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Writing Life

Writing Complex Children: We Need Better Arcs!

There’s something we might be overlooking in our character development as writers.

We all know about character arcs. Characters need to change over the course of a story. When I received my developmental edit letter for Rock of Ages, my editor conveyed that even the jerk boyfriend in my story needed to have more depth, to show an arc. It could go downward, certainly, but he needed to change. Protagonists certainly have to learn or grow or change in some way. In good writing, all of the characters have arcs and end up at least a little different by the end of the book.

But what about the children?

I’m not talking about children’s or young adult books, obviously. So many of those authors are amazing at creating complex characters and showing these characters grow, learn, develop, and change. I’m talking about books written for adults with adults as the main characters but that  have children as supporting characters. It’s hard enough to think of adult fiction that features kids meaningfully, which is strange because there are a lot of kids around us, but it’s even harder to think of examples of adult fiction with kids who show growth and change over the course of the book.

Children in books should not function only as accessories or a plot device. Children are just as complex, have just as much depth, as adults. More importantly, they change a lot faster. Their development happens simply as a matter of time– it doesn’t depend on external circumstances.

So here are some tips for adding complexity to young characters in an adult-centric book.

Read About Child Development 

The human brain is amazing and the ways we develop early on are absolutely fascinating! How much time passes in your book? How old is the child in your book at the beginning and how old are they at the end? Do some research! Read about child development at those ages. Demonstrate those changing abilities in your writing. Maybe at the beginning of the book a baby doesn’t understand object permanence and cries whenever her mother leaves the room but by the end, she understands she’ll return shortly. Maybe a child who doesn’t grasp the difference between fantasy and reality is starting to comprehend this by the end.

Talk to a Kid

If you’re writing about a child but haven’t spent much time with one their age, see if you know one you can visit or speak to on the phone. Take note of their mannerisms, pronunciations, and sentence structure. 

Let Them Surprise You

Kids in books can do things that would be more out of character for adults because they are changing constantly. Just because a child in a book sleeps with the lights on every night for the first half of the story doesn’t mean they can’t suddenly decide to turn them off. A five year old who is outgoing may become a five and a half year old who is more reserved. I’m not saying to make your young character do whatever you want. They should have a personality and mannerisims and tendencies, but they can diverge from those more easily than you could get away with with an adult character. You can have the adults around them react with surprise, astonishment, or reflection to highlight this difference.

Read Good Kids

Get inspired by books with good young characters. This may mean reading children’s, middle grade, or young adult books, but try to find adult-centric books as well. I recently read Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward and was impressed with the character Kayla (or Michaela, depending on who you ask.)

Oskar of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a fantastic character, though this book is a little different since he’s the protagonist. Jonathan Safran Foer does this well in another of his books, Here I Am, too, in which the kids are secondary characters but still complex.

I have a hard time thinking of other good examples, which might show what a gap there is. What have you read with good kid characters?

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Author Interview Writing Life

Parents Who Make Writing Work: Brittney Trescott Cassity

We have another West Virginia parent to feature today! Brittney Trescott Cassity, who writes under the name Josie Dorans shares her insight on writing when her kids were younger.

Becca: What was your writing routine before having kids?

Brittney: I married young and had my boys young. I was only 19 when we tied the knot. I had my first son a month before my 21st birthday and second son just after I turned 23. I honestly didn’t have a writing routine before I had kids. I had school assignments and sporadic bursts of creativity that I consider more of an outlet than writing for a finished product. Then I had the first taste of grown-up freedom and lost the urge for a while.

Becca: How did that change after having kids?

Brittney: I started getting “serious” about writing when my husband went to Iraq as a civilian contractor in 2005. I was telling my boys a continuing story every night involving a very small dragon. They started wanting those stories repeated so I started writing them down. Then I started illustrating the stories for them. The whole thing evolved into a self-published children’s book. That led into another book, and another, and another until I had four children’s books for a variety of ages and reasons. Next was a perpetual planner based on a blog I had going. By that time, the boys were older so I was balancing the niceness of children’s books (and the interesting challenges of being the mother of teenaged boys) with some feistier work under a pen name.

