Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"Episodic Kid Lit"

by Jackie Houchin

Or, how I got started writing serialized children's fiction.

I guess it began with verbal bedtime stories. When my three granddaughters were quite young I would tell them impromptu stories about anything in their lives – toys, pets, games, etc.  I tried to make them exciting and vivid, and always managed to finish the story before it was time for prayers and sleep. Next visit I would begin where I left off.

When the first granddaughter was about six and already an eager reader, I decided I wanted her to love mystery stories as much as I did. But how would I do that? There were Nancy Drew chapter books available, and I collected them for later, but I wanted to start her right away.

Then she broke her arm, and I got an idea.

I created a little girl who had a family and lived on a street much like hers, a little girl who also broke her arm, but under some mysterious circumstances.  Then I introduced the two girls with a letter, like this:

Hi Shannon –


My name is Molly Duncan.  I know your Grandma.  We see each other at the park sometimes. 

Last time she told me how you broke your arm when you were riding a scooter.  And, you know what?  I broke my arm too. Not just now, but way last summer, in July. Your Grandma said I should write to you and tell you about it.

Do you know what I was doing?  I was riding my bike when it happened.  But, I’ll tell you about that later, and what happened because of it.

But first I want to tell you about myself.  (I was going to send you a picture of me, but I lost it.) 

I’m 7 years old and I’m in the second grade.

I have red hair, which is very curly. It is kind of long, and I usually wear it in two French braids that my Mom fixes for me. But sometimes, some of the hairs get loose and frizz out from the braids. 

My eyes are green, “just like Granny Smith apples” my mom likes to say.  I wish they were blue like Benji’s. Mom says his eyes are “like the sky”.  Oh, I forgot to tell you.  Benji is my little brother. When he grows up he will probably be called Benjamin or Ben, but right now we call him Benji. He’s four years old.

I also have freckles. Do you know what freckles are? They are tiny, light-brown spots that most people have on their faces, and sometimes their arms, if they have red hair. I only have them on my nose!  They remind me of sesame seeds on hamburger buns!  When I think of that, it makes me giggle.

And last of all, I wear glasses, thick ones that keep sliding down my nose all the time. I hate wearing them, but Mom says the doctor promised if I wear them all the time now, I won’t have to wear them after “poo-ber-tee” (or something like that).

Well, anyway, about my broken arm. I want to tell you how it happened and what happened after that.  There is a mystery and a surprise about it... etc., etc.

And that's how an eight year letter-friendship began.  (I don't call them Pen Pals, because Shannon didn't write back.)  For a great long while, Shannon thought Molly was a real girl that I knew!  But when she asked about it one day, I told her the truth and she was able to enjoy the installments like chapters in a book.

As Shannon and Molly got older, the stories got longer. I introduced other characters, friends at school, neighbors, older people (shop-keepers, a grandmotherly babysitter, teachers, a friendly policeman). The town took on a character too and I soon drew a poster-sized cartoonish map of the streets, shops, school, parks, church, hospitals and police station to walk through in my mind.

 I wrote about age-related situations; new-girl jealousies, pre-teen angst, and a few quite serious events; a brother in a car accident, a search for a runaway girl, a mother's stay in a mental home. But they always had a mystery twist to be discovered over a series of letters. God, the Bible, and prayer played a big part in solving the mysteries and in learning important lessons. 

Think Jan Karon's Mitford Series, but for kids.  (http://www.mitfordbooks.com/ )

Before long, the other granddaughters said they wished they had letter friends too.  Soon Kerry was getting letters from pet-loving Annie Black, and Jana heard from Kim Ling, a girl with four brothers. The letter-friends were all from the same neighborhood, knew each other, and occasionally crossed paths.

What fun to keep three story lines going! (I was also illustrating these episodic stories with cartoon-like characters.)

The big step came when Shannon said she couldn't wait so long between letters. "Can't you put them all into a book, Grandma," she asked.  So I did, and "Molly Duncan and the Case of the Missing Kitten" was born.  Soon after that came "Princess Ebony and the Silver Wolf." (Ebony was an ancestor of Annie Black. Think how The Princess Bride was told.)  Later "Kim Ling, Cub Reporter" was imagined.  I illustrated (very simply) each book, and included a map of the area in the front pages. 

So.... What – besides entertaining little relatives and friends – can be done with serialized children's stories?

1.  Writers could choose a favorite age group, invent a winsome character in a compelling situation, write about her/him/them, and begin publishing the episodes as 99c short stories to promote a Children's Book series you write, or to be given away free to those who sign up for your newsletter, or visit your blog. You could even print up a few and hand them out at panel or signing events.

2.  Episodic stories – as long as they are written like short stories with a beginning, a middle, and a satisfying ending, even if the main mystery is not solved until later – can be gathered together into a novel or novella and published. Hugh Howey did this very successfully with his Sci-Fi Wool series.  

3. Serialized stories don't have to be just for kids. Try a few episodes in your adult genre, or perhaps with a TV series in mind (the writers of LOST did it well on the fly... until the end that is, when it all fell apart!).

4. Or, write them just for fun to sharpen your writing skills or get over a major writer's block. 

10 comments:

  1. I have been lucky to have read your stories and they are as entertaining for grownups as well as kids. That is the mark of a good story. Tom Sawyer can be read by all ages and enjoyed by each. You are so right about gathering up linked stories and putting them in a book. What better place for them. And who knows. Maybe a TV series will come out of it. Television shows are just short stories. Good post.

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    1. Thanks, Gayle. You have been very successful in combining short stories in books, both as novels and as anthologies! What an example to all of us.

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  2. Great post, Jackie. What lucky grandkids! The excerpt/intro fascinated me, and I could imagine Shannon's delight when she read it. Such a good idea, too; I'm going to try it when I get stuck on my next project. Sometimes a novel feels overwhelming, but breaking it into manageable "bites" can help immensely. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Bonnie, writing a couple short episodes of your novel might get a ball rolling that has become sluggish. It also might help further develop a character you are considering adding, or building a back story you can use later, say in a sequel. Oh, do try it. And have fun.

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  3. The writer in me valued your suggestions, especially the advice you gave to Bonnie, which I intend to try as well. But as a grandma, I couldn't help but think what a special place you hold in your granddaughters' hearts. Perhaps someday the love of mystery you instilled in them will inspire at least one new writer in the family.

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    1. Miko, I love your thought that maybe someday one or more of my granddaughters might become a writer of mysteries, or some kind of stories. As a high school project, Shannon wrote a little book for an elementary school girl, and I had the priviledge to illustrate it. She later took English Lit as one of her majors. Maybe some day, she will write a "senior" or "grandma" letter-friend series to me! Haha! All three LOVE to read, so there is always hope.

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  4. I remember your children's books from our "conversation" blog way back when. I still marvel at the uniqueness and value of your idea. And what a special gift you've given your granddaughters. I really like Gayle's idea about the TV show! And Miko's comment about the "mystery!"

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    1. Thanks, Madeline. It was a good way for me to keep my hand in writing, and also keep the old brain firing on my sometimes "weird" imagination. Im not a scriptwriter, but others certainly could turn a serialized set of stories into a "spec" for a TV series

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  5. A Post Script to the article:
    Another suggestion for using serialized mystery (or other) fiction is for several writers to get together and each write one (or more) episodes until the final mystery is solved. Friend/author, Deborah J. Ledford did this with "Rubicon Ranch, Riley's Story" - http://amzn.to/1Gbn2pA In this case, each of the co-authors promoted themselves by publishing their story first as a 99c short on Amazon.

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  6. I'm still waiting for the next installment of the Princess story. It was good!

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