I am the mother of four grown sons.
But they weren’t always grown. There were quite a few hectic years that could best be described as managed chaos. I would get a little one off my hip and onto his feet just in time to have another firmly attach himself. And honestly, who knew there were actually people in the world that don’t wake up wanting to eat? Even breakfast began with drama.
Ironing, mending, listening, reading, stalking, chasing, catching – and loving (almost) every minute of it.
Because in the midst of all the madness there were big bear hugs and Eskimo kisses, snuggles and giggles. And there is nothing in all the world like the sound of a child’s laughter. I’m sure God planned that intentionally.
And this is where I found myself as stories started running through my brain. Stories of children and adventures. Of squabbling siblings (go figure) and their canine companions. Silly poems, and mysteries involving spunky kids with quirky friends.
So in those early chaotic years of motherhood I did the least sensible thing I could. I signed up with ICL, Institute for Children’s Literature, a correspondence course designed to teach clueless but creative minds how to write for children.
I am proud to say that I completed that course.
I am humbled to tell you it took me over twenty years.
But if you’re wondering if it was worth it, it absolutely was. And as is always the way when God is involved, I can see how my snail’s pace fit very nicely into what ICL, and God, had to teach me.
ICL taught me that any writer, and especially a children’s writer, needs to choose words carefully and judiciously. In other words, cut, cut, cut. And let me tell you, it’s painful. So many fascinating words that a writer skillfully crafts into inspired phrases and sentences will be completely lost on a young reader.
But God enhanced that lesson with a bit of practical application when my son, Tyler, came home from school with his own personal book review. It was an epic tale of adventure that he was enjoying in spite of himself, until he got to a very lengthy description of a horse. As far as Tyler was concerned, he knew what a horse was. He knew what a horse looked like. That beautiful description was painful for him and seriously threw off his epic groove. All those beautiful words just got in the way of the story.
Another lesson from ICL emphasized the importance of catching the young reader’s interest in the first paragraph. Actually, the first sentence, whenever possible. And then keeping it. Children lose interest quickly.
This lesson was proven to me when my son Dylan’s kindergarten teacher laughingly told me of the day’s lesson on tallying. She was going into great detail, making each tally mark as she counted to four and then slashing across those four marks dramatically as she reached five.
After the fourth time, my polite little Dylan blurted out, “Okay, okay, we got it already.” Her dramatic flare for tallying had the desired effect, but it was time to move on.
Another very important ICL lesson involved dialogue. It should fit the age of the speaker and be real.
That God-given case in point came when my ever friendly son Ryan and I were in the market one day. As we stepped up to the counter to pay, he immediately made introductions, saying, “I’m Ryan, and this is my girl, Mom.” It was precious. It was Ryan. And I would never have thought up those words on my own. I had to hear them from the sweet, proud heart of my son. That was twenty-eight years ago, and I remember it as if it were yesterday.
Good dialogue will do that.
Those twenty-plus years of stopping and restarting that wonderful, comprehensive course gave me much more than book learning. It gave me practical knowledge into the mind of a child. And if you’re going to write for children, you need that.
So would I recommend taking twenty-plus years to finish a writing course? No. And yes.
If you can multitask more skillfully than I did, and many can, by all means do.
But if not, if God puts into those years hands-on, heartfelt, life-giving and living experience that will carry into your writing, it will be worth the wait.
Your writing will live for the reader, because you’ve lived the writing.
Darcy Hendrick’s creative outlets include painting, home remodeling, crafts, and an Etsy store. She discovered her writer’s voice and love of storytelling as her four sons reached adulthood. She is a graduate of the Institute of Children’s Literature, currently working on short stories and middle-grade novels featuring spunky protagonists.
Photo by Caprisco