Becca: How is your writing itself influenced by having kids?

Brittney: I think I’ve always written for my kids. I write stories to help them build a better world even when I am writing a world that I would not want to live in. I believe that stories are the blueprints that we give our children so that they can build their world based on the lessons they learn from what they read. Even at my pen name’s worst, I try to write in a path to a better future. If I hadn’t had children, I’m not sure that I would recognize how important that is to include. I also try to write things that my grown sons can be proud to say their mother created. I don’t necessarily mean the story. They will never get into some of the plots. Still, I try to make the writing solid so they can recommend my books because they think someone will like them and not just because I’m their mom.

Becca: What advice do you have for parents of young kids who want to write?

Brittney: Do it! That doesn’t mean you have to turn it into a job or your career although you definitely can if that is what you want to do. But embracing writing because you love it shows your kids to embrace their own passions. Writing helps you express your joys and your fears. It is an awesome outlet and it can help you work your way to answers when you need them the most. It helps build your foundation stronger. Your children will benefit from the experience of watching you grow as an adult. Share your love of writing with them. Write something just for them even if it isn’t what you would normally write – maybe especially if it isn’t what you would normally write. Let your writing build another bond with your kids. If you’re worried about a writing schedule with the demands you have as a parent, don’t worry about keeping up with a word count or amount of writing time until your demands lighten and more time for yourself appears. Write when you can and for as long as you can. Find YOUR way.

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Author Interview Writing Life

Parents Who Make Writing Work: Brandy Renee McCann

Today’s Parent-Writer is extra special because she’s a fellow West Virginian! Meet Brandy Renee McCann, author of short story “Of a Certain Age.”

Becca: What was your writing routine before having kids?

Brandy: Before having kids I had a tenure track position and wrote first thing in the morning at home and between classes at the office.

Becca: How has that changed since having kids?

Brandy: These days my paid work is very part time and I have no office. Also, my kids come to my bed for early morning snuggles and I’ve found it impossible to get up and write like I used to. Now I write after they go to bed at night. I never wrote at night before having kids, even when I was in college. Also, this year they’ve been in preschool, so I’ve had about 10 hours per week during daytime hours. That has allowed me to take on some part time paid work.

Becca: How has your writing itself changed since becoming a parent?

Brandy: My writing hasn’t changed much—I don’t write about parenthood for example—but I have become much more aware of the passage of time and have become laser-focused on my writing goals. It blows my mind to think about how much time I frittered away before I had kids.

Becca: What advice do you have for people who want to write who are parents of young children?

Brandy: I have a rule about housework: I don’t do housework when I could be writing. I try to do all my housework when the kids are with me.

I always keep a notebook or slip of paper with me. And an ink pen. That way if I have a moment free—the kids are napping in the car or I’m waiting while they’re in gymnastics—I can write down ideas or snippets of scenes. I also carry reading material everywhere I go. It is easy to waste that time scrolling social media, but I try to stay mindful and take advantage of those moments.

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Author Interview Writing Life

Parents Who Make Writing Work: Cari Dubiel

Today we get to hear from mom/author/ crowdfunder extraordinaire Cari Dubiel, author of How to Remember.

Becca: What was your writing routine before having kids?

Cari:I thought I was disciplined before kids. Wrong! I wasted so much time. I did write 500-1000 words a day, but nothing I wrote was structured, and I didn’t have a dedicated plan. That was probably why the two novels I completed were terrible. I also didn’t know any other writers, so I was fumbling blind without a community.

Becca: How has that changed since having kids?

Cari: How things have changed: I’m much more efficient now. I’ve become a time management guru, with lists and calendars and notes for everything. I currently work full-time, freelance, and teach at Kent State University in addition to writing novels. Much more than I ever did before I was a parent. I structure and outline everything I write before I write it, so I save time during the drafting process. I also have a systematic self-editing process.

