For the Children

adult black and white books boy
Photo by Tookapic on Pexels.com

I am both the father of a toddler and an animation enthusiast. Combined together, these mean that I read and watch a lot of children’s content and, as a result, have developed no small frustration for how many of them are of dreadful quality. When I see something that is immature, irresponsible, or poorly produced I imagine the rationale for such abysmal production values is something along the lines of “Well yeah, it’s bad…but this is just for kids.” Whether or not this statement is ever actually said between producers and creators, this “well it’s just for kids” mentality pervades our media and it is a deplorable notion. We give our children the worst we have to offer, when they of all people are the most deserving and needing of our very best.

I believe the root cause of this trend is based on an assumption that children won’t care about half-baked efforts because, well, children are stupid. Why else would they put up with such drivel? This idea, though prevalent, is based entirely on the fallacy that a person’s amount of knowledge and context is the same as their intelligence. Knowing more is assumed to equate to having a better mind. People frequently make this mistake when interacting with foreign visitors, too. Because a foreigner does not know the language or cultural customs they are talked down to and assumed to be simple-minded, although they may be geniuses in their own land.

When I look at my three-year-old son I get the distinct impression is that he is quite an intelligent person. Not that he is an intelligent toddler, not that he is intelligent for his age. Just that he is an intelligent person. In fact, I get the idea that he is more intelligent than I am, myself. True, his mind is still developing, and his ability to comprehend complex concepts is still maturing, but that does not make him dumb. When I tell him a story I want to respect his inherent intelligence. I may, for the time being, tell him stories that are simplified, but I know the difference between simplification and talking-down-to, and I never do the latter.

Another assumption people make about children’s tales is that they can’t tackle difficult topics. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is perfectly fine for children’s stories to deal with subjects such as death, divorce, or even abuse. Indeed, it’s important for youth that are dealing with these life events to have sources to guide them through these minefields. But the children’s story that takes on these matters should approach them gently and sensitively, with utmost care for youth’s tenderness. The intention should be to provide a place where these traumas can be contemplated in a way that feels safe.

There are, fortunately, a few examples of children’s stories that do a very excellent job of respecting their audience and also speaking from the heart. One that I’m personally very fond of is Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr Seuss. Dr Seuss speaks passionately and reverently of how wonderful the child being read his story is. He spends a great amount of time praising their greatness, but he’s also going to warn them that they have some weaknesses, too. He tells it to each child straight: they absolutely will fail at some point in their lives, but that that will not be the end of their story. Instead of condemning them, he assures that they can get back up on their feet, off to more wonderful things as soon as they are able.

Another great source of passionate, child-respectful stories is found in the decades-long work of Mister Rogers. With him every child’s emotions were validated. You weren’t a bad person for feeling sorrow or anger, loss or brokenness. He loved you just as you were, and as a friend he wanted to help you process through those feelings. It wasn’t all sober treks across the landscapes of the heart, though, there was also time for fun. His show’s daily trips to the land of make-believe gave a clear message to children that indulging in a little healthy pretend is not just acceptable, it’s vital!

A third example of an excellent children’s story, and one that is far more recent, would be the Pixar film Inside Out. Its portrayal of emotions and childhood development resonate deeply and also compassionately. Its depiction of complex adolescence is so on point that it came as no surprise when I learned of how the film-makers involved professional psychologists in the creation of its themes. Paul Ekman and Dachner Keltner’s expert consultations shine through in the finished work, resulting in a portrayal that is both honest, and also teaches healthy behavior and coping methods. This sort of dedication to accuracy and education elevate the film past the status of just interesting to truly important.

So, what is the consistent theme in all of these examples? What exactly is it that makes for a good children’s story? It’s really quite simple. Make a good story…for children. Be just as creative in your tale for children as you would with any other story, share a message that’s just as heartfelt, and be just as honest about it. Still do your research, still talk to experts, and still put in as much thought and hard work into getting it right. Do your outlines, your character sketches, your drafts, and do them thoroughly. Be passionate, be sincere, be dedicated. Let your great driving motivation be to help and delight your young audience, not just to make a quick buck off of them. In short, all the time and love and commitment you would put into any other story, your children’s stories deserve the same treatment.

When a tale is written with the honest labor and kind intentions outlined above, it is going to be a good story. Not good for its age group. Not good compared to other children’s books. Just a good story. It will be a story that can be enjoyed by everyone, including children. More than that, you’ll feel downright proud of yourself, knowing that you’ve helped a wonderful young mind along its way to health and happiness.

For the last three weeks I’ve shared some stories that were primarily intended for a child, my toddler son. Each one of these stories I outlined, drafted, and iterated on as much as I did any of my other tales. Each one I have tried to imbue with a special kernel of novelty. I’d like to finish this series of Phillip the Mouse adventures with two more entries. They are simple and gentle, but also still bear important lessons for every age of reader, given that they speak to perplexities we all face, youth and aged alike. Come back on Thursday to see how those turn out, and then next week we will move into entirely different territory.

Phillip the Mouse: Being too Small and The Terrifying Frog

animal blur close up cute
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Phillip the Mouse and Being too Small

One day Phillip found himself with his dad at the home of the Dotty family. The Dottys were his neighbors three-mouseholes-down, and he and his dad were helping Mr. Dotty to dig a new guest chamber. While they were working, Mr. Dotty’s son Felix came in.

