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So You Wanna Be A Writer — Part 13 by Adam Rocke

Child sitting on a couch peacefully while reading a book

There are no rules when it comes to writing. Therefore, writers should never be shy about pushing the limits of their stories and characters. Granted, that doesn’t mean everything you write will be well received, let alone commercially viable, but don’t let that stop you from exploring the depths of your creativity. So now that we’re clear that the literal universe is truly infinite, it still needs to be understood that every genre has its own unique set of difficulties—challenges for writers that have absolutely nothing to do with reigning in your imagination.

For example, science fiction writers need to figure out how to make the unbelievable believable, all the while passing the “sniff test” with so-called science nerds. If you’re writing about black holes, wormholes, time rifts and time travel, you had better brush up on time-space continuums, light speed time reversal, and all the other scientific postulations associated with the ability go backward or forward in time.

Now, if you’re writing romance novels and plan on having at least one juicy hot-n-bothered, flesh-on-flesh “kissing and then some” sequence, you had better be able to recognize the literal line between love-making and porn.

Crime thriller novelists would be well served with some (and preferably extensive) knowledge of forensic investigation techniques and police procedures.

And for those of you penning anything having to do with the military or war, if you don’t have a solid grasp on the associated lingo, not to mention the firearms and weaponry typically used by whichever group or groups you’ll be describing, experts will be quick to call BS on your material. Trust me, as a published author who dabbles in those arenas, posers will be called out and flayed alive.

But of all the literary categories, I honestly believe writing for children is the most challenging. At first glance, you might not think so. I mean, kids are kids, right? How hard could it be? Well, if you’re taking that approach to any part of the literary juvenile realm, your goose is most likely cooked long before it’s put in the oven.

Let’s start with picture books. There are already thousands in print. What can you conjure up that isn’t “been there, seen that” without creating a story that is difficult for a child to grasp?

That’s a rhetorical question because I haven’t the foggiest. I think the wisest first step would be to read (devour!) as many currently-in-print picture books as you can. Get a handle on what’s out there. See if you can spot a hole in the market. Remember, that grey matter between your ears is the only threshold you need to break through. Find that storied need in the haystack, and then polish it to a brilliant luster. And if you’re working with an illustrator—even better if you’re handling the imagery yourself—perhaps start by drawing a character or a short scene and then allow that image to “speak to you.” What is it saying? What does it want to do? If you can answer that question, volunteer at a kindergarten or nursery school. Try your hand at being a live storyteller. The kids’ reactions might just help you add a new dimension to what is often a very simple story.

Ditto for first/easy readers. These are simple books for children who are just learning (and hopefully learning to love) how to read. Again, there are thousands upon thousands of these titles already in print. If it’s your goal to add your manuscript to the published ranks, you’ll need to bring your A game. Understand your audience. Think of the average vocabulary and reading comprehension level for that age group. Even if your story is “a winged unicorn flew me home” amazing, if the eyes it’s intended for cannot recognize the words or understand what they’re reading, you’ve missed the mark.

The Middle Grade realm is next, and it’s a huge realm at that. Typically encompassing books geared for children aged 8-12, many great movies are coming out of these titles, but writing a compelling story isn’t easy. For one, kids today are much smarter and more savvy than kids of the same age from my generation. They’re exposed to so much more; the World Wide Web has seen to that.

Still, even though the vagaries of life have reached out and touched them in ways that are difficult to comprehend, they’re still kids. And writing material that is not only compelling but age-appropriate takes effort, not to mention a fair amount of research. By research, I mean reading what other publishers are sending to market. Their editors have worked tirelessly to find that perfect balance between non-stop page-turner and parents-won’t-sue-us. In some cases it’s a fine line, but it’s a line you need to fully understand.

And that leaves the Young Adult category, quite possibly the biggest literary market of them all these days. I say that because a massive number of adults are finding their reading pleasure in the YA category, whereas 13-18 year-olds aren’t “crossing over” into adult fiction with the same frequency.

Because of the “feeding frenzy” that the Young Adult arena has become, some of the most successful adult fiction authors have gotten into the YA mix. James Patterson, Carl Hiaasen, Salman Rushdie… The list goes on. And while they and other YA authors are definitely cranking out books with so-called “adult themes,” the stories and characters therein are still respecting the fact that the core audience are not yet adults.

Many of today’s YA titles have violence, relationships and sex, and other mature themes that, in decades prior, would never have seen the light of day in the guise of a Young Adult book. But the times, they are a changing, and you don’t need Bob Dylan to spell it out for you…

The world has changed. The collective core beliefs and ideals of age groups have changed. So it only seems logical that the types of books these age groups are gravitating towards has also changed. As writers, we not only need to be wary of the trends, we need to be ahead of them—or at the very least at the front of them.

Remember, writers don’t just report on society—they shape it!

Until next time, happy writing.

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