I did give myself a break after having both kids – about six months off each. When I had Henry, I was just beginning my term as Library Liaison to Sisters in Crime. While I wasn’t writing, I was networking and making connections in the writing world, and I was learning all the time.

I needed that during the sleepless nights, and it helped to curb the anxiety of becoming a new parent.

By the time Oliver came along, I was fully entrenched in several writing communities. The extra support is crucial to becoming a working writer.

Becca: How has your writing itself changed since having kids?

Cari: I met the author James Renner when I was pregnant, and I remember him telling me that I’d have a new dimension to my writing – I’d be able to write about kids. I didn’t truly get what that meant until probably six months after Henry was born, when I realized that the parent-child dynamic from the parent side is totally different than from the child side.

It’s a new way to understand relationships. Parenting is a strong theme in my book, How to Remember, and I don’t think the novel would have evolved that way without my children.

Becca: What advice do you have for parents of young kids who want to write?

Cari: You must have some kind of a plan. It doesn’t have to be a crazy evolved one like mine. Set a small goal: write 500 words a day, or use a workbook to keep you on task in outlining or character building. The book Finishing School by Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton is a great place to start for inspiration.

But also – don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t get done. Actually, don’t beat yourself if nothing gets done – housework, laundry, birthday cards, whatever. It is OK to prioritize writing over the dishes.

Your kids will only be young once, but at the same time, you will only be YOU once. You can do anything, but not all at the same time, and it won’t be perfect. Be mindful and let things ebb and flow as they will. (Easier said than done!)

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Author Interview Writing Life

Parents Who Make Writing Work: Michael Haase

Today’s parent/writer who is rocking it is Michael Haase, author of The Man Who Stole the World.

Becca: What was your writing routine before having kids?

Michael: I used to stay up into the wee hours of night writing to my heart’s content. I’d stay up past four in the morning quite often and sleep until noon. I could get down nearly 5,000 words a day back then.

Becca: How has that changed since having kids?

Michael: It has all changed. My kids go to bed at 8am and wake up at 8am. I’m lucky that they both good sleepers and stay on the same schedule. (And they both still nap!) But I can’t stay up as late as I used to. If I write after they go to bed, I’m usually out of steam by midnight. I’ve been slowly converting myself into being a morning person. Ideally, I want to get up by 5am to write, as I’ve realized my approaching-forty-years-old brain appreciates a sober mind in the early morning when it comes to productive writing.

Becca: How has your writing itself changed since having kids?

Michael: I’m not sure how much the writing itself has changed, but there are certainly more kids in my ramblings. I think the need to write has become more immediate, as I want my kids to have little bits of my brain in book form to keep around long after I’ve left this plane. If my mom or dad wrote a book, I’d probably be reading that at least a few times a year now that they’re both gone.

Becca: What advice do you have for parents of young kids who want to write?

Michael: I am a “stay at home dad,” which actually just means that I work night shift. That being said, my advice is to learn to roll with the punches, type quickly, and not to wait for inspiration to come. I’ve become productive by having my computer warmed up and ready. My kids are young, 2 and 4, and I’ve trained myself to be able to write something in those small breaks, sometimes only five minutes. But I’ve put down a few hundred words in several five minute “breaks,” and those add up quickly. Just be ready, and don’t expect to sit down at a desk refreshed and ready. Expect to have to fight for your writing time. It’s worth fighting for, right? That being said, take care of your kids first, of course.

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Author Interview Writing Life

Parents Who Make Writing Work: Cati Porter

In my most recent post, I shared tips that have worked for me when trying to balance my roles as a parent and as a writer. In this new series, Parents Who Make Writing Work, other writers who have children share their experiences, insight, and advice.