“Dad!” he said. “The fair just opened in town this morning! Can I go?”

Mr. Dotty thought, and then said that would be alright. Phillip thought the fair sounded very exciting, so he tugged his dad’s paw and asked if he could go, too.

“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” Felix said quickly. “The fair is for us big mice, you are too small to go.”

“Felix…” Mr. Dotty said sternly. “Phillip has been being a big help to us, and the fair is for everyone. If Phillip’s father says he can go then you’ll take him with you.”

Phillip’s dad said it was fine for him to go, which Felix wasn’t too pleased with. Even so, he had to mind his father, and the two of them set off down the country road to town. They went along silently, following the road through a grove of trees until they came to a part where they came to a narrow point between two cliff faces. Here a recent rockslide had fallen across the way, and was blocking their path forward.

Felix looked left, then right, and then up at the obstacle for a moment. Next he crouched down and waggled his tail, jumped up high, and grabbed the top edge of the nearest rock. With a little scrambling he pulled himself onto the top, and then leapt for the next boulder. Phillip tried to copy him, looking left and right and up, crouching down, waggling his tail, and leaping! But he fell far short of the rock’s edge and fell back on the ground. After trying a few more times it was clear he just couldn’t make the jump.

“Wait, help!” He called out. “I can’t reach.”

Felix looked down and shook his head. “I told you that you were too small. If you’re not big enough to reach that first rock, then there’s no way you’ll make it over this whole pile. You’d better head back home.” Then he turned and continued on his way.

At that Phillip sat down and cried. Maybe Felix was right, maybe he really was too small. And now would miss out on all the fun. But as he sat there, drying his eyes, Phillip happened to notice a hollow log that had fallen underneath the rockslide, laying on the ground with its end pointed towards him. He scurried over and saw that it ran all the way to the other side of the rockslide and, even better, was just the right size for him. Phillip bolted through, and then laughed the rest of the way to the fair.

Some time later Felix managed to get over the rockslide, down the other side, and finally arrived at the fair. He was amazed to see that Phillip had not only made it there himself, but also beaten him to it!

“Maybe you are bigger than me,” Phillip admitted. “But I’m just the right size for me and I can get where I need to go!”

Felix nodded sheepishly and apologized, then the two of them went and had a lot of fun.

 

Phillip the Mouse and the Terrifying Frog

Phillip the Mouse was out exploring in the marshes one day. Whenever he came to a little stream he would hop across the lily pads to the other side, and if there weren’t any lily pads he would climb the tall grasses until they bent over and made bridges for him. He was imagining that he was a great explorer, traveling into a deep and ancient forest. Who knew what sorts of monsters might be lurking just around the corner?

To Phillip it had just been a pretend game, but then, as he lifted a leafy branch, he found himself actually face-to-face with one of those monsters! It was a low, hulking, green creature with giant, bulging eyes. Even as Phillip was staring at the creature it started swelling up bigger and bigger, getting even larger than Phillip! Phillip could feel his heart racing and his whiskers twitching. He felt very afraid, so he dropped to all fours, puffed up his fur, stood his tail out straight, and opened his mouth wide to show his teeth. “Hhhhkkk!” he hissed threateningly.

If there’s one thing you don’t expect a monster to do, it’s to cry, but that was exactly what this one started to do. The creature’s whole body deflated, and Phillip could see now that it was shaking. “Stop it!” the creature said with a small voice. “Why are you being so mean?!”

Phillip felt a little ashamed and his fur smoothed down a bit. “What? I’m not being mean. You’re the one who’s a scary monster!”

“I’m not a monster!” the supposedly-non-monster sobbed. “I’m just a little frog. And if you’re not being mean, then why am I the one who is crying?”

Phillip realized the little frog had a point and he stood back up on his back paws and stopped baring his teeth. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t want to be mean, I was just trying to protect myself when I saw you puffing up there.”

“Oh… did that frighten you? That’s just what I do when I’m startled. I wasn’t sure what to think when I first saw you.”

Phillip paused, a thought bubbling up inside of him. “Maybe we were both being mean and scary,” he finally admitted, “but we only did that because we felt frightened of each other.”

The frog thought this over. “Yes…I think that happens with people sometimes. But…I’m not really afraid of you anymore.”

“Me either. I’m Phillip, by the way, and I’m a mouse. What’s your name?”

“Chester. What were you doing here anyway?”

“I was exploring,” Phillip said proudly, “and looking for exciting secrets in the marshes.”

“Like me?” Chester laughed. “Well, you know, I live here and I know where some more great secrets are. Would you like me to show you?”

Phillip thought that sounded wonderful. Exploring the marsh together was going to be a lot less frightening if he had a friend along with him, and unless he was very much mistaken he had just made one.

***

On Monday my post was about imbuing your stories with messages or principles. These two stories for my son were ones I developed as a way to deliver tailored lessons to him, concepts that I hope will help him deal with his day-to-day situations.

The first story was based off of his being at that awkward stage where he wants to be big and do everything on his own, but then gets frustrated when, sometimes, he isn’t physically capable of actually accomplishing those things. I wanted in this story to tell him that it’s okay to still be growing. He’s just the size he should be, and maybe sometimes he needs to find his own way to do things.

