Friday, June 26, 2015

How to have fun collaborating on a kids' book–with a kid


Hand in hand in hand in hand.  Collaborating on a meaningful book project together – why not?

The image is so beautiful.  Jodi Picoult writes with her daughter.  So maybe you’re wondering:  why can’t you write a children’s book with your son, niece, granddaughter, cousin, or any other kid you happen to have nearby?


(Jodi Picoult and her daughter, Samantha Van Leer, who have written two books together.)

The answer is a resounding yes.  YES!  Absolutely, you can.  You can write a book together, and have tons fun doing it.  Sure, you’ll both learn a lot, too, but shh… keep that part under wraps.  You don’t want it to seem too educational.

Kids adore making books.  More than just another boring creative writing project, they sense that by creating a book, they’re onto something important.  They’re bringing something wonderful into the world.  And you know what?  They’re right.

Follow these DO’s and DON’Ts to make sure you’re not disappointed, and that you both have fun from start to finish.

DO pick realistic goals ahead of time.

What’s your definition of success?  Be honest.  Pick a definition you can both agree on. 

When I say realistic, I mean both of you have to be realistic.  Err on the side of too little optimism, if you have to.  Don’t say thousands of people will want to buy the book.  Above all else, don’t encourage him to think of it as a way to make money. 

Most children’s books are NOT commercially successful (if you just saw an ad above this paragraph, that’s proof:  like most kids’ writers, I can’t get by on book sales alone!).  And don’t let yourself start thinking it either.  Your project is cute and sweet and wonderful and heartwarming… but it probably isn’t going to make the bestseller lists.  Try to be okay with that and look at more reasonable goals instead.

Here are some smaller goals that might actually be achievable:

  • He can sell the book at local community events
  • He can get written up by a local newspaper or website
  • He can donate copies of the book to a school or community library
  • He can raise money for a cause that’s important to him
  • He can set up his own “kid author blog” and meet other kids who write online

DON’T squelch the great ideas.

Brainstorming is sometimes the most fun part of planning a story, so try to enjoy this stage.  This is the “getting there is half the fun” of collaborating on any writing project.

In comedy improv, the only rule is “YES, AND.”  What that means is that no matter what the other person suggests, you’re not allowed to say “No.”  All you’re allowed to say is “Yes, and.”  If the other person on stage says you’re an opera singer, you can’t say, “No, I’m not – I’m a schoolteacher.”  You have to agree, and then chime in, “YES, AND… you’re the dentist trying to fill my cavities.”

Keeping the rule of “YES, AND” ups the comedy and keeps the brainstorming momentum going.  Don’t worry if it’s not realistic.  So what if you can’t see how the cat is going to get down from the tree?

At the brainstorming stage, just write, write, write.  Get all those ideas down.  Your hand may be exhausted from getting it all down, but keep on going.

Here are a few phrases you should try NOT to say:

  • “That won’t work, because…”
  • “But didn’t you just say that…”
  • “I really think that…”
  • “You know you’re not allowed to…”
  • “I never heard of…”

This is the time for dreams.  Later, common sense and some gentle guidance will help you craft your story together.

DO plan the illustrations honestly.

Some kids will want to write and then let you draw the pictures.  Others are super-excited about how they’re going to do all the illustrations.  In some cases, neither of you feels prepared to draw the pictures, and you’re planning to have someone else take care of this detail. 

Whatever the case, talk about it ahead of time.  Make sure you both know exactly what’s going to happen, at what stage.  Also, make sure your choice of illustrations jibes with the goals you’ve chosen for your book.  If you’re looking for some degree of commercial success, but neither of you can do much better than stick figures, then you’re going to be disappointed.

I’ll be honest:  usually, books illustrated by kids look amateurish and cheap.  The main market for books like this is the child’s parents, friends and other relatives. 

There are definitely exceptions, especially if you have a wonderful, solid story.  For example, if you’re raising money for charity, then a book with appealing, childlike drawings may be exactly what you want.

But make sure you’re being honest with yourself.  Your six-year-old may be a wonderful illustrator – for a six-year-old.  She may even have won an art contest or two locally.  But unless she can draw at an adult level, the books she illustrates will NOT look like professionally-produced children’s books.  They will look like they were illustrated by a very talented six-year-old. 

You may find it charming, but others will probably be turned off by the look of the book.  I’m not saying this to be cruel.  I just want you to be clear about your goals, so you can move toward them in meaningful ways.

DON’T be afraid to steer the story.

Kids’ ideas are fabulous, but they can plot themselves into a corner if you let them.  When you’re brainstorming, write everything down without judgment, but once you’ve moved past that stage, don’t be afraid to steer things towards a workable story. 

Your final story should have a recognizable 3-stage structure.  If you can’t recognize a beginning, middle and end in what your kid is creating, gently step in and make suggestions based on his or her interests.

A good way to draw kids out and keep the plot flowing in a sorta-logical way is simply to ask, “And then what happened…?”  I think Stephen King writes in sort of the same way. 

If the child drops a thread or leaves some issue hanging in a way that doesn’t feel resolved to you at the end of the book, you can just ask, “What about…?” or “What happened to…?”

Another issue to watch carefully:  make sure your main character has a STRONG DESIRE.

It doesn’t matter what that desire is – Kurt Vonnegut said all you have to do is make your character want a glass of water and the audience will be there, right alongside, as thirsty as your character.  Here are some tips for you about keeping your main character motivated and moving throughout the story.

DO have fun!

Whatever your other goals are, the main goal should be to have a meaningful, fun experience together.  Learning, sure.  Making money, maybe.  Artistic challenge, why not?  But the main thing should be… FUN.

As with any collaborative project, it may not be nonstop chuckles throughout.  You may come across obstacles that are hard to push through.  It may not always FEEL fun.  Just keep it light and remember how great it will feel to hold that book and maybe even pose for pictures with it together.

A few more suggestions for upping the fun quotient:

  • If it’s starting to drag, quit writing, pull back and do more brainstorming
  • Work on the pictures or plan the art if you’re not drawing them yourselves
  • Talk about the title, cover layout, or some other aspect of the book
  • Try running these 6 can’t-fail “stuck-in-a-rut” tips together
  • Take turns writing sentences, paragraphs or pages, trying to out-do each other with silliness or crazy ideas

When all else fails… set yourselves a SOLID deadline.  You’d be surprised what it can do if you have a concrete finish line you MUST reach.  Enforce the finish line by planning a reading or sale of the book on a certain date two (or three) months down the road.  Start promoting the event even before the book is done. 

(It’s risky, but mainstream publishers do this all the time.  They know that authors sometimes deliver best under pressure.)

Hand over the reins

As grownups, we’re used to being the “experts,” where kids are concerned.  We know all the road safety rules, and we know how to cook and clean.  We definitely know which words to capitalize and where all the punctuation goes.

But no matter how old you are, you still have a lot to learn.  There is a world of adventure and excitement out there waiting to be unlocked and this time, you don’t have the keys.  So let go and relax; writing a book together is as much about the process as it is about the end result.

Sit down together, listen carefully, and if you do your job right, you can slowly begin to unlock that world together and have a great time along the way.


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