For Halloween, I have a special guest post by M.D. Payne, author of the Monster Juice Series (Penguin, August 2013). He tells us what it was like to write for Middle Graders. Thanks M.D. Payne for stopping by Kid Lit Frenzy.
Imagine that you were a building a house. You walk up to the beautiful acre you’ve just purchased, ready with every imaginable material—and a dozen burly workers—to get started. You’re ready to go, but before you can, the town authorities pay you a visit.
“We’re so sorry, Mr. Payne,” they say, “but regulations state you can’t actually use that type of wood. Oh, and those colors of paint are going to have to go. Ooooh, and would you hand me that hammer? It’s far too big. You’re limited to five fireplaces and one toilet, or you could have two toilets and three fireplaces. It’s your choice. Also, we’ll need to take any of your workers who are over 120 pounds. You can only keep the four smallest workers. Great! See you later. Have fun building your new house.”
You stand there, in shock and horror, wondering how on earth you’re going to build your dream home with just 1/3 of the material and help. You turn to your workers (who, by the way are in equal shock, as they’ve just been called out as the smallest), and the five of you shrug.
You’ve just got to get started.
This is exactly how I felt diving into the Monster Juice series. When you’re writing for 8-10 year olds, you’ve got less material (words, sentences, even story ideas) to work with than when you write for adults or even older kids. You can become quite limited, not only by plain words, but by streamlined plot devices. You can’t confuse the reader or they’ll slam the book shut, but you still need to keep the story going—and interesting.
The first outline I sent my editor for the series was warmly received (clearly, or I wouldn’t be here writing about my new books), but I remember him telling me, “there’s just too much going on here. You’re going to make their heads spin. You’ve got to focus on a few things and flesh those out.”
I was shocked. My number one worry was that there wasn’t enough going on—I never thought that I would be told that it was too much. And, the funny thing is, I understood I’d have to be careful about words. I had just forgotten that I had to be simpler in every aspect—including with my storyline. I had to keep things entertaining and straightforward—if I strayed from the main path, I might not have readers left when I get back on it.
On the other hand, what I lost in words, sentences and story ideas, I gained in two key tools: the hilarious mixing of horror and humor, and the ability to gross-out. Writing Monster Juice brought me back to my time in middle school, when Young Frankenstein was my favorite movie, and the first goal of one summer was to mow enough lawns to buy The Addams Family on VHS. I got to release my inner boy, and I had forgotten what a gross little monkey he was. He delights in a well-placed fart or inappropriate burp, something fueled by years of watching Ren and Stimpy, for sure.
And, don’t get me wrong—I’m not talking about dumbing things down, here. First, I had to learn the limitations of my audience, and then I pushed them a little farther. My overall goal for this series has always been to get reluctant readers in the door and absorbing more complex ideas and words than they thought possible. Once I got my readers hooked with the farts and barf, wouldn’t they be more likely to take in a larger word or more complex thought without blinking, because they were having so much fun?
So, after my initial frustration of feeling like a Picasso with only 1/3 of my palate, I dove in and had a hilariously marvelous time.
In that time, I’ve placed a number of post-it notes on my computer, my desk, my wall (practically everywhere but on my 14 month old baby, but I’ve thought about it). But there are two that are front and center, right in front of my eyes, always vying for attention. One states “Keep it SIMPLE.” The other states “SCARIER. FUNNIER. SPOOKIER. GROSSER!”
These are my main goals as I build the Haunted House that is Monster Juice.
Official Book Trailer for Monster Juice: Fear of the Barfitron
For more information about M.D. Payne: twitter | website