The second story has to do with his anxiety when meeting new people, particularly ones that are loud and flamboyant. He’ll shrink into his mother or me and informs us that that other person is too scary. I thought I might start suggesting to him that sometimes people are loud or intimidating because they, themselves, are trying to hide their own fears or insecurities. Those that are the most scary are often those that are the most scared. This isn’t meant to discourage him from seeking safety when he is uncomfortable, but to help him broaden his perspective.

Clearly there are some concepts here that aren’t just for toddlers, either. There are times I would do well to better internalize the very lessons I am sharing with my son. I would like to explore that more in my post on Monday, how children’s stories can be written for all ages and, indeed, should be. See you then.

An Important Lesson

chalk near board tilt screen photography
Photo by Markus Spiske freeforcommercialuse.net on Pexels.com

Why do we make stories? That’s an open-ended question, of course, given that the potential answers to it are legion, ranging anywhere from making a living to leaving a legacy to I-was-just-bored-and-needed-something-to-do. Even in the course of making a single story the reasons for doing so may change several times. When I first started sharing bedtime stories with my son, the only motivation was just trying something new to help him relax and get sleepy. My decision to continue with it, though, evolved into trying to engage him with important life lessons.

I want to promise that there are wonderful worlds out there waiting for him to explore them. I want to impress on him that there are dangers out there, too, which he needs to be wary of. I want to reassure him that he is a wonderful boy of infinite worth and always will be. Certainly I can and do tell him these things plainly and directly throughout the day, but I’ve come to appreciate that these concepts last longer in the mind when reinforced with a good story. We love to learn by analogy, and fictional stories and events can ring more deeply with our cores than any other communication.

I am by no means the first person to realize the great power of stories in teaching lessons and conveying messages. This purpose for creating them seems to be both ancient and universal, perhaps the most prevalent answer to the question I opened this blog with. There can be found samplings of moral tales from every region of every time in the world. There are Fairy Tales, Arabian Nights, Russian bylinas, African myths, Aesop’s Fables, Chinese proverbs, Christian parables, and more. Many of these were written without knowledge of the others, suggesting there is something inherent in our humanity that seeks to preserve important wisdoms in the form of stories.

And which of us today wouldn’t want to communicate something of meaning and importance in our own stories, too? That might be easier said than done, but it is a distinction most authors hope to achieve. Do I really have the right to ask people to give me their time and attention unless I have something important to say?

Of course, to be able to say something important means you have to know something important, and then you have to be able to communicate that important something effectively. That first part might seem the harder ask, but really I think it is the simpler of the two. If we are willing to set aside our false modesty and go through a little introspection, I’m convinced each one of us will find that we have a nugget of real value that we could share with the world. This is part of our human condition. We live, we learn, we internalize, and do so in a way that is unique to our character. If you dig down in your heart, you’ll find an important lesson or two locked up inside. Now comes the second bit, the actual communicating of that kernel of wisdom. This part is tricky, and it’s entirely possible that the would-be author might not yet have the skills necessary to give voice to those insights. Please don’t take that as a discouragement, though, the way is there for any who are willing to try. It is simply a matter of putting in the work and practice, and there are a few techniques that can help you along the way.

1)

First off, what is a kernel of wisdom anyway? The definition I find most helpful is it is a truth. It is a principle. It is universal. It is a constant that any reader in any situation will be able to find a place for in their own lives. Our actual situations and events are periphery and context that can change, but the principles at their core remain the same.

James’ neighbor asked if it was his baseball that broke his window, and he honestly admitted that it was, offering to help fix it.

James’ drunk father asked if he was the one that broke the television set, and he dishonestly said ‘yes’ so that his little brother wouldn’t get hit.

At first these scenarios seem like complete opposites, yet at the core of each is the same kernel, one of using the truth (or lack thereof) as a tool for taking a burden. If you think you have found something of significance to say, but want to be sure of its merit, try giving it this litmus test: does it apply universally? Anything that does is worthy of a story.

2)

Now one of the tricky things about these little wisdoms we have is that they can resist the written medium. These are not events that can be laid out in a chronology, nor are they a dialogue that can spoken. These vague concepts tend to be things we are better able to feel than put words to. Sometimes the best way we have to express them is in recounting the entire experience where we discovered them, which of course, already presents the concept within a story form.

My mother passed away and I felt a gaping hole left in my heart. More than anything I just wanted to hear her voice again, to hear her tell me that I was still her son and she loved me. One night I dreamt she was alive, but I had traveled away to a different country. In the dream I again had that desire for her to call me her son and say that she loved me, but I realized it was alright even if she didn’t. I knew she was still thinking those thoughts away where she was, and that was enough. When I woke up, it was the same.

There’s something poignant in this, but it can be difficult to extract the core and transplant it into another story. Generally I think when we try to express this sensation it gets reduced down to something like “your loved ones are always with you in your heart,” although I do feel something gets lost in that translation. Perhaps you might not ever be able to reduce the concept you wish to convey into a succinct sentence, but you still need to become thoroughly familiar with it. Then you will be able to look over what you have written and know whether it evokes the intended feeling, or diluted it.