First up is Cati Porter, author of the forthcoming poetry collection The Body at a Loss

Becca: What was your writing routine before having kids? How did that change after having kids?
Cati: Before having kids, my routine was very non-specific. I didn’t really have one. I went through periods of writing late into the night, or I went through one phase where I wrote everything on an electric typewriter. I didn’t have to worry about “finding” time to write, and yet, what I found once I had kids was that I more productive.
Something about having to carve out dedicated time while they slept, or with them in my lap, or paying my sister to babysit (in the other room) while I met a deadline — that, strangely, made me far more productive than before I had kids even though there were fewer constraints then.
A little about constraints:
I think they can be useful tools. It’s one of the reasons why I turn to poetry in received forms (sonnet, villanelle, pantoum, sestina, etc.) when I’m feeling stuck. The constraints are paradoxically freeing. That was sort of how it was with having my first child, after which my first book came flooding out.
When you know you only have a limited amount of time (or space) to write, you are more apt to use it wisely.
Becca: Yes!! Same here!! I get things done so much more quickly now.
Cati: Seriously! I am much more efficient now.
Becca: Yes! It’s amazing what can get done in ten quiet minutes. How has your writing, itself, changed since having kids?
Cati: My writing itself has continued to change over time. Where once I focused almost exclusively on mama-centric work, that morphed into work that pushed the boundaries of the autobiography, into surrealism and fabulism, allowing a sort of respite from what was going in my life.
Becca: What advice do you have for parents of young kids who want to write?
Cati: My main advice for any writers with children is accept all offers of free time. Use it. And don’t ever let anyone tell you that having kids will limit the amount of work you produce.
Someone once told me that for every one child you have, that’s one book you’ll never write. I think that’s wrong. If it weren’t for my kids, I may not have written any books, just written aimlessly forever.
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Writing Life

Parenthood VS Writerhood: Can they Coexist?

When I was crowdfunding my novel, Rock of Ages, one of the questions I got all the time was, “How did you write a book with two little kids?!”

Part of the answer is that I wrote my first draft when I was pregnant with my first and had a lot of time at a desk job, but I did get through two more drafts completed after having kids as well as a first draft of a second novel and several smaller stories.

 

Ditch the Guilt

I created a video as an answer to this question. Take a few minutes to check it out if you can! It’s pretty entertaining to see me chase my littlest around while talking.

In the video I explain that I eschew the advice that is so often given that you must write every day. This advice, I explain, is for people who want to write but who can’t work up the motivation to just do it.

For people who would love to write every day, for whom writing time is a luxury, we instead need tips on how to not feel guilty for spending the time we do spend on writing, and for not feeling so bad that we don’t practice our craft daily.

Instead of trying to write every day, feeling frustrated when it didn’t happen, and being short with my kids trying to make it happen, I would devote a month or week every once in awhile to writing. During this mini retreat I would absolve myself of the guilt of being preoccupied with my work. During other times, I would absolve myself of the guilt of not writing as much.

I stand by this. It can feel impossible to write and be the kind of parent you want to be and this designating writing times and writing breaks can be a great way to find a balance.

Lately, though, I have been spending a bit more time writing— sometimes there are projects that you just have to get out of your head and onto the page. Or maybe you feel like you could be writing more but you aren’t sure how. For those days, here are some ways I’ve found to squeeze it in:

Find Your Time Confetti

Brigid Schulte writes about the concept of leisure time as a feminist issue. She says:

“Whatever leisure time (women) have is often devoted to what others want to do – particularly the kids – and making sure everyone else is happy doing it. Often women are so preoccupied by all the other stuff that needs doing – worrying about the carpool, whether there’s anything in the fridge to cook for dinner – that the time itself is what sociologists call ‘contaminated.’

I came to learn that women have never had a history or culture of leisure. (Unless you were a nun, one researcher later told me.) That from the dawn of humanity, high status men, removed from the drudge work of life, have enjoyed long, uninterrupted hours of leisure. And in that time, they created art, philosophy, literature, they made scientific discoveries and sank into what psychologists call the peak human experience of flow.

