Kill Is A Four Letter Wordby Hazel Edwards & Goldie Alexander
The Internet Writing Journal, October 2002
We didn't mean to kill him. After all, we are children's authors and death is something we prefer not to write about. But the alternatives were longer; murder, obliterate, exterminate, annihilate, cut off in midstream, remove, assassinate or even resuscitate.
All too long. We had a five thousand word limit and a limited vocabulary sheet of 500 words. We felt restricted, restrained, bound and confined until we gave birth to a manuscript by the dead line (two more 4 letter words). This book had to be aimed at a young adult readership for whom English was a second language. And the book had to keep their interest.
The real challenge was to keep ours.
We had previous experiences in co-authoring: a YA novel, play-scripts and non-fiction. Compared to this new project, they were easy. Independently we had written many books, but co-authoring this was a deliberate anti-boredom technique.
For the first time having a wide vocabulary was a liability. One of us would suggest an appropriately simple word like "deck" and find it wasn't on our list. We could use "kiss" or "sex" but not "hug". And given that our setting was a ship in the Antarctic, we couldn't use penguin, seals, deck, whales or icebergs. However we could use cold, animal, color and dead. Well, at least our villain was dead and well before our dead line. We made sure he deserved to die because he could be "rude", could criticize the "cook", but not the cooking, and was allowed to say "please" and "thank you" which he mostly refused to do.
We called our hero "Pat", a one syllable name, after discarding Patrice. His girlfriend was Kim for similar reasons. Our "baddie" was Jack, another monosyllabic name. The next challenge was the other occupations. Expeditioner was out. So was scientist, boffin and "tradie". How do you describe complex and sophisticated activities in one syllable? The chef became the cook. "Crew" was used for both the film crew and the ship crew as a way of covering the unspellable or the unpronounceable.
Jack was the film director with a limited range of action (even when he wasn't dead) and a tiny vocabulary. He did have a large ego but that three letter word was not on the list.
Hypothetically, our villain could be racist because he knew the difference between "white" and "yellow", unhappy because he could be "blue", envious because he could be "green", but not mildly left wing because he couldn't be "pink". However he could see "red", be "red" and he could "read".
Then came the challenge of a plot. How and where could we bump him off? It had to somewhere within the vocabulary limit. This required creative thinking.
Then we highlighted in yellow, probable words within the 500. Possible weapons included a banana, an apple, a bag, a beer can but not a bottle, a car... that seemed the best idea, but there aren't any cars in the Antarctic. However, there are vehicles such as Hag, Skidoo, Quad and Dozer. None of those on the list. And where to bump him off? We could use level, but not deck, room but not cabin and a bathroom but not a bar. Amazingly 'computer' was allowable, so email could be used.
So how did we resolve these problems?
Frankly, it was only the fact there were two of us which enabled the project to be finished. We "fooled around" and often in the joking found a way of saying things within the limits. Several times we nearly gave up, but then it became an intellectual challenge to work within the limits.
Maybe the process is similar to designing cryptic crosswords? You think of what you want to say and then make replacements. It was different from writing for young children where the secret is sensitive understatement and simple sentences with the occasional long but apt word. Playing with words to suggest a second but relevant meaning was denied to us here. Colloquial phrases were out. So were changes of tense. No flashbacks. Continuous narrative was required.
We had lots of coffee breaks!
Considering your reader is the first rule of effective writing. Who were our prospective readers? Frankly, by Day 2, our answer would have been "No one.!"
Then we re-considered. Using humor, we decided to make the process of learning English a little more enticing for prospective readers. It was like going on a diet and eating only within the word limits. (Diet is also a four letter word, but that's not on this list!) We assumed that our readers would also have a sense of humor and need some fun in their lives. So may be...
Even chapter headings had to contain only the list words. At this stage, fooling around was the only way to finish. Sick Soup for Chapter 2. Then the plot had to fit. Poison? With a banana? In the curry? A poison pen?
Banana? How could Jack die from this? Sex with a banana? An ice banana? Jack falls over board? Because of a banana? Did Jack slip on a banana? Or was he pushed? Was the -ed allowable?
The publishers wanted more description of Antarctica. In real life the ice is like meringue or pavlova. Neither is on the 500 word list. White cake sounds very tame. We settled for: Around the ship the ice looked like big rolls of white paper.
Then there was a problem with the word "Antarctica". We'd anticipated that. Luckily, expeditioners talk about The Big A or Sod's Lore or The A Factor when things go wrong. So Jack was shot by a camera. And now the writers expect a kill-fee (which is half fees when a commissioned project is rejected).
**Hazel Edwards is the award-winning author of over 100
children's books, including
There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof
Eating Cake (Hodder Headline UK),
Duty Free (Lothian) and Fake ID
(Lothian). A frequent public speaker, Edwards also
writes adult non-fiction, teacher educational material, junior
and adolescent fiction and scripts. Her work has
been translated into Finnish, Braille, Japanese and Chinese.
She lives in Australia.
Just in Case...You Visit the Children's Court created with Michael Salmon is a new venture into factual cartoon style books. In 2000, Hazel was the writer-in-residence in Antarctica at Australia's Casey Station. You can visit her website at hazeledwards.com.
**Award-winning children's writer Goldie Alexander
is the author of My Story: Surviving
Sydney Cove (Scholastic Australia),
Transported: the Diary of Elizabeth Harvey, Australia, 1790
the Dolly Fiction
YA novels, Mavis Road Medley, Tilly and Willy
Bilby, Astronet, 6788, Little Big School, Seawall,
Email Murder Mystery, and Cassi's Big Swim. She lives
in Melbourne, Australia.
Some of her favourite things to do are bush-walking, reading, roaming the Internet, watching movies and eating chocolate. You can visit her website at goldiealexander.com.