Writing for Fickle Boy-Readers

When it comes to reading, boys tend to be less than enthusiastic.  Ask any frustrated teacher, librarian or parent who is trying to find enticing material for the young male reader.  If that doesn’t convince you, check the statistics. According to the International Reading Association, 39.9% of boys surveyed called reading ‘boring’; 11.1% said the stories they were asked to read were boring; 7.7% said they just couldn’t get into it.  Compared to girls, boys spend less time reading, prefer activities like watching television or movies, and score a grade and a half lower on reading tests. For many boys, reading is ‘something that girls do’.

The reasons for the dismal record are varied and complex, mired in genetics, social stereotypes and environmental influences at home and at school.  For writers of material for young people, though, the news is a silver lining of sorts. The market is rich in opportunities for those who know how and what to write for the fickle boy-reader. Witness the success of series books like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, proof that despite their lacklustre reading interests, boys can, and will become hooked if the material and approach are right.untitled

For writers up to the challenge, here are a few things that turn on – and turn off – boy readers, and perhaps editors who are looking for marketable boy material, too.

Guys lead…

According to Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope? (Robert Lipsyte, New York Times, August 19, 2011) while girls will read books about boys, boys – especially teenagers – rarely read books with predominately female characters – at least not willingly or openly.  Whatever the genre, a strong male cast with one or more central male protagonists encourages boys to read further.

Go big, go bold…

Call it stereoboy adventurertypical, but it’s often true: boys tend to be adventurous, competitive, and risk-takers when it comes to physical pursuits. In Why Johnny Won’t Read (School Library Journal, 08/01/2004), Michael Sullivan says: “Developmentally, boys view the world as a place filled with rules and tools, and their job is to understand how it works in order to get things done.”  All of this plays out in the topics that interest boys – sports, dinosaurs and daredevils, mystery and adventure, magical and supernatural encounters.  Boys dwell in worlds where heroes and superheroes live, where justice prevails over bullies, and where oversized deeds conquer seemingly impossible odds.

 Action first, then emotion….

Just watch a group of boys at play. Roughhousing and competition are mainstays.  Feelings and emotions, meanwhile, often take a backseat. While girls find satisfaction in internal reflection, dialogue and passages that strike an emotional chord, for many boy readers this is a turn-off According to www.guysread.com/about/, “boys aren’t practiced and often don’t feel comfortable exploring the emotions and feelings found in fiction”.  To grab boys’, action and plot – physical stuff – should be front and center.  Emotions and feelings – the things we often associate with character development – can follow but as a consequence.

Fast and sure starts …

No tortured and slow beginnings for boy readers who don’t have the reading skills or patience for this. The first few paragraphs must capture their attention, and embroiling boy readers in action from the start is one way to win them over.

Add sensory jolts…

brainBoy brains function differently than girl brains, and that impacts the way that boys process information.  Michael Gurian, author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently: A Guide for Teachers and Parents (Jossey-Bass, 2002) writes that boys’ brains engage in less cross-hemisphere activity than girls’ and to fully engage boys while they read, they need additional sensory input – a boost of sound, color, motion, or other physical stimulation.  Authors wise to this, reach boy readers by delivering extra doses of sensory detail.

Larry Verstraete is a Winnipeg educator and author of non-fiction books for young people.

For Larry Verstraete, an award-winning author of books for young people, writing is all about the journey and often the perfect writing storm occurs when high adventure, science and history converge. An advocate for literacy, Larry often visits schools and libraries to share his passion.

Raisins in Disguise

Please bear with me here–there is a point to my dithering–

I remember when I discovered that squashed red ants smelled like raisins. I don’t recall the where-to-fore, I just promptly plonked my young backside on the sun-warmed sidewalk, my bare big toe doing the deed and my nose sniffing with satisfied flared nostrils. True story.aahoar_frost_crab_apples500

I loved playing at my grandparents house. I was nosey, plain and simple. My explorations took me one day behind their big clunker of a TV with its 50 million wires, mesmerized by how they snaked in and out, over and under. Oh, but what was this, a loose cord, not plugged in anywhere? And here, an outlet with nothing plugged into it?

Well this intrepid little Sherlockette put two and two together, plugging one into the other. Voila! Zap! Youch! One fleeting, enlightening moment later, I emerged nursing a powdered black thumb and a science lesson, free of charge. Fact.

aaaf-d_71b47f9ce3a85afac7d3b5b9Summer is my season. Always has been. Born at its peak. Great memories. I had this plastic rectangular tub, see, and after a sweet, summer rain, I noticed how many, many earthworms arose to bless the puddles. And me–I soon had my tub 2 inches deep with the squirming things and even had the good grace unusual in one of such tender age, to add some sopping soil to their exquisite habitat. I had no leashes, but trustingly allowed 2 or 3 of them out at a time on the ground for a walk, intrigued by their legless manoeuvres, making sure they each got their turns. Amazing.

