children are abashed and teachers delighted when I say that I re-write picture books probably 20 times. Picture books are almost like poetry: they have rhythm and flow. Each word must fit exactly in the sentence, conveying the precise meaning and sound that’s appropriate.
I’m so glad God created computers (just kidding!)—it makes writing so much easier. You can move paragraphs around, delete words or sentences, change characters’ names, and then print out the revised story by simply pushing “print.” When you hone your computer skills, including touch typing, you’ll find revising is more fun,
Now. Time for you to pull out that story you’ve been slaving over and get to work. Happy writing!