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Transcript for Episode 2.2

Writing Excuses Season Two Episode Two: How to Write for Children with Brandon Mull


Key points: Children’s writing is not just picture books. Middle grades are 4 to 8, and Young Adult is 8th grade to 18. Keep the audience in mind, but don’t write down. Keep the ideas big, even if the words are simple and clear and the characters younger. Pay attention to what interests kids.

[Mull] I write the Fablehaven series and the Candy Shop War. Fablehaven is a wildlife refuge for magical creatures.

[Brandon] Today we’re going to talk about how to write for children. Three out of four of us write for children and four out of four of us are children. Dan’s book is being released as a young adult.

[Brandon] we should define children. People think we’re talking about picture books. But the publishing term goes up to 18. Picture books, chapter books, middle grade, young adult. Middle grades are four to eight, young adult is eighth grade up to the end of high school.

[Brandon] when you sit down to write do you think I’m writing for this age group? Do you target middle grades?
[Mull] no matter what I’m writing, I have to target me, I have to write something I think is cool, but I keep the audience present in the back of my mind. As far as what I do include, the level of penetration on the thinking, I do a little lighter, I may make it more dialogue driven, more visually driven, kind of like they’re watching a movie. Pull back on the violence, not real glory.
[Brandon] Dan, do you keep the age group in mind?
[Dan] not especially. My book is a weird anomaly. We’ve said you write for yourself, so I wrote about serial killers. I made the main character a kid because I thought it was real creepy. As a side effect, it’s a young adult book. Actually it’s being released to both audiences, young adult and adult depending on where you are. It has a high reading level, and I didn’t pull back.
[Brandon] one difference between middle grade and young adult — edited for content or not. Middle grade books are paid for and given to children by adults. Young adults buy it themselves. Young adult books are not edited for content.
[Mull] another point is the age of your protagonist. When the point of view is a kid, the flavor is middle.
[Brandon] Howard, what about age groups?
[Howard] No. But my 10 year old picked up The Tub of Happiness and told my wife, “this is pretty good.” Ten to 14-year-olds — they’re getting it. I’m not dumbing it down.
[Brandon] I don’t think you have to dumb it down. Sometimes you have to write it more simplistically. Or is that the wrong way to think about it? How can you write for younger audiences without writing down?
[Mull] I write the kid as a kid, and the adult as an adult. If the adults sound like adults, kids know what that sounds like. That’s how they experience the world. I won’t go out of my way to get hard vocab — if I notice I’m starting to drop a lot of hard vocab, I’ll try to pull back and say things a little bit simpler. But it’s not about saying it dumb, kids are pretty smart. Try to write it pretty clear and not overload on the heavy vocab and that’s it.
[Brandon] I actually don’t even edit for vocabulary until the revision…. the difference is I’m looking to write shorter cause I’m writing middle grades. Middle grades are shorter…. I want my books to be snappy and quick. I’m writing one viewpoint instead of six or seven. So in that way I’m making it simpler. I’m not trying to make the plot any less complex, I’m not trying to make the characters any less complex, I’m not trying to make dialogue any less complex. At the same time I am trying to write for the audience.
[Dan] my daughter is seven years old, and she just recently read some fairy and the berry battle book. … the plot is about misunderstandings being escalated to the point of war — that’s really a big idea. She loved it because they didn’t dumb it down. They put it in terms she understood, with fairies and hamsters throwing berries at each other
[Howard] because they are always fighting
[Dan] that’s a big part — make sure the ideas are big. The words may be a little simpler, the characters younger, but the stories can be about very important things.

[Brandon] how do you write children’s dialogue?
[Mull] that voice is still alive in me. It’s partly instinctual. I remember how kids bicker. I remember how they simplify things. And I remember their emotional volatility.
[Dan] … I make them less self-aware. Others are emotional, driven by the moment.
[Brandon] one of the best ways is to consider conflicts that kids will find interesting. What are they interested in?…
[Mull] I do try to keep in mind what I liked to see in a book as a kid. … but what kids want to know is what monsters are in the book, what creatures are in Fablehaven. Oh yeah — make sure there are cool creatures in there, make sure something blows up, make sure somebody gets punched in the face… make sure cool dumb stuff happens.
[Skip over Brandon and Howard talking about whether Howard has a teenager in the strip, except to note that Howard tells us]
[Howard] I’ve got a whole book that’s the size of a cork for that plot hole.

[Brandon] one thing I’ve heard a lot is that people will write a young adult book or adult book and send it in, then it gets packaged differently…. how can we keep it on age?
[Mull] in young adult, you’re gonna get a lot more internal dialogue, a lot deeper penetration into the characters mind. If the viewpoint of the character is all brooding about themselves and how others perceive them and their feelings and reactions to the scene more than what’s going on in the scene — that’s going to feel more young adult. And if it isn’t quite so heavy heavy introspective, if the scenes are more dramatized like you’re watching a movie, that’s middle grades.
[Dan] discusses first book being insular, while the second book written from the beginning for young adult is more social
[Brandon] if we’re talking about the difference between young adult and middle grade, middle grades are not focused on romance. You may have hints but they’re not as interested. Young adult — teenagers — what were you interested in? Romance. … it’s a kind of adventure story
[Howard] he has an alliance with an attractive, capable girl and there’s no romance? Middle grade.

[Brandon] why do you write for children? What do you gain, what are the benefits?
[Mull] Fablehaven is a story I wanted to tell. I really like the idea of a wildlife park for magical creatures. That idea lent itself to a story for kids…
[Howard] I’m just thinking of Fablehaven as an inconvenient truth.
[Dan]… I write for kids because I was a kid when I started reading and that was very important to me and I want to give other kids the same sense of wonder and same opportunities to explore new ideas that I had. I think that’s a great opportunity.
[Brandon] the reason I write for kids… the main thing being, the wonderful thing about children’s genre, is that it’s not divided by genre. It’s actually divided by age group. What that means is on the shelf your science fiction books, your fantasy books, your realistic books, your mysteries are all shelved next to each other. What that gains you is the ability to genre bust like there’s no tomorrow. It doesn’t matter. In sci-fi and fantasy, if you’re going to genre bust, you have to do it very carefully and it can get you in trouble and it can make your book hard to sell. In children’s writing, you write for the age group…. the other reason is that children are more accepting. Epic fantasy [skip proclamation of devotion] the story has to be very consistent. There is a solemnity to it… the world is serious, it takes itself seriously…. for adults, it has to be a humor book. For kids, it can be a book that is humorous.

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