Writing Tip: Writing Outside the "Norm"
Recently, because of the pandemic sucking up people's time, my publishers and I had to back off my writing, scaling me down to 1 book a year. This was bittersweet, but it did allow me to attempt another dream I had concerning children's books under a pen name. Little did I know that switching the age category you write for is not as easy as it sounds.
First, I naturally write in too elevated of a style for children, thanks to my years in academia. I found myself using multisyllabic words, my brain having trouble thinking of more elementary synonyms. Second, I didn't think about sentence style for my first draft of a chapter book. I never realized that my syntax style is complex. I use multiple-clause sentences, mainly compound-complex sentences, and lots of modifying phrases. Filtering through my son's book collection, I saw that children's sentence style should be simplistic for these budding readers. My point is, I was writing out of my "norm," so every sentence became an uphill battle, working against my nature.
My entire life writing had come easy. For the first time, I was seeing how "normal" writers suffer the slings of word choices and sentence development. Because when you go to write a picture book, each word choice matters for rhythm, flow, clarity, and perhaps rhyme. In a sense, it is as deep as writing poetry.
I'm not saying that my YA novels aren't deep--I rather think they are--but I don't get hung up on word choices and sentence structure. I'm more focused on plot, characterization, symbolism, foreshadowing, and narrative voice.
With my children's novels, there was something else that was not "normal." I was writing own voices material about ADHD and sensory processing issues; in another, I was writing a book for my child who has autism and asked for a book with a character like himself. I had to put myself in his shoes, immerse myself into his world--with lots his input--and truly represent his voice. This, oddly, was easier than I thought. I think I've had more trouble in the past writing from the perspective of a neurotypical person, to make my characters’ though processes “normal.” To write neurodiverse characters, it felt like I was sharing part of me, a natural feeling. I can fake normal in life and writing (called masking) thanks to studying human nature, trying to fit in to avoid bullying, and a degree in theater which truly showed me how to play parts in real life. I can be anyone I need or want to be; I can put myself into a character, regardless of their personality, when I'm writing.
So writing outside my comfort zone taught me a few things. I have nailed down my ability to create in-depth characters and a narrative voice that reflects that. I have become comfortable with a close psychic distance, willing to dive into character's heads. What I still must learn is to simplify for a younger audience. It is a struggle, but I want to do these books for my family, for my child. Once I manage to make it through one book, I'm sure I'll be set. Like all writing, skills become acquired through practice.