3 S.R. Johannes: Guest Post: Writing for Boys

Friday, July 27, 2012

Guest Post: Writing for Boys

Bam!  Pow!  Screeech! Should there be books written just for boys?  Should there be books written just for girls?  Or should there be books for every young reader, one size fits all?  What are those editors/readers/librarians looking for, really? The debate rages on, with passionate advocates on every side.  Luckily, we writers don’t really have to take a side; all we have to do is to start writing and see who our main characters become as the stories take shape in our heads. 

As we begin the writing process, knowing our audience is invaluable, and that comes through research and experience – oh, the experiences!  In my own case, I spent years teaching in middle schools and high schools, and now, as an author, school visits and readers’ letters help to keep this dinosaur current. My weekly volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club doing “homework help” (translation: “controlled chaos”) is key to get a glimmer of what’s going on in the lives of both boys and girls.  Then, living with the “ultimate guy,” my dear husband, a sports nut and avid reader, also influenced my world view of how “guys (well, one guy anyway) see the world.” 

Sometimes, a specific audience is already targeted, as it was for my contracted reluctant reader series (Cover-to-Cover, Perfection Learning), which is for boys ages 9-14.  Other times, the sense of the audience evolves during the writing process, determined by the main character’s voice, as it did for my most recent middle grade/tween mystery, ISLAND DANGER, which is also for boys, 9-14. 

To focus specifically on writing for boys, I’ve found that reading suspense á la Grisham, Patterson, and DeMille and studying their use of lots of action and hooks in their plots were critical to get me focused.  Additionally, books on language and gender, such as YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND by linguistics professor Deborah Tannen, helped inform my writing. 

Tannen’s theory is that girls primarily use language to “connect,” whereas boys use it to report a fact and to establish dominance.  For boys, she says, the “glue” that binds them together in a group is “activity,” whereas for girls, it’s “talk.” Sure enough, my male main characters grab hold of the plot and establish their own voices quickly, as opposed to my female main characters, who seem to establish themselves with less overt physical action, more dialogue, and at a more subtle pace. 

For example, the fourth through eighth grade boys at my local Boys and Girls Club will read THE HUNGER GAMES, with a female main character, but won’t pick up TWILIGHT, at least not in front of other kids!  They love the suspense and exciting action in the former, they tell me.  The fourth through eighth grade girls will read both books.  Most boys I talk to say they love mysteries, and they seem drawn to overt struggles and strong conflicts between good and evil.  When I write for boys, I keep these theories in mind, so Todd, my main character in ISLAND DANGER, plays a lot of soccer, surfs, and gets into fistfights.  Yet, he definitely has an empathetic side as well, which he uses to assess the other characters, to make his decisions, and take action. 

            There are plenty of examples of books that contravene these theories, and many authors who will disagree, but, as a writer, I find that these ideas help keep me grounded as I write and revise my manuscripts for boys.  With any luck, young readers will pick up one of my books and find an experience that resonates with them, whether they’re boys or girls. 

If you tweet or email Margo the following, you will be added to a drawing for a free book.

For a Tweet to @ipapaverison:  Enter me in #mg ISLAND DANGER ebook giveaway

For an email to ms@margosorenson.com: (subject line) Island Danger ebook Giveaway 


Tween Mystery Action Adventure

When fourteen-year-old soccer star Todd arrives in Hawaii, he hears that radical, militant Hawaiian activists have hidden weapons in a nearby ravine to use for their rebellion against the U.S. government to gain Hawaiian independence. Even though he’s warned that people are raising marijuana or “pakalolo” in the ravine, guarding their crops with rifles, pit bulls, and explosives, Todd plans to scout the ravine and find the weapons, hoping he can finally earn his family’s respect and find some adventure to offset his boring summer. What will Todd discover in the ravine that could force him to rethink everything he’s believed?

Author of twenty-seven books, Margo Sorenson was born in Washington, DC, and spent the first seven years of her life in Spain and Italy, living where there were few children her age, so books became her friends. She finished her school years in California, graduating from the University of California at Los Angeles. After teaching high school and middle school and raising a family of two daughters, Margo is now a full-time writer, writing primarily for young people of all ages, toddlers through high schoolers. Margo enjoys writing for young readers since she believes they are ready for new ideas and experiences, and they really enjoy "living" the lives of the characters in books. She enjoys meeting with her readers in school and library settings from Minnesota to California and Hawaii.

Besides winning recognition and awards for her books from various groups, including the American Library Association, Margo was invited to donate and archive her working papers with the internationally-known children's literature collection, the Kerlan Collection, at the University of Minnesota. After having lived in Hawaii, California, and Minnesota, Margo and her husband now live full-time in La Quinta, California. When she isn't writing, she enjoys visiting her grandchildren, playing golf, reading, watching sports, traveling, and hearing from her readers.  


Jemi Fraser said...

Boys are definitely action oriented - in the real world & in the books they enjoy. Island Danger sounds great - definitely something the kids in my class would enjoy!

Margo said...

Thanks so much for your kind words, Jemi; please let me know how they like it! Aloha!
Margo :)

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Oh yes, boys and girls are very different. Way back when my sister and I had no kids, we thought if you raised them all with access to all kinds of toys, they wouldn't grow up to fit into a gender stereotype.

Wrong. LOL

One of the obvious examples was the day I saw my nephew "greet" his friend at the park by tackling him, while all the girls gathered in a circle to chat.

Margo said...

Amanda, what a cute story! Thanks for sharing it! Aloha

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hi, Margo, Hi, Shelli,

Thanks for hosting Margo, Shelli.

Great tips to consider when writing for boys, Margo. I know I try to keep my stories action packed to keep their attention.

Since I write for both I try to incorporate a subtle balance to attract both boys and girls. Not an easy thing to do, is it?

I can also definitely see why boys like reading the Hunger Games. There is so much action and tension, how could it not hold a boy's attention.

Have a great weekend ladies.

Margo said...

Hi, Michael -- thanks for your kind and astute comments. Yes, it's difficult to strike a balance, and you sound as if you are on the right track. Best wishes and aloha to you and your writing career!

Unknown said...

Excellent post Margo! I enjoyed reading about how girls need talk/boys need activity. If we need any proof of this we just need to sit with our husbands for a nice chat. Lol!
Congrats on all your writing successes.

Margo said...

Tesha, you're so right! That made me giggle, honestly. Thanks for your kind wishes! Aloha!

Unknown said...

I think the important thing, as you point out, is that you have a basis to ground your characters. Individual characters can always go against type, as people can do in real life. But if you have a firm basis in mind, even if it's not exactly the same as others, when you right you will create a more consistent and realistic character. And I think that's what resonates with readers, regardless of gender.

Margo said...

Well, said, Blair! Mahalo for joining in this discussion. Aloha!

Heather said...

Excellent insight! I'm taking notes.

Margo said...

Thanks, Heather. We writers are always learning in this business! Best wishes and aloha!

Suzanne said...

Some really interesting ideas here since I write mostly male protagonists for upper YA. My characters tend to be gay or bisexual though and I wonder if sexuality might change how boys interact. Maybe the question here shouldn't only be gender but also a matter of sexual identity. ?