I'm very pleased to be part of the YA Shot tour this year, (thanks to everyone at YA Shot for the opportunity!) and as part of my stop on the tour, I have an amazing guest post from Michael Byrne, author of 'Lottery Boy'! Thanks, Michael!
Writing for young people and doing it well is a difficult thing to pull off.
A well written children’s book is like a good cartoon - like the donkey in Shrek it should have ‘layers’. So should any good book but added to that, a story for young readers must be compelling. (Roald Dahl said something along the same lines: that if he couldn’t get his reader to turn to the next page, as a writer, he was ‘dead’.) Whereas when you’re writing for adults, you can wander around inside a character’s head all day long for no good reason without a plot to speak of and your book will still be read and your publisher will call it literary fiction.
I have written for adults but I sort of fell into writing for children when I wrote my first book called Lottery Boy. It’s about a homeless boy who wins the lottery but he’s too young to claim his prize and then wrong half of London gets to hear about it…
From the start, I found the hardest thing was to create the right voice for my narrator (the plot took a couple of walks round the park to come up with) because all the writing, all the voices, everything has to flow out of that mouth in the first, second or third person.
When I tried to write the first paragraph, my thinking was: well, if it’s for children, I’d better write it in the first person, as if I was the child in the story, hadn’t I? I got maybe a paragraph into it, worrying about sentence construction and just how a 12-year-old boy would say this or that before I gave up. I just couldn’t nail it, wasn’t a good enough writer to do that. The thing is….I was forty-five at the time and though I can still remember being twelve it was as me then, in 1977 when the most exciting thing technologically speaking, was an extra channel on the TV. To write in the first person, not as me in the past but as if I were a child now, today, would be an incredibly difficult thing to do. And I think it’s becoming increasingly difficult to write for children in the first person in our age of rapid change, to capture that exact sound of a young voice now when the writer is four or five times the age of the narrator and bound to the past. I can think of perhaps a dozen books written in the first person for children that are truly superb, where the voices ring real and true and two of them are written by a genius (Great Expectations and David Copperfield).
So why then are so many adult writers today writing in the first person? Well, as any teacher will tell you (and I was a teacher) when the writer talks directly to the reader it drags him or her (sometimes kicking and screaming) immediately into the mind set of the main character and encourages sympathy. You’re right there with them (sometimes stuck with them) in the story, willing them on. The disadvantages though are that this first person narrator can often sound like an adult trying to sound like a child, and that often sounds kind of patronizing to me.
As an adult writing for children there is of course always an element of patronage: you are a protector, an advocate for the young person you are writing for but I think too often writers are eager to show their reader just how much they can relate to them, how much they see from their point of view. And I think, unless you’re brilliant or under the age of twenty-two, as a writer maybe it’s perhaps best to avoid it. Because writing in the third person gives the young reader so much more scope to explore the story and the characters, to hop around inside different heads and hear the writer in the narrative whispering in their ear (rather than yelling out directions). It also allows the writer to be well, writerly and descriptive (not always a good thing I know) when it would sound kind of fake and overly introspective in the first person. Above all, the third person narrator introduces the young reader to the idea that in life the same story can have more than one voice to it. And all these voices (from their point of view) can be both wrong and right about the same thing.
As for second person narration….Well, what do you think?