And somehow, after all these years, (the number of which is being withheld from any of you nosey people,) I have retained this fascination of the seemingly simple things in life.

-The way the hoarfrost glitters in all its crystalline glory.

-How a fern frond unfurls as it matures, from a tightly sprung coil to fingers reaching out of the shade to grasp the slip of light coming through the trees.

-How a spider knows just the right moves of his dance, even the first time out.

-The way mercury spilled on a table breaks up, then pools together, over and over when you nudge it.

-How several minerals can be huddled up in the same piece of rock.

-The northern lights, an enthralling display of colours like painting in motion, constantly being renewed.

-The shapes and hues in a candle flame.aaamercury_drops

This wonder in the things around us, this curiosity, never losing the ability to see as a child sees, is a wondrous tool, for all children’s writers. Two words–“What If”– are a writer’s creed. If we no longer care about the little things we would cease to write. We are constantly asking questions, and it’s where the answers take us that results in stories. And the more we ask, seek, look, the better the story. Our passion will flow through the pen and transfer to the reader. And then we’ll both be on the ground squishing red ants, marching earthworms, all worries and cares forgotten.

Well, the surviving ants might be worrying.

Christina’s motto is:
Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” (George Bernard Shaw)

Chekhov's Nerf Gun

nerf gunsOkay, so Chekhov never mentioned a nerf gun, but I’m a children’s writer—I prefer darts to bullets. What he had to say about shotguns, however, changed the way I write descriptions.

If a shotgun hangs on the wall in the first act, it must go off in the last act. -Chekhov

I couldn’t get this quotation or its implications out of my head. Descriptions have been a sore spot for me, an area I’m actively trying to improve. But, I struggled to understand which description were necessary, which painted a picture for the reader, and which created a distraction and made the reader want to flip a few pages forward to get back to the action.

gunsChekhov’s shotgun hit me right between the eyes. My lists of trees and shrubs, hair colour, and weather patterns had to go. Every word needed to have meaning and move my story forward, especially my descriptions. And if they didn’t, well, that’s what the delete button is for. For me, it also opened up a new world of symbolism, foreshadowing, and anchors to the past. A description could be a thread woven into the story at the beginning that mingles with the other fibres, hidden in some places, but always present, and in the end explodes into a rich and intricate tapestry.

The question was no longer what does he look like? But, what is it about him that is important to this story? So when I told you in my first scene that my character runs on the sunny side of the street or that the house next door is for sale, I told you because it matters, not only in the present scene but in all the scenes that follow.

◊ ◊ ◊

Melinda Friesen writes novels for young adults and middle grades and short stories. She is a full-time mother of four and part-time student at the University of Winnipeg.

Melinda Friesen authored Enslavement, a young adult dystopian novel, released by Rebelight Publishing. When she’s not writing, Melinda works as marketing director and acquisitions editor at Rebelight Publishing Inc.

Life Ambience

Glowing-Street-Light--59343I found a great word today:

Ambedo: ‘A kind of melancholic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory details—raindrops skittering down a window, tall trees leaning in the wind, clouds of cream swirling in your coffee—which leads to a dawning awareness of the haunting fragility of life.’

Then, looking it up, I discovered the real meaning of ambedo is to gnaw or nibble.


But the fanciful meaning engaged my mental gears.

Repetitions of sensory encounters can leave impressions that last years. We forget about them and suddenly there they are again, comfortable or frightful. I won’t dwell on the latter, but I am reminded of certain things.

When one is young, house noises can be large and scary. But we soon forget they are there and we grow up, move away, and come home only for visits, perhaps.

We lie in our old bed, the house is quiet, we hear the thunk the fridge makes when it turns off and on. There’s a lamppost outside that throws light through the crack in the blinds and creates the warm glowing reflection on the portrait of the grandparents on the wall. Someone left the bathroom fan on, which hums softly, with the faintest of squeaks every 8th rotation. And we fall asleep easily with the sensation of being swaddled by the familiarity and security of the subconscious memories.