3)

Have you noticed that each of the miniature story examples I’ve given have opened with a lifelike quandary, one similar to what a reader might face, after which the principle reveals itself to give the solution to that problem? If you want a blueprint for how to build a story around the principle you want to teach, you can’t go wrong with this tried-and-true method. It’s been kicking around the narrative world for at least a couple millennia and still remains relevant.

Problem: the tortoise is slower than the hare. Solution: the tortoise remains consistent and steady.

Problem: Simba runs from the past and his guilt. Solution: Mufasa helps Simba to remember who he is, the son of a noble king.

Problem: Arjuna is conflicted about going to war and the losses it will entail. Solution: Krishna teaches Arjuna to let go of worldly attachment and just pursue the greater good.

The thing about principles and truths is that when you live without them, problems come up in life. You feel like you aren’t progressing towards your goals as quickly as you wish, or you feel burdened by shame and think yourself worthless, or you feel directionless with no clear path to follow. But then, when you find truths and principles, they free you from the problems you faced. When a story follows this pattern, it is merely reflecting back to the reader shades of real life and will therefore resonate.

4)

One burden you don’t need to worry too much about is if your audience will “get the point” of the message you have embedded into your story. It can be tempting to try and spell it all out, but doing so denies them the opportunity to tease out the lesson on their own, which will give them the longer lasting impression. In fact, it’s not necessary for your message to be consciously comprehended at any point in the telling. As I suggested before, many of our life lessons do not come to us written in fortune-cookie sentences, but rather in an experience that elicits an emotion. If your story does nothing more than to replicate that emotional experience in another, then the message has successfully been taught. For this reason, lessons can be incorporated into stories for any age. Perhaps my toddler son doesn’t know how to put the words to the principles I am trying to share with him, but if I do my job right then he’ll naturally internalize them based off the feelings he felt, and they will guide him just the same.

There’s another reason why you don’t need to worry about whether or not the audience is capable of receiving your message, but for this one you’ll have to let go of any sense of ownership you thought you had. Because, you see, the reader already knows whatever it is you’re trying to share, and you’re not going to give to them anything they don’t already have. That’s just the way principles work. All of the universal truths already exist inside each one of us, and we do not need anyone to tell us what they are. What we do need is someone to remind us of them when we have forgotten them, to awaken the parts of us that have always been present, but asleep. A truly profound story is one that resonates, and it resonates because it has attuned itself to the message that is already in the heart.

5)

Finally, I think it’s important to address a question that might be nagging some of you right now. What if the author is just looking to write something mindless and fun? Does every story have to have a message? Quite frankly, I would say yes. The reason being that even if you don’t intend to put a message into your story, one will be there anyhow. It’s unavoidable. There never has been a story told that didn’t have a message, and your story, too, will suggest something about the world, whether for better or worse, whether honest or deceitful. As such, there are plenty of “mindless” flicks and novels out there that are laden with unintended and irresponsible messages such as “the only way for a hero to resolve a dispute is through violence,” or “a woman might be tough, but she could never be a match a real man,” or “it’s okay to be a bad person, so long as you’re funny at the same time.” Given that your story will be saying something, isn’t it worth ensuring that it is a something you believe in and that will be good for the world to hear? There’s nothing wrong in perusing your story ideas and taking a fun one out for a ride, but just drive responsibly and be sure you go somewhere good with it.

 

As I said earlier, I think all of us want to be able to take some of our inner light and put something important into our stories. I would go further still, and say that as a writer it is, in fact, your duty to use that skill to make the world a little brighter. That’s not an easy thing to do, but the very fact that it is difficult is what makes it a worthy quest.  Best of luck, and I hope to see you on Thursday when I introduce a couple more Phillip the Mouse stories, each that I told to my son as an effort to resonate some life lessons to his heart. Until then.

Phillip the Mouse: His Very Special Talent and The Camping Trip

brown rodent on gray fence beside green leaved plants under sunny sky
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Phillip the Mouse and His Very Special Talent

One morning, Phillip’s father made his special Cinnamon & Cheese Morning Delight for their family breakfast.

“Mmmm!” Phillip’s mother said while chewing her food. “Your cooking is always so delicious, dear!”

Phillip’s father smiled and said “Well of course, that’s my special talent!”

That got Phillip’s mind working. Did he have a special talent, too? He thought he must, but as he sat there, trying to think what it might be, nothing came to mind.

After breakfast he decided he would go out and try to find what it could be, and as long as he was going out, he thought he may as well walk down the road towards the train tracks. He loved going to the train tracks. Along the way he thought about some of the talents his friends had. Marcus the hedgehog could juggle, that was a pretty neat talent. Suzie the duck could memorize long poems and sing beautifully, those were definitely talents as well. Robbie the Sheepdog was very, very strong, and that was a talent, too.

Phillip reached the hill that looked over the trains passing down below, and he sat on a rock to watch them crawling by. He thought about if there were any talents he could do, but all he could come up with were just the ordinary sorts of things. He had learned how to tie knots last summer, but so had all his friends. He could drink from an open cup without spilling now, but all the adults had been doing that for years already.

Phillip was interrupted from his thoughts by the sound of the 507 Freight Train churning down below. The 507 was the biggest and heaviest train that came on these tracks, racing by like a great, red dragon. Phillip loved how the ground churned beneath him as it rolled past. It was always the last train of the day, too, so Phillip stood up and made his way back home.

