This week: Writing Horror for KidsEdited by: LJPC - the tortoise
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This newsletter is about how to write Horror for children and teens.
“Young readers have to be entertained. No child reads fiction because they think it's going to make them a better person.”
~ Mark Haddon, British novelist and poet
"The stories of childhood leave an indelible impression, and their author always has a niche in the temple of memory from which the image is never cast out..."
~ Howard Pyle, author and illustrator
"You must write for children the same way you write for adults, only better"
~ Maxim Gorky, Russian writer
"All really good picture books are written to be read five hundred times"
~ Rosemary Wells, bestselling children’s writer
“When writing for children, it's important to keep in touch with our own inner child. What frightened them, made them happy, made them sad or angry?”
~ C.J. Heck, author and poet
Writing Horror for Kids
In 2007, children’s book sales totaled $3.66 billion. In 2012, total sales were $4.02 billion. Since the success of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, followed closely by Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, kids book sales have been booming. In a time of economic recession, anything that is prospering as well as children's books deserves a second look.
So what does it take to write a book for kids?
First, let’s look at what the term “kids books” encompasses.
Picture Books -- Hardcover books of about 500 words with many full-page illustrations, like Dr. Seuss books, written for ages 2-5.
Chapter Books -- These books are about 2000 words with some illustrations, such as A.A.Milne’s Winnie the Pooh series, written for ages 6-9.
MG or Middle-Grade Books These books are generally between 25,000 and 50,000 words, such as the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series (or longer like the Harry Potter series), and are written for ages 9-12.
YA or Young Adult These books' length varies between 50,000 and 100,000 words, and they’re written for ages 13-18. These are the biggest sellers with series such as Twilight, The Hunger Games, and The Lord of the Rings.
One word of caution for those who label their stories “Children’s” -- Just because your main character is a child, doesn’t mean your story’s right for children to read. There are specific techniques for writing books aimed at kids, and I’ll explain them below.
Tips on Writing Horror for Kids
The key to writing for very young children is finding you inner silly, goofy self. Ridiculous things appeal to children, like green eggs and ham or a talking cat that wears a hat. Anything that would seem logical to you isn’t the way to go. Instead, think up the most bizarre and unrealistic characters and plots. Horror stories for young children can’t be scary; they should actually rely on comedy. The monsters should be weird-looking and funny, like those in “Monsters, Inc.” or in Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. There must be a story with a conflict that resolves in the end, but it should be simple, and the words should be very easy to read.
Things to remember:
Although rhyming may appeal to you, most agents and publishers won’t even look at books with rhyme because inexperienced writers don’t understand meter and syllable-emphasis. So no matter how much you Dr. Seuss, it’s better to write in prose (unless you're writing for fun).
Keep the conflict simple, like a child won’t go to sleep until he gets brave enough to take his favorite toy from the scary closet or a child has trouble remembering his alphabet until the cute monsters in his house help him.
In picture books, every word counts. Try to eliminate boring words like “ran” or difficult words like “charged” and go for fun words like “zoomed.”
Full page illustrations often take the place of words, so not every action has to be written down.
Read as many picture books as you can to understand the techniques authors use.
Chapter books are a lot like picture books. Silly things are appealing, like in Alice in Wonderland where a cat disappears leaving its smile behind and talking playing cards are in the court of a queen. Snot, farts, and underwear jokes will almost always make the 6 to 9-year-old readers laugh. The stories can be more serious with harder conflicts to resolve than in picture books. While the stories can’t contain any blood or gore, they can contain mildly scary things, like the witch in Hansel and Gretel or ghosts as in A Christmas Carol. In chapter books, you can have people dying and show it happening if it’s done without any gore or violence. This means kids can push the wicked witch into the oven and you can have her scream, but you can’t describe her burning. The Horror component is the idea of something dreadful happening but without the details of what really transpired.
Things to remember:
Children aged 6-9 love the security of their home and family. Anything that endangers these things will frighten them (but not too much since they’re usually in school and have gotten used to Mommy not being there all the time). Books about a child going away (or parents going away, think "Home Alone") and having a scary adventure should always end with the child coming home safe. It’s okay to use getting home as a main motivation, as in Frank L. Baums’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz series. “There’s no place like home.”
The most popular Chapter books are those with comedy or adventure in them.