The day my husband proposed to me he was wearing his leather jacket. Smells are high impact sensory triggers. Each spring and fall when he pulled out his leather jacket and wore it, guess what memories, thoughts and feelings went through my head? Just a smell, and I was pulled out of place and time to somewhere else.peonies21I finally have some mature peonies growing in my garden, and what do I feel when I cup one of those puffy big blooms in my hands? I am 7 years old again, in my Oma’s garden, and she is creating in me an awareness of the beauty and variety of flowers and birds that I’d never realized before. Flowers were no longer just flowers. They were cosmos, and marigolds, and delphiniums–oh my! And I draw a deep breath of the sweet fragrance of my peony and remember the wonder of those days.

And what is it with rain? We don’t get too much around here, so maybe that’s why I can still enjoy it. But something I have not yet figured out is why I get the urge, in a hot summer storm or downpour, to dash out barefoot and dance in it? Is it something about being washed clean, (as if I never take a shower? 🙂 ) More likely, I just want to be a part of the wildness, the energetic charged ions in the air. Free from all restraints. And I remember learning the beauty of a thunderstorm from my mother, watching from our covered porch every flash in the sky.shutterstock_111999368

Sights without attached memories can influence and absorb us. Why do we like to skip stones on a still lake, watching the ripples? Or walk through woods with sounds and smells so different to what most of us know in the cities? Why do we like our chosen coffee or tea? Is it the taste, our morning ritual, or the ambience they wrap our souls in?

It’s cause and effect.

Take note all my writer readers–sensory perceptions and their influences on your characters and story can help with fleshing it all out and creating mood.

Ambedo” does exist, although not by that name. What are some of your “ambedo” moments?


Christina’s motto is:
“Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” (George Bernard Shaw)

Cloying Clichés 2 ~ Stale Story

Cookie cutter stories. cliches-in-genre-fiction-altCopy cat fantasy. Repeating romances.

Last week I discussed tired clichéd phrases and comparisons.Peas in a pod similes and metaphors.

But clichés happen in storytelling too.

Boy meets girl. They detest each other. Something happens to the one. The other can’t bear to stand by hating and rescues the other. They realize they love each other. It was destiny. The fillers are just as cliché. Just as predictable.

Fantasy. One humble, gutless or shy hero. One nasty as heck villain. One goal–to attain something or somewhere before the other so the evil git doesn’t destroy the world. End=hero, still humble on pedestal. Oh, and maybe throw in a girl to protect. Possible slight variations, but again cliché, predictable.

The names change, not everyone is red-haired, but basically cookie cutter cut-outs. Some people don’t mind if all they want is escapism for a few hours.

But the multitudes want something more. Twists, turns and that “Oooh, I did NOT see THAT coming.”2012_12_10-cookiecutters
And so even though they were about to see if their spouse or brother left them any mango chip, avocado muffins, they tuck their feet up for another chapter. And another.
And they don’t hear their stomach growl in the stillness because in that chapter the hero starts acting like the villain and the villain has an attack of conscience and you still can’t put the book down cause–wow–you want to see where this goes and how it pans out.

Clichéd story frameworks are crutches. They can be starting points, because as every writer learns there are only so many plots all told. But what do we do with them? Yes, there are few plots, but that doesn’t mean also few stories.

The story is what we do with that plot, where we take it and the characters. Think of the most interesting or influential people in history. Think of the class clown in your school, however long ago. Why were they interesting? Because they dared to be different, to take a different road, to say the unexpected. They were not white stormtroopers, mindless clones.

For example, dragons in story have been cast as brutal and also benevolent, but nearly always large, magnificent, and powerful. Where would a story go with a dragon who was large, yes, but cowardly and had stunted wings of different sizes. He can’t bear a hero on his back to glory. What would he do in battle? This then affects the hero. How does he react to this pathetic sample of dragon kind? How does his reaction affect the rest of the epic journey?

lego-stormtroopers-photography-12And here’s a big one. What if the Boy wasn’t tall and handsome? Or the Girl slim and beautiful? Why can’t writers portray heroes/heroines who stutter, or limp or have a scar or are even just plain? Nondescript, easily forgotten?

Twist it, distort it, throw everything and everyone in your stories for a great roller coaster loop. Characters in these circumstances will really have a tale worth telling and reading and will stay in the mind much longer than those interchangeable princes and princesses in fairy tales. Remember, “Once upon a time” and “Happily ever after” are clichés too.

Seeking alternatives to clichéd writing, is how we develop our unique writer’s voice, that voice, that writing style and story style that makes a reader say not “I liked her book” but, “I like her books, I love this author, I love her way with words!”

Here’s an exercise. Using all these words in a 10, 15, or 20 minute do-or-die, write-off-the-cuff, free-write. Just fly with it and don’t think too hard.

mammoth, skiing, hail, garage, mechanic, perfume, conservatory. 🙂

Christina’s motto is:
“Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” (George Bernard Shaw)
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