On his way he passed by the hole of Jane, the rabbit, who was always the smartest one in class. Definitely a talent. Next came the home of Benny, the Tortoise. Everyone always said how patient Benny was. Phillip supposed that was a special kind of talent, too.

“I’m home,” he called out as he walked back inside.

“Were you watching the trains again?” his mother asked and Phillip nodded. “I’m glad,” she smiled. “I always think it’s so special how you love them.”

Just then it Phillip felt a rush of excitement. Could it be that loving trains so much was a talent of his?

He asked his mother and she agreed. She even said “being able to see the beauty in things is one of the best talents of all!”

That night, as Phillip lay in bed, he felt very special indeed. Marcus might juggle, Suzie might sing, Robbie might be strong. Jane might be smart, Benny might be patient. But he knew that not a one of them loved trains as well as he could!

 

Phillip the Mouse and the Camping Trip

One morning, after Phillip awoke, his parents came into his room with big smiles and told him that they were going camping today! It sounded very exciting…but Phillip wasn’t exactly sure what camping even was.

“It’s a time when the humans leave their homes to come live where we do, so meanwhile we go and live in their house for the weekend,” his father explained.

As soon as they had had their breakfast and got ready for the day, they whisked off to the humans’ big, fancy home. Phillip had never even peeped inside the house before, and he was very excited to see what might be in there. They waited in the bushes while the humans loaded up their car and drove away, then Phillip’s mother and father led him up the outside walls, inside a small hole in the rafters, across the attic to a chewed-through air vent, and from that into the home itself.

There were all sorts of fantastic things for them to do. They pushed something called a “tap” to get water flowing in a large, white thing called a “tub.” Then they could slide down the smooth porcelain into a pool of water and swim all around. There were some other bristly things in the room called “toothbrushes” and Phillip’s parents showed him how to use them to dry off afterwards.

Next came a great, poofy, bouncy thing called a “mattress” that they jumped on for hours and hours. There was a “ceiling fan” they could turn on as well, and they had dangled some “suspenders” from it so they could hold their ends and swing around very quickly. Then they would let go and try to zoom across the room to land in some nice, soft pillows. Phillip missed one time and knocked over a “vase” that shattered everywhere but his parents said not to worry about that.

Best of all, though, was the place they called the “kitchen.” Here there were all sorts of foods Phillip liked. Fruits and vegetables, plenty of cheese, and even new things like “cereal” and “pie.” It was all quite excellent.

After two days of their vacation, Phillip’s parents said the humans would be back soon, so there was one last thing they had to do. They went on top of the end-of-hall door, lowered a string around its handle, and opened it to let out the family cat. Phillip’s parents explained that this way the humans would just blame Mr Tiggles for the big mess. Of course, having now let the cat out, Phillip and his family couldn’t stay around any longer, so they whisked out a window and hurried back to their home, whooping and hollering the whole way.

***

As I mentioned on Monday, the purpose of these two stories was to illustrate how I designed some bedtime stories for my toddler son that were specific to his interests and life events. For the first story, its design came about from the fact that my son loves trains very, very much. I just wanted to make a story that could convey to my son how I love that he loves trains, how proud I am that he lives with passion. For the second story, I came up with it just a day or two before we left on a camp-out for our Summer vacation. We had been talking about it with our son and he was pretty excited for the trip, so I wanted to craft a story that let him live out his happy anticipation through Phillip’s silly antics.

From these two examples it’s probably apparent that many of the stories I tell to my son carry messages or themes. Sometimes these come across as just playful, but other times they are meant as a more serious teaching moment. That’s a concept I’d like to explore with my next post: teaching through stories. Come back on Monday to read about that, and then I’ll do an example of it with more Phillip the Mouse stories next Thursday.

Hey, I’m Talking to You

marketing man person communication
Photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com

I remember a strange experience I had with communication several years ago. It was while I was at university, working as a Teaching Assistant and occasionally covering lessons for the Professor. One day while lecturing I had the distinct impression of the words emanating from my mouth, hanging in the air, and then falling to the ground, never being received by any of the class members. I didn’t blame the students for their blank expressions, I knew I was having trouble explaining the concepts in an intuitive and accessible manner. The words I was stringing together might have formed valid sentences, but to the class there was no meaning therein. All my life I had assumed the two (words and meaning) just automatically went together, now I knew they did not.

Ever since that day I have remembered that communication is composed of two halves, a giver and a receiver, and it simply does not occur when only one of those is present, or when the two are unable to meet on common ground. Similarly, though a written story may seem like a self-contained entity in-and-of itself, it is actually only a medium for communication, and therefore is forever incomplete if never opened, read, and understood. A story requires a meeting and comprehension between both a giver and a receiver, or else it is just words in a void with nowhere to go.

If you want the words of your story to go somewhere, to be picked up by an audience and internalized, then you have to know how to speak so that you can be heard. How you do that, depends first on deciding who your audience even is. There are multiple criteria by which you can filter the entire human population down to the subset your story is meant for, but there is one initial division that comes before all others. Are you writing for yourself, for one other, or for a group?

