Sunday, 22 June 2014

Sometimes Kids Make Great Writing Teachers

This week (and pretty much all of next week) is going to be one of those times when my writing has to be downsized in priority (i.e. I'm gonna have to resign myself to probably not getting a lot of it done.) This is because on Wednesday my seven-year-old son will be making the leap into eight-year-old-dom, which he will celebrate with eleven of his friends, soft-play-party-stylee, on Saturday afternoon. And the organising of such things, as anyone with kids will know, can make a military operation look like an ad-hoc event.

Even though the party takes place at an indoor soft play area, I have opted to do all the food myself, so I'm... doing that. And the party bags for each child to take home at the end (it's like fashion shows at kid's parties these days; a take-home goodie-bag is practically mandatory, don'tcha know.) I'm also making the birthday cake myself, which, according to the terms and conditions set out by my soon-to-be-eight-year-old client, will be a Minecraft Island cake, complete with trees, little square animals and little TNT boxes. That's why this blog post is a day or so later than usual; today I have been mostly printing out, cutting out and then glueing together teeny-tiny Minecraft thingies to use as decorations for said cake. (And lemme tell you, activities like that are a way more effective method of making you face the fact your eyesight's going than any commercial eye test could ever be.)

But as I was doing all of that, my wee laddie was playing on the carpet nearby - and I found myself listening in to his games. While he does play Minecraft on the computer, he also has a collection of cardboard minifigures of Minecraft characters, animals and furniture items that he can use to make his own, live-action version of the computer game. Except his live-action games are not just games; they are epic, dramatic productions. Number One Son is the scriptwriter, producer and director and even provides all the sound effects for his cast of characters, who are really put through the mill in terms of what their roles require. (A directing team of Baz Luhrmann, James Cameron and Quentin Tarantino combined would probably give those guys an easier ride.)

When my kid makes his toys act out the stories pouring out of his brain, there are no limits. Anything goes. His plots will not be constrained by piddling little details like the laws of physics or what is considered morally acceptable; if he wants his Minecraft Chicken to blow up Minecraft Steve with a watermelon and then turn to his friend the Minecraft Cow and sing mournfully "Mamaaaaaa, just killed a maaaaannn..." then that's what goes down (and indeed did, although it was hard to see why Mummy was laughing at something so serious...) If a particular plot twist doesn't work, or ends up complicating the rest of the story, well that's no problem either - he just does a quick mental rewind back to an earlier plot point and replays from there as if nothing ever happened. No angst, no negative self-talk, no "Oh my god, all that time and effort wasted!" And - best of all - he does it all openly, enthusiastically and with no trace of self-consciousness, whether he's alone in the room or with a crowd of other people. He's not bothered if an audience thinks his games are weird or silly. He's in the moment. He's creating.

Kids, of course, are brilliant at that. It's a skill that many of us lose as adults - or at the very least it gets watered down by the burden of responsibilities and societal pressure to conform and compromise. And when us writers feel a pressure to take our writing 'seriously' there's a real risk of getting bogged down in the Rules of Good Writing, so intent on Doing It Right and making our prose tighter, leaner, smarter, stronger...

It's easy to fall into a trap of thinking that, as we get more experience with writing, we should be making fewer 'mistakes' less often. We should become 'quicker' and 'more efficient' at outlining new stories; less likely to create plot holes and more mindful of doing the proper research before we even start to write them, so we already know that what we're writing is at least plausible in theory. It's easy to feel like we're surrounded by competition from all sides and that, if we want to get anything published, we need to have a Professional Attitude and bring our A-game to the table every time we sit down to write. And, to a certain extent, all of this is true.

But I also think there's a lot to be said for thinking like a kid sometimes too. Sure, outlining is the sensible and grown-up approach to planning out a new story - and a plan is certainly what you want to end up with before you begin to write 'properly' -  but what's wrong with having a little fun beforehand? Maybe we could try shedding some of those adult inhibitions and allowing ourselves to 'play' our ideas out in our heads, in the same way a kid does. Suspend all adult disbelief about what's 'right' and 'plausible' and 'sensible' and just go nuts - all bets are off, the universe is your oyster. Create without boundaries - leave the 'sensible' stuff for later. That's the rewriting stage.

Can't envisage how a scene might play out between two key characters? When that happens in a kid's game, he grabs a couple of LEGO men and some bricks and acts it out. Why can't an adult writer do something similar with their fiction? No honestly, I'm serious. You don't have to do it in public - no-one need ever know. In fact... I DARE YOU. Pick a scene from any of your works-in-progress - preferably one you're having trouble with - and do precisely that. It doesn't have to be LEGO men; it could be action figures, soft toys - you could even cut out little paper people if you live in a child-free zone.

Yes, you will probably feel silly at first - even if you're on your own with all the doors and windows shut. But go with it. Embrace it. Dig deep and find that inner child that's still there inside you somewhere. And see what happens.

It'll be our little secret. I won't tell, I promise. And you never know - it might even help.

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