Women aren’t expected to flow.”

Her words are relevant for caretakers of any gender. Caretaking and creative pursuits are both taken for granted and undervalued.

Caretakers’ time is interrupted by the duties of caretaking and it makes it hard to get anything else done. What Schulte points us to, though, are the little bits of “time confetti”—the approximately 30 hours of leisure time we do have each week. This time confetti comes in short bursts and is often at inconvenient times, but there are ways to harness it.

One of my largest and most reliable chunks of leisure time is in the evenings after my kids are in bed. Occasionally I have the energy and motivation to get some writing done and the baby seems to be sleeping soundly enough that I can roll away from my spot next to her and type as quietly as possible. More often than not though, she wakes up if I move or I’m just too tired to do anything that requires much thought and I just watch 5 episodes of Fuller House on Netflix instead.

What does work, though, is if I skip the binge watching, go to sleep early-ish, and wake up refreshed. When I do this I can write the next morning while the kids are at their most content, or I can write during nap time because I’m not exhausted from the night before.

Using time confetti doesn’t mean filling every spare second. In fact, sometimes it means the opposite. Instead of reaching for your phone every time you get a minute of downtime, you can practice mindfulness and just being for a few moments. When you do this, you feel less burnt out and your days start to feel more open and expansive.

This brings me to my next tip:

Ditch social media

Manoush Zomorodi, author of Bored and Brilliant,  writes “Kaufman calls dopamine ‘the mother of invention’ and explains that because we have a limited amount of it, we must be judicious about choosing to spend it on ‘increasing our wonder and excitement for creating meaning and new things like art—or on Twitter.’”

I’ve found this to be true. When I uninstall social media apps, or use usage tracking apps like Quality Time to limit my social media usage I get much happier and more productive.

It’s not just that I’m writing during the times I would have been scrolling. It’s that I’m being more present with my kids so that I feel less guilty when I do take a chunk of time for writing. It also lets me feel bored instead of that pretend busy feeling of checking notifications, which, let’s face it—isn’t actually doing anything.

Try going one day without looking at Facebook. What you’ll probably find is that you can look over your notifications in a few minutes and that none of them really seem that important. When you think about how many times you normally compulsively check them during a day, the time seems ridiculous.

When you get bored, you come up with great ideas! I often find myself writing in my head when I’m not scrolling through social media instead.

 

Use the Right Tools

There is software that can make writing with kids easier. I’ve found Scrivener incredibly helpful because I can easily see and access different parts of a larger work so it’s easy to just work on a small bit at a time. If I have 15 minutes to write, some time confetti, instead of spending that 15 minutes searching for the part I want to work on and orienting myself, I can spend it actually writing and get in 500 words.

Outlining can work similarly for shorter pieces. Before you dive into a project, spend time outlining—type your major points or sections in bold and then fill them in as you can.

Try writing by hand. Screens make me feel distant from whatever is in front of me, namely my kids, and make me feel like they think I’m ignoring them. Paper and pen lets me work while still feeling like I’m in the space I’m actually in. My kids know that I’m writing and not just ignoring them for the distant world of whatever is on the screen.

I used to look down on using paper and pen. It seemed like extra work. Wouldn’t I just have to type stuff later? And it was so messy— I like being able to edit as I write if I want to. But not all writing needs to be seen. Just the act of writing is good practice for better writing.

Even writing badly—just the practice of it—is inherently valuable in itself. Anne Lammott writes beautifully about this in Bird by Bird.

She says, “What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head. First there’s the vinegar-lipped Reader Lady, who says primly, “Well, that’s not very interesting, is it?” And there’s the emaciated German male who writes these Orwellian memos detailing your thought crimes. And there are your parents, agonizing over your lack of loyalty and discretion; and there’s William Burroughs, dozing off or shooting up because he finds you as bold and articulate as a houseplant; and so on. And there are also the dogs: let’s not forget the dogs, the dogs in their pen who will surely hurtle and snarl their way out if you ever stop writing, because writing is, for some of us, the latch that keeps the door of the pen closed, keeps those crazy ravenous dogs contained.”