Writing for yourself is pretty straightforward, it means you are writing something that resonates with you, regardless of whether it resonates with anyone else. Perhaps you’ve thought of the book you wish you could be reading right now and, since it doesn’t exist, decided you’d create it yourself. Or maybe you’re just trying to process some personal drama, using your creativity to hash out all its possible permutations. You are speaking to your own hopes, your own fears, your own life situation.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is writing for a group. Here you identify a grouping, defined perhaps by age, language, social status, or common interest, and you compose something that you think will appeal to that crowd. Perhaps the most prevailing reason for this approach is that you wish to ensure maximum profit potential for your book as a commercial product. Thus you begin by identifying which subset of society you can best sell to, and then write in the way most likely to catch their attention.

In between, though, there is the story written for one other. The story won’t necessarily be about the author’s greatest passion, nor is it composed to be marketable to the widest possible audience. This is a story that it is written for a friend, a family member, or maybe even a nemesis. Perhaps you are writing to a member of a particular societal clique, but you are addressing that member, not the clique as a whole. As such, it is more akin to our common day-to-day communications. Me speaking to you. When one adopts this more conversational approach to storytelling there are some unique and charming results that naturally occur.

First of all, whenever you speak directly to someone on their own terms, you’re fairly likely to succeed at getting their attention. When I come up with bedtime stories for my boy, I make sure to use language that is suited to his understanding and that focuses on his own interests. As a result, he seems to be much more engaged with these stories than with most of his printed-for-the-masses storybooks. The lack of this directness in for-the-masses media is a problem for many blockbuster movies and bestselling books today. Because they are intended to make the maximum profit possible, they have to appeal to the widest audience possible, which results in them being as generic and featureless as possible. Many stories are unwilling to say anything beyond the mundane and obvious, out of fear of alienating a potential subset of society, which gives them a far shorter staying power. Going back to the verbal communication analogy, this can feel like listening to a speaker at a conference, one who is speaking both to everyone and no one at the same time, versus the experience of having someone look you in the eye and say something to you. I think most of us would prefer that second situation, even if we didn’t end up agreeing with everything that was said. We’d certainly remember what was said for longer.

Well what about when a story is written for oneself? That’s certainly writing for a very focused audience, isn’t it? It is, but the communication you give to yourself is again different from the type you give to others. Unfortunately, we can be very hard on ourselves, criticizing our every flaw, and regretting that we aren’t the successes we wanted to be. I imagine this occurs because of all the emotions we’ve ever felt, negative ones most easily bubble to the surface. While drawing from this well of disappointment can certainly be a therapeutic way to process these feelings, it can also make for some pretty bleak stories. Why should the main character get a happy ending if it feels dishonest with my own life? But things change when we speak to others. While we may be very hard on ourselves, we can be very kind to those we love. We tend to assume the best of them and wish the best for them. When we design a story from that point-of-view, all we wish to communicate is dreams coming true, love being found, adventures being shared, and good triumphing over evil.

I’m currently working on a novel that had its genesis in one of those pessimistic self-talks. The original design of it called for a family of explorers to come to a new island and, by their hard work and patience, raise a flourishing trade and community from the wilds around them. And then a monster comes and kills them all. Comically bleak, isn’t it? But that was fitting, because it was some bleak emotions that I was processing and trying to convey. It all had something to do with how our human failings can destroy all that is beautiful around us. Then I started to think about how this would be received by anyone else reading the book. I have several friends who have faced human failings in their lives, and I wouldn’t want them to read a book like this and think it was condemning them. Ultimately I felt the message wasn’t for the greater good, and the ending changed accordingly. There is still a monster, and it still seeks to destroy, but the story now suggests that it can be defeated by the very beauty it is trying to ravage, and innocence can be reclaimed.

Winnie-the-Pooh, The Hobbit, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Thomas the Tank Engine. Some of our most timeless tales and characters have come as a result of an author crafting a story for a specific individual. These stories are book-sized wishes for their readers to have lives as full of adventures and hopes as are contained within the tale. They are immortalized communications of love, given and received decades ago, yet ever fresh and new.

Of course, I do not mean to disparage the other types of audience a story can be written for, they each have their own pros and cons. I do feel, though, that this more direct and conversational form of story-communication too often gets overlooked. So if you find yourself struggling for inspiration, try asking yourself what sort of story you’d like to tell to the ones you love most. In the meantime, please come back Thursday when I continue with two more tales of Phillip the Mouse. Each of these are drawn from the bedtime stories I’ve shared with my toddler son, and each was designed based off of his personal interests and life events. They are examples of ways that I have used stories to speak to him about himself, and let him know how special he is.

Phillip the Mouse: The Lion’s Toothache and The General’s Horse

animal apodemus sylvaticus brown button eyes
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Phillip the Mouse and the Lion’s Toothache

One day Phillip the Mouse was out on the Savannah, watching a lion laying under a tree. He had been warned that lions were dangerous and sneaky creatures, so he remained hidden in the tall grasses and didn’t make a peep. However, though he was hidden from sight, he hadn’t accounted for the lion”s excellent sense of smell.

SNIFF went the lion. “Ahhh,” the lion said to himself. “There is a delicious mouse out there. I wonder how I could get him to come closer?” He suddenly had an idea and he called out “OH LITTLE MOUSE! LITTLE MOUSE, PLEASE COME QUICK! I NEED SOME HELP!”

“He needs help?!” said Phillip, and he scurried out into the clearing. “Help, did you say?”

