Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Finding Your Voice, Part 2

It's high time that I make good on my May 16 promise to follow up on the reflection exercises I posted in Finding Your Voice, Part 1. Up to speed now? Good. I'll continue.

A student in my recent workshop asked how I defined youth in the context of those exercises. I thought it was a great question, because I specifically chose to say "youth" instead of "childhood." For the purposes of the work, I think of youth in terms of any age from first memory to the upper limit of the age group you would like to work in as a children's writer. I hate to explicitly set parameters, though, because I want anyone trying the exercises to feel free to interpret the term broadly and respond to what first comes to mind.

As you may have guessed, the reflection exercises are geared toward getting you thinking about what you want to write, or which niche(s) you want to inhabit as a children's writer. Thinking with intention about such things as the books you loved as a young person and the children's books you enjoy today can serve as a great jumping-off point for (a) deciding whether to write fiction or nonfiction and (b) for which age group(s) you want to write. Let's face it, we all do higher quality writing when we're comfortable and interested. And the more natural/less forced your writing seems to the reader — never mind a potential publisher — the better!

I contend that songs/books/memories of youth can help you zero in on what you should be writing. To illustrate, I'll use my own experiences as an example. See whether you think you can use your responses to the reflection exercises in the same way I use mine.

About the books: Of course I can think of many specific books I loved at a number of young ages: Caps for Sale, anyone? Little Women, The Wind in the Willows, and Charlotte's Web? Every Nancy Drew mystery on the planet? But the three pieces of children's writing that stand out from all the rest — from my youth and subsequent experience with such works — are Elizabeth George Speare's The Witch of Blackbird Pond (historical fiction/literary fiction), Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl (nonfiction/memoir), and Katherine Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved (literary fiction). I read the first two books in the 5th and 6th grades, respectively, and I read the third in my 20s as part of my job. I read each of them at least three times, and each one has stayed fresh in my memory.

What do those titles have in common, and how do they relate to my writing?

Well, for one, all three feature stories told from the perspective of a young teen girl. Although I do write for all age levels, I find that I'm most comfortable writing for the upper-middle-grade to YA reader. The writing comes more naturally to me than when I'm, say, writing for a very young audience.

Now that's not to suggest that you shouldn't (or that I don't) write for different age levels. If you want to, do it. A good writer who practices her craft and continually challenges herself to broaden her skills can do several things well. However, I firmly believe that there will always be one particular age range toward which any given writer gravitates.

If you are new to children's writing, you will probably want to try writing for several different age levels at some point — perhaps you'll even want to do so as a way to help you choose your path. But with some reflection and research, I think you'll find that you already know where you want to be, writing-wise.

To be continued.

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