You write because you have to write and sometimes writing with a pen and paper is the easiest way to get in a few words. The bonus is that writing with pen and paper is a great way to quiet your inner editor and to get some practice in without the pressure for it to be perfect, so try it. If it works for you, keep a notebook and pen near where you play with your kids!

 

 

Learn with your kids

Even when you aren’t actually writing, there are things you can do to improve your craft. The big one is, of course, reading. Since it can be hard to sit down with a novel with kids climbing on you and it can be hard to immerse yourself in a story in 5 minute bursts between dishes and laundry, I’ve relied largely on audiobooks. Audiobooks are not “cheating,” whatever people may say. In fact, the science confirms that to your brain, it’s the same!

Share good writing with your kids! Reading is good for your kids for so many reasons but it will help you be a better writer, too, even if you aren’t a children’s book author!

I love audiobooks and story podcasts for kids too. Check out Overdrive to borrow audiobooks for free from your local library. Our favorite podcasts are Circle Round, Eleanor Amplified, and Story Pirates.

Story Pirates is especially awesome because they take kids’ stories and turn them into awesome songs and sketches. They have their own book that has writing tips for kids in the back and talking about things like character, setting, and plot with my four year old is a good review of some basics for me too!

 

Use Your Material

Being a parent gives you access to amazing, universally relatable material. Your experiences give you insight into characters that are parents that you didn’t have before. I’ve found all of my characters have become more multidimensional since becoming a parent because my empathy has grown. I consider what made my mean characters mean and my bad guys are no longer all bad. Some of the essays I’m proudest of are about my experience as a parent, because the emotion in them is so raw and deep.

In Closing:

Many people have written amazing pieces about the struggle to find balance as a parent and writer. In her piece “What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men?” Claire Dederer begins by discussing the revelations that many of her favorite artists have engaged in disgusting behavior toward women. She eventually wonders if she, herself, is monstrous for taking the time away from her family for her own art:

“There are many qualities one must possess to be a working writer or artist. Talent, brains, tenacity. Wealthy parents are good. You should definitely try to have those. But first among equals, when it comes to necessary ingredients, is selfishness.

A book is made out of small selfishnesses. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall. The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one. The selfishness of stealing stories from real people. The selfishness of saving the best of yourself for that blank-faced anonymous paramour, the reader. The selfishness that comes from simply saying what you have to say.

I have to wonder: maybe I’m not monstrous enough. I’m aware of my own failings as a writer—indeed I know the list to a fare-thee-well, and worse are the failures that I know I’m failing to know— but a little part of me has to ask: if I were more selfish, would my work be better? Should I aspire to greater selfishness?”

As much as I try to strike a balance, there is a truth in this that resonates deeply.

Rufi Thorpe writes about the “conflict is between the selfishness of the artist and the selflessness of a mother, concluding, “To make the most of oneself is not to forsake one’s identity as a woman or as a mother. It is not to become an art monster if the monster in question is nothing but a drunk asshole.

But it is also not to bend entirely, to flap hinge open to your children and your husband and the underwear that may be nestled behind a door, and give up the terrible, wonderful, furtive dream that is the self. To come second entirely, to be only mother, maid, cook, wife, is also not to make the most of oneself. One must learn how and when not to bend.

It is this, the balance between selflessness and selfishness, that is so difficult, but also, I would like to believe, worthwhile.”

Thorpe is right. We can try all the tips I’ve listed above. We’ll have days when they work and days when they don’t. Days when we write 1000 words and the kids are happy. Days when we write 1000 words and the kids are miserable. Days when we write 0 words and the kids are miserable. Days when we write 0 words and the kids are happy.

The important thing is that we keep trying. We keep doing our best day by day to be a good parent and to be a good writer. It’s the trying that is important, that is meaningful.

 

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