“Oh yes, indeed,” said the Lion, smiling to himself. “You see, I have the most frightful toothache and there’s nothing I can do about it. I don’t have such clever little paws like you do, mine are much too large and clumsy to reach into my mouth. Here, I’ll open wide and you go take a look inside, please.”

The lion opened his mouth as wide as he could, and Phillip helpfully scurried over, standing on the lion’s tongue he peered back along the row of sharp, pointy teeth. Suddenly he realized that he had stepped into a trap and even saw the lion’s mouth starting to close!

“Oh, lion!” Phillip called out, thinking as fast as he could, “You were right! There’s a most frightful tooth infection here!”

The lion abruptly stopped closing his mouth. “Thewe is?” he asked in surprise.

“Ohhhh, absolutely! It looks like it might soon rot your whole mouth away! We need to get it out straight away. Luckily for you I’m just the mouse for the job.”

“Den pull ih out!” the lion cried.

“I will. But first, your mouth is starting to droop. You’ll need to keep it wide open while I work.”

“Pwop it open wiv somefing!”

Phillip scurried out, grabbed a large stick, and wedged it between the lion’s teeth, forcing the mouth to stay open. “Also,” he continued. “I’d better go get some numbing grasses so this doesn’t hurt you too much.”

“Good ideah!”

Phillip leapt down to the ground, rushed back into the tall grasses, and ran all the way home. For the next few hours the lion lay there with his mouth propped open, unable to do anything but stare around confusedly and repeat “Oh, liwwle mouse, liwwle mouse! Whewe awe you?”

 

Phillip the Mouse and the General’s Horse

One day, Phillip learned that the noble General’s Horse was in town, and he wanted to go and meet this legendary hero. He went into the village and walked through the streets until he found him. The General’s Horse was standing at a post with a crowd of admiring creatures around him. He was tall, strong, and a magnificently wild gray color. But as Phillip was very small, he could not see the horse as well as he would like and he decided to go get closer.

Phillip ran and leapt upwards, grabbing the horse’s tail with his paws and scurrying up it onto his back. Phillip started moving forward to the horse’s front when suddenly the General himself swung into the saddle. Before Phillip had a chance to get off the General clicked in his heels and the horse sprang away! Phillip lost his balance, and fell backwards barely managing to grab the passing saddle bag with his tail. He held onto it for dear life, bouncing upside down and watching as the village raced away behind them.

“Excuse me! Excuse me!” he squeaked out, but his voice was too quiet to be noticed. There was nothing to do but wait until the General and his horse had reached their destination.

After a while the three of them arrived at a neighboring city and the General dismounted and left. Now that things weren’t so rocky Phillip was able to climb back up the saddle bag and all the way across to the horse’s ear.

“Excuse me!” he said into it.

“What? Who’s there?” the General’s Horse asked in surprise.

“My name is Phillip, I’m a small mouse from near the village that you just left. I really do need to get back home, though, I was wondering if you could take me back.”

“Oh certainly,” the horse laughed kindly. “The General won’t need me for a while now.”

The horse turned around, but didn’t move. “Oh dear,” he finally said. “This is all very embarrassing, but you see, the General always steered me which way to go and I don’t always pay attention to all the turns we make. Do you know the way back to your village.”

“Oh, well, I’m not sure…” Phillip started to say. Everything he saw looked familiar, but somehow also different. Suddenly he realized the problem, it was all the wrong-way-up from how he had seen it before! Wrapping his tail around the saddlebag he let himself fall upside down again, and now everything was perfectly clear. “Take a left down that dirt road!” he called and the horse whisked away in that direction. They kept on going, Phillip giving each direction until at last they came back to the village. He felt a swell of pride, thinking to himself how impressive he must look to all his friends and family, swinging into town, hanging upside down from the saddle bag of the General’s Horse.

***

As I said in my Monday post, these two stories are from the bedtime stories I make up for my son each night. It all started when we were still trying to establish a regular bedtime routine, one that would allow him to be soothed and relaxed enough to sleep. One of those times I had the idea to make up one of these stories for him. Apparently it made an impression, and the following night he asked for another story and soon it was a tradition. Every day I have that motivation to be a little creative so I can create a new story for him, and I feel that it has been a very good exercise for me.

Now these two examples I shared are pretty generic adventures for Phillip, but as I’ve had to search for continual sources of new ideas, I’ve found it works very well to draw from my son’s own characteristics and day-to-day experiences. That makes the stories more personalized and he often reacts well when the story winks at his real life. On Monday I’d like to talk about that concept a little more: using a specific individual as the intended audience for your stories. After that I’ll share an example or two next Thursday of how I’ve done that in other Phillip the Mouse stories.