In Chapter books, the scary thing often turns out to be nothing supernatural or dangerous at all, like the "witch" next door turns out to be a nice old lady who's just lonely. But you can milk the fear factor for quite a while before you reveal the truth at the end.
MG/Middle Grade Books
By the time a child is aged 9-12, they're usually in Middle school (in the US) and their focus has changed from home and family to friends, teachers, and activities outside the home. They may be impatient with chores and family outings. They use their friends (and enemies) to define who they are. These kids form clubs and groups and go on adventures! The cartoon “Scooby-Doo” is a good example of combining horror and comedy for Middle Grade children (except the characters in an MG book need to be younger than the Scooby-Doo characters). It’s okay to include death (even the death of a family member) in the story elements, and there can be blood although gore is still off limits.
Things to remember:
While it’s okay to have a talking animal be the main character of a Picture book or Chapter book, an MG book’s mc should be a child of the same age as the readers (ages 9-12).
By the time kids are MG-age, they've started to speak in slang. It's very important to know modern kid-slang so you can write authentic children's "voice" (dialog and inner thoughts).
MG kids begin to notice the opposite sex for the first time. While there's no real romance, you can include an infatuation and some hand-holding or even some teasing or practical jokes to show a child's way of dealing with a “crush.”
The most successful MG Horror author is R.L. Stine, known for his Goosebumps series. Read those to get a good idea of what the kids' motivations are and how scary or bloody you're allowed to be in MG.
YA/Young Adult Books
For YA books, you can write like you would for an adult. Anything goes: gore, blood, extreme violence, terrifying villains and life-or-death situations. Teens have different motivations than MG kids. They want to be independent, are rebelling against parents and rules, and often feel isolated from their peers. Their hormones are in overdrive, making them very emotional and often obsessed with the opposite sex.
Things to remember:
Writing in an authentic teen “voice” is very important. You must know the most modern slang, their style of dress, and what they like to do, like “sex-ting” and posting YouTube videos.
Most YA is now written in first person POV, although you can also use third person limited as long as you include a lot of inner thoughts.
Don’t be too preachy with the plot and character arc. Yes, stealing is bad and the character can suffer the consequences and decide to be good, but if this message is too obvious, teens will sniff it out quickly and hate the book.
Teens are often impetuous and make mistakes, so don’t be afraid to have the character make wrong decisions. Where would any Horror story be if the teen character didn’t go into the axe-murderer’s secret lair instead of just informing the police?
Until next time: Let the horror bleed onto the pages with every word!
Here are some spooky children's stories for your reading pleasure!
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and LJPC - the tortoise .
To my delight, some writers took the time to comment on my last newsletter: "Christmas Cheer and Fear" Thank you!
Comments listed in the order they were received.
BIG BAD WOLF Is Thankful submits "Killing Time at the Mall" and writes: Don't know how zombies breaking into a mall compare to Christmas shoppers bursting into a mall, but we can all relate.
After hours and hours of Christmas shopping, I’m sure some of us look like zombies anyway!
Phoenix writes: A serial-killer dressed as Santa. Say it ain't so.
I agree with you about giving your evil doer a motivation for being evil, particularly around Christmas. Character motivation is such an important part of building characters that readers, agents, and publishers want to know more about -whether good or evil. (Important advice I was given by my CP. )
Thanks, Phoenix! Motivation and goals are important for any character, villain or not!
Vampyr14 writes: Oooh.... There's nothing like a creepy Christmas story though, is there?
I Horror in any season. Thanks for commenting!
dejavu_BIG computerprobs writes: Awesome newsletter as always, LJPC! Your list of potentially traumatic events that might set off a serial killer particularly caught my interest, they can be tweaked into nearly any night of the year too. Thank you for kick-starting my muse. dejavu
I love giving muses a good kicking -- er -- kick-starting. Thanks so much for replying to the newsletter!
CreativebyNature writes: Has anyone (in lieu of Christmas Horror) seen the movie called, "Bad Santa"??? the one movie that has Ron Perlman as for Santa. LMAO! If you haven't seen it yet, try to find it and watch it.
I haven’t seen that movie, but I really enjoyed “Santa’s Slay.” That was one scary Santa Claus! I also loved the animated movie “The Nightmare Before Christmas” from Tim Burton. That guy is awesomely creepy!
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