This is the fourth and final installment in my series of interviews on the craft of writing poetry. Today Alan Shue, author of the hilarious Bug Rhymes Stories series of children’s books, talks to us about his approach to the craft.
Writing for children is a bit different than for older readers, and Alan kindly explains why.
CJJ: When did you begin to write poetry?
AS: I began to write poetry in small amounts during the 1960s and 70s, mainly in the form of song writing (little of which I can find now). In the 80s I started writing poems mainly for Christmas, family birthdays and other events to send out with cards and found I really enjoyed it. After a while I branched out into writing just for fun, playing with alliteration and various rhyming patterns and broadening my mix of topics to include humorous, romantic, and more serious themes. When I retired in 2008 I also started writing rhyming stories for children.
CJJ: Your published work is primarily children’s books. When did you realize this was your calling as an author? Have you written in other genres?
AS: I’m not sure I’ve had a calling as an author per se – I more or less stumbled into writing children’s books. When I reached retirement I knew I wanted to spend more of my newfound free time writing poetry and maybe also take a shot at writing short stories or novels. One warm summer day in 2008 I lay on my back in a grassy area in a park, looked up into a clear blue sky, and casually thought about what kind of writing I’d like to do. Within moments a few rhyming lines and silly plot ideas about fleas and other bugs popped into my mind. They felt fun and funny enough that I decided to give rhyming children’s stories a try, to see if I could create something I liked. That impulse turned into a series I call Bug Rhymes stories.
I have tried a few other genres. In the poetry realm I have written lyrics for a set of “New Age” compositions whose melodies I loved so much I felt compelled to put words to them. In the past five years I have also tried my hand at adult prose in the form of a short story (more like a novelette) and a fiction novel currently in progress. I find writing prose for an adult audience to be far more difficult than writing goofy rhymes for kids.
AS: I like the creative process of trying to communicate ideas and stories via rhyme. I enjoy the challenge of finding unusual and clever rhymes, giving rhythm to poetic verse, and employing alliteration to make lines and quatrains “roll off the tongue” (although admittedly I sometimes create tongue twisters). I’m a member of a local writing group and like the learning process involved in receiving critiques of my work and making improvements to it. It also has been a pleasure to visit elementary schools to read my books aloud and talk to students about writing. My greatest enjoyment comes when I receive feedback from kids and adults who have had a good laugh or a nice feeling from my ditties and stories.
CJJ: What do you find easiest about writing for children, and conversely, what is most difficult?
AS: My children’s stories tend to “anthropomorphize” bugs, i.e. they put bugs into situations faced by humans. I think having bugs as characters allows me the freedom to make the stories as humorous or dramatic as I want while still appealing to a child’s sense of fun and fantasy. I can create my own culture and world, e.g. a pair of bedbug bicycle cops on the trail of a bedbug bed burglar.
My greatest difficulty is keeping my children’s stories as short as most publishers recommend. Many children’s books are just a few hundred words long. My stories sometimes creep up to around a thousand, plus or minus, which can exceed the attention span of some who are in my target 3 to 9 year age range.
AS: My books are all self-published, which is far easier to do now than it was in 2008, so I would suggest considering that approach as it is far quicker and easier than acquiring an agent or publisher. By all means join a good critique group where you can get constructive criticism from other authors. I was not academically trained as a writer and listening to other writers has resulted in far better finished work from me. Read as many children’s books as you can to see what is getting published, what the market is looking for, and what your niche could be. Think about your goals. My niche has been the adventures of bugs scorned or overlooked by most other children’s book writers (e.g. fleas, mosquitoes, bedbugs, gnats, etc., no butterflies) and my goal has been to write stories kids and adults will enjoy, not necessarily to achieve commercial success.
CJJ: Finally, what are you currently working on?
AS: I’m about 35,000 words into my first full length novel. I’ve discovered that it takes far more research and skill for this type of writing – to make it realistic and keep adults engaged – than for fantasy-based rhyming stories for children. Additionally, I have several more finished Bug Rhymes stories that need illustration to become books. Kudos to my wife Linda (creative director and colorist) and my illustrator Elisa Wilson for the three Bug Rhymes books completed so far. I’ve found my participation in the illustration process immensely interesting and rewarding, but expensive, so am not sure what the future holds for additional books. I am also still writing poetry as new ideas, events and holidays stimulate.
Thank you for allowing me to prevail upon you, Alan.
I highly recommend Alan’s books for the fun rhymes, the overall stories, and the wonderful, detailed art.
My 7-yr-old grandson, Byron, loves “Grant the Ant.” We had a long discussion on the phone about the redemption of Zeater and what a great ending the book has. After all, in Byron’s mind, the best stories have fun words, a lot of action, and a certain amount of “ew!”
Also, Byron thinks I should add a glossary at the end of my books as he liked the one at the end of “Grant the Ant.” I’ve always listened to marketing advice from my grandsons, as they are rarely wrong.
This series of interviews with working poets/novelists has been fun. I’m always interested in how other authors work. In case you missed them, here are the links to the three previous interviews:
Writing poems doesn’t stop us from writing novels, or vice versa. We can give ourselves permission to approach the craft of writing in whatever way makes us happy.
Beginning Monday, I’ll continue the series on poetry and short fiction with Drabbles (100 word stories).
About Alan Shue:
Raised in Las Vegas, Alan moved to the Pacific Northwest to attend Oregon State University and then made Olympia, WA his home. As a published author Alan has a not-so-secret love for the written word and rhymes in particular. In addition to writing children’s stories, over the years he has written a great deal of poetry for family, holidays, and just fun.
As a contrast, during his career Alan wrote thousands of pages of information systems analysis and technical design. So, a little right brain here … a little left brain there … add in some bugs, rhymes, goofiness and imagination, and you have the origins of his Bug Rhymes Books series.
Alan lives with his wife of 50+ years, Linda, who has been instrumental in the illustration of his books. His published works so far include: Chee the Flea, Tweeter and Jeeter, and Grant the Ant. Alan is coordinator for the 150+ member Olympia Writers Group.
To find out more about Alan’s books visit his web site: http://bugrhymesbooks.com/