Everwrite

close up of hand holding pencil over white background
Photo by Lum3n.com on Pexels.com

This last Thursday I wrapped up my latest short story entitled Imposed Will, and felt very satisfied as I did so, thank you very much. In fact I’ve had great satisfaction in wrapping up every story piece that I’ve done for this blog, more so than I had expected. You see writing short stories is something new for me, I always felt the only option I had was full-sized novels and nothing else. I guess this mindset was because that was what I spent my time reading, so that was what I wanted to write. While I still like the idea of writing something large and meaty, and am working on such a novel in my spare hours, I have already seen benefits from this regular short-story publishing, and hope that I will always make time for it. Here are just a few of the perks I’ve seen thus far:

1)

My main reason for even starting this blog was to get into the habit of writing consistently. I had been kicking around several story ideas for awhile, and every now-and-then made a halfhearted attempt at progressing with a few of them. I did not have any sort of consistency or schedule in place though, I wrote when I felt like it and not when I didn’t. Any time I would hit a snag where the story wasn’t quite shaping up my motivation would tank instantly. By deciding to write shorter pieces, though, I found it much easier to remain motivated. I can far more successfully commit to write about 3000 words for two blog posts every week than commit to a 70,000-90,000 word novel in a couple years. That’s kind of surprising when you think about it, though, because as far as the sheer word count is concerned, 3000 a week is the much greater commitment. In just 12 months I will have produced over 150,000 words, enough for two novels. Yet somehow it feels easier, because it is so much more manageable of a number to deal with in the short term. Now that I am in this habit of weekly small increments, I have been able to go back to those bigger novel ideas I had and seen ways that I could break them up into similar couple-thousand word chunks per week. Suddenly they don’t seem nearly so daunting.

2)

Another thing I tend to do with my full-sized novels is plan them out exhaustively. I do several layers of detail, trying to map out how each scene and each conversation is contributing to the overall arc. It’s not a bad thing to do, but usually while I am in this process I suspend all more fleshed-out writing efforts. The result is that when it comes time to start penning the first draft, I feel out of my depth and freeze; skeletons are a lot more comfortable to me than full-fleshed beings. Writing short pieces consistently means that I no longer feel like I’m leaving that toolset rusting in the shed. I can still do outlining and iterating when I feel a need for it, but now it doesn’t have to be at the expense of exercising the other facets of story-crafting. Also, because I write more bite-sized stories, I am able to quickly swap between ones that specifically focus on different skills within writing. One week I’ll do a dialogue piece, and the next I’ll do some scene descriptions. I’ll get lots of practice on how to do a start, a middle, and an end. Along the way I’ve been becoming very acquainted with which areas are my strengths and which are my weaknesses. I definitely have my weaknesses, and I can focus on doing short stories that will help me get practice and improve on them.

3)

As I mentioned at the start, finishing each blog has given me a strong sense of satisfaction. It just feels so good to accomplish things, even little ones, and that boost encourages me to keep going at my bigger pieces as well. The fact is, I had developed a disappointing habit of making goals and deadlines for my writing that I never achieved and never put any faith in. Setting them was just going through the motions of what I thought “real” authors do, and even as I did so I would feel a twinge, knowing that these goals weren’t actually going to be achieved. Writing short stories has helped me to start trusting in my own promises again, something that had long-since been lost. I committed to do a new short piece every week and I’ve been succeeding at that. I committed to do 4-5 of those short pieces strung together in a larger series over the period of a month and I’ve been accomplishing that, too. Now my goal is to bring together a dozen of those series’ into a year-long volume and I don’t doubt that I’ll be able to fulfill that goal, too. I’m still a little hesitant to introduce large-scale timelines to my larger novels, but for the time being I’m committing to writing a little in them every other day and I’ve been fully keeping that promise to myself. Once I’ve done that for a bit more, I expect to have confidence in expanding my outlook further.

4)

The two problems I just mentioned–one of feeling better at planning out a story than at actually writing it, and the other of not carrying through on commitments–these together resulted in a lot of ideas, but nothing to show for them. So many, in fact, that even if I worked full-time for the rest of my life on these stories I don’t think I could ever produce them all. I was in the difficult position of having to decide which ones I would bring to the light of day, and which would fizzle out, never to be shared. Fortunately, I don’t worry about that anymore, because I’ve realized that many of the ideas I had are able to work as smaller pieces . Often instead of having a whole storyline, my brainstorming would simply have resulted in a single scene or concept, one that I intended to expand on later. Now those individual scenes and concepts are perfect material for a short story, and I can I can breathe to life within a single. I’m able to get out a lot more of the ideas, including ones I was contemplating killing off, and that feels wonderfully liberating.

 

Not too long ago I had some pretty productivity-decimating problems. I had more ideas than I knew what to do with, the lack of both ability and consistency to bring them to fruition, and the resulting frustration of never getting to say the things I wanted to say. The idea of sacrificing some of my novel-writing time to pen short pieces initially seemed like the worst possible distraction. However I found it provided a much-needed breath of fresh air that reinvigorated me and redoubled my efforts in all other creativity. Thus the time spent away from working on my novel has been more than made up for by my improved productivity when I come back to it. If any of my earlier quandaries resonate with you, then I’d highly recommend trying to start jotting down some short stories of your own. You’ll get a variety of rich experiences, improve your writing skills, finally have results to show for your work, and better productivity in your larger projects. While you’re at it, why not start a blog to showcase those short stories in? That way you’ll also get the satisfaction of publishing your work, even if it’s on a smaller scale.

Another way that I’ve kept myself regularly delivering on new ideas is through bedtime stories to my toddler son. I’ve invented a recurring character named Phillip the Mouse and each night is another one of his many adventures. This, too, has definitely been a very rewarding practice, and on Thursday I’d like to share a couple of these stories with you. See you then!