Thursday, July 19, 2012

WRITING FIRSTS (Or, how I accidentally became a children’s writer)

by Karen Harrington

Okay, this is just between you and me. I'm an accidental children's author. I didn't set out to write for children.

In fact, my debut novel was inspired by a true Texas crime. The story asked the question: are we more a product of nature or nurture? 

So naturally, you’d assume my next book would be for children, right? Switch abruptly from the adult thriller audience to one in which you cannot use the word “tongue” in a description of a French kiss? 

Well, not exactly. I stumbled into this arena by doing what most writers do when they write: I set out to write a story or character that captured my attention without really thinking about an audience.

I’m not the only person who has ever written a story without knowing how it’ll be perceived and marketed. 

 "I didn't write with a target audience in mind. What excited me was how much I would enjoy writing about Harry. I never thought about writing for children -- children's books chose me. I think if it is a good book anyone will read it."
~ J. K. Rowling
Good company to be in, right? Don't you love Rowling's sentiment about children's books choosing her? About being excited about writing the character? 

Looking back, I now see that I’ve stumbled into a variety of genres and audiences quite by accident, creating a whole string of writing firsts for myself. In fact, my first try at a novel featured a Viet Nam soldier who, after faking his death to remain in Viet Nam for love, returns to the US and finds his family in ruins. (Mercifully, this horrible first attempt is stranded on one of those odd square things we used to call floppy disks and is now a handy coaster.)

But back then, my husband constantly pecked at me, “Why is a 28 year-old writing about a Viet Nam vet?”

“Because I find the soldier’s choice fascinating and I’m going through a Tim O’Brien phase,” I told him

Next, I began drafting a story about a man wondering if he could have prevented his wife from snapping and killing their young son.

Husband: Oh my gosh, Amazon just delivered a box with the books about Susan Smith and Andrea Yates and WHERE’S BABY’S BELLY BUTTON! Why are you writing about that when you just had a baby?

Me: Because the question of why a mother would do that keeps me up at night and I’m going through a Sally Field you-can’t-take-my-child phase.

It was only after I sold that novel, Janeology, that I was told it was a legal thriller. Did I set out to write a legal thriller? Nope.

This brings us to last year when my brilliant agent sold my latest novel.  It’s about a girl growing up in the shadow of her mother’s mental illness. Just to set the stage, I thought and dreamed about writing women’s fiction in the voice of an eleven-year-old. Something along the lines of the very fabulous Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons or Me and Emma by Elizabeth Flock.

Now hold onto your pencil sharpener, but it turns out I didn’t write a heart-tugging piece of women’s fiction at all. 

Agent: “If you slice off the first and last chapters, which include the protagonist in present day, what you have in the middle is a great young adult story.”
Me: “Oh, really? That sounds good.”

Editor: “We like your coming-of-age story. Just delete the words hell, tongue, and virgin, and we’ve got a middle-grade tale.” (Of course, there were a great deal more edits, but you get the idea.)
Me: “Oh, wow, middle-grade, huh? That's awesome.”

Husband: Are there any vampires in this novel because, you know, those are big right now and I think that TWILIGHT author supports her husband?
Me: (chases husband through house with frying pan!)

Now, I’m writing a new middle-grade novel. This will be the first time I’ve ever written intentionally with children in mind.   

I have to wonder: Will this knowledge impact my writing process?  Will the fact that my oldest daughter is the target age group for middle-grade literature influence my choices? Will I feel empowered? Will I just unleash my free-range writing habit and enjoy the process? Will my husband ever get out of the doghouse or trust me with a frying pan again?

I suspect the answer to all of these questions is yes. No doubt, this new journey will include its own series of surprising firsts. And just between you and me, I can’t wait to begin.  


FIRST time in Italy!
Karen Harrington is the author of the forthcoming middle-grade novel SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY (Little, Brown 2013). Visit her on Twitter or at her blog.


  1. Love this post. I think the best way to write is without an audience in mind. I'm also intrigued by Sure Signs Of Crazy. I'll be looking for that next year :)