Don’t Scare the Children?

Last week I finished a short story which proved very different from anything else I’ve done.  It was written for a children’s anthology of ghosts stories with the target reader age range of 10-13 years. It was the first time I’ve ever written for such a young age group and so I spent quite a lot of time thinking about subject matter, language and tone. I considered The Graveyard Book and noted how Neil Gaiman was able to get away with some really, really awful subject matter by employing both judicious language and a tone that makes the reader — regardless of their age — feel very safe. I also tried to recall the types of stories I loved to read when I was that age and kept coming back to two primary emotional elements: fear and wonder. (Nothing much has changed.)

I had a character in mind — who I loved — and a vague of idea of how her story would unfold, and generally that’s all I need before I start actually putting words on screen. So I started and was promptly met with a near constant series of roadblocks and dead ends. Most of these related to content. There were plot elements and complexities I had to abandon due to lack of space, resulting in character dynamics that needed to be recalibrated. There was also a poignant climactic scene which I regretfully set aside because it necessitated the body of an eleven year old being found buried in her own back yard — and there is simply no way for an eleven year old girl to be found buried in her own backyard without A Very Bad Thing having happened to put her there.

(Normally, Very Bad Things are my stock in trade. But this time I wasn’t writing that kind of story — I was trying for quirky and optimistic — and the prospective weight of A Very Bad Thing was causing a fatal imbalance in the narrative, so the envisaged scene was never written. I’m sure it will find its way into another tale somewhere along the line.)

The ending itself took ages to find. I wasted a couple of frustrating hours one evening writing and deleting — and rewriting and redeleting — before realising that I’d already stumbled across the finish line a few paragraphs before and all I was doing was trying to manufacture an unnecessary coda. And the reason it took me so long to see this was that the ending was a happy one. I have a natural distrust of happy endings. They very often don’t feel right to me. They don’t feel genuine. They lack resonance. But this ending was right for this story, even if it wasn’t the kind of story I usually write. So I trusted it and tightened the narrative in a few places to provide better support and . . . I think it works well.

It’s not a particularly scary story, because ghosts don’t have to be scary, but it has fear and it has wonder. And it has a happy ending. (Stranger things have happened.) Best of all, I’ve heard back from the editor and he loves it. There’ll be some tweaks to make in copy editing — a couple of minor points that I need to be less subtle about, exposition wise — but it’s basically living and breathing on its own. Overall, I really enjoyed the experience and writing for kids is definitely something I’d like to do again if I get the opportunity.

But for now, it’s back wrestling with Novel the Second.