5 Tools to Survive as a Writer

“Don’t tell me what I want to hear. Tell me what is intolerable to bear alone that we must hide it in a story.” – Libba Bray

In all her guts, glory, humor, and wisdom the fabulous and charismatic Libba Bray spoke at the 2011 LA SCBWI Conference. During her keynote speech she shared the devastating story of writing a 560 page novel and having to throw it out and start over. If she wasn’t your hero before, she might be now. The following are her tips on how to write it all wrong and survive.

A little Backstory:

  • Libba wrote a 560 page novel all wrong…
  • It’s okay! Embrace the suck!
  • When she discovered the 560 page novel she wrote was all wrong she began to freak out and feared it wasn’t good enough.
  • She got a 12 page single spaced letter from her editor confirming that everything about it was wrong.
  • She did a 900 page revision of the book and only 100 pages of the original 560 were kept in that revision.
  • Find the real imbued with honesty, emotion, and truth. Her novel needed to be true to itself and it wasn’t.

 Libba Bray’s Five Tools to Survive as a Writer:

1) Gather Your Tools for Survival

  • “The voice is in there, we just had to find the right tools to find it.”
  • Your book is in there!
  • Use playlists to help you find it.
  • Go to your local café to find a comfort zone.
  • Do you have a reward system? Find yours.

2) Avoid the Quicksand

  • Beware of your irrational fear telling you “no one wants to read this book.” Or “what if my ex-boyfriend read this and realizes he’s the base for the asshole in my story?”
  • Breathe deeply!
  • That thing you are writing is AWESOME! (That message was on a postcard that Holly Black sent out to her writing friends).
  • Be your own thing and not a trend.
  • You are safe in the writing cave. No voices are allowed in the cave (the negative voices telling you you’re not good enough).
  • Readers are not trends, they want a well written story told from your soul.

3) Perfect Wants to Vote You Off the Island

  • Perfect wants to vote you off the island, but better wants to make an alliance.
  • Lower your standards!
  • Realize that you can’t make a book that is perfect. Perfect = Failure.
  • You just have to make it better.
  • Do it in small steps. Make that little bit of dialog better, or change that metaphor.

4) Explore the Whole Island

  • Sometimes you need a change of format.
  • Change the POV, format, tense, etc.
  • Form is function – this is what the architects tell us.

5) In Case of Emergency – Break Glass!

  • Writing is freakin’ scary!
  • Writing is vulnerable. It’s intimacy with a reader, and the possibility of failure and rejection.
  • We often write it wrong, because we think that’s what others want and we are afraid to show who we really are.
  • All writing holds our DNA, our bones and blood – a part of ourselves.
  • We are evasive and inarticulate when talking about projects that are emotionally autobiographical.
  • “Don’t tell me what I want to hear. Tell me what is intolerable to bear alone that we must hide it in a story.”
  • Find the part that hurts. The story you needed to tell.
  • Like us, stories have an adolescence that is awkward and gawky and pimply. It needs time to grow.

Other Great Advice from Libba Bray:

Libba Bray is the author books for Young Adults, including Going Bovine and the Gemma Doyle Series: A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, and The Sweet Far Thing. In 2010 she was awarded the Michael L. Printz award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.

Fourteen Fabulous and Fun Take-Aways from SCBWI’s 40th Conference!

I’m back from the island of misfit toys (aka: the 40th SCBWI LA Conference!) where kidlit authors and illustrators gathered to learn, dance, and dream. I’ve got a  notebook filled cover to cover with scribbles as I attempted to jot down the wisdom of kidlit giants like Judy Blume, Gary Paulson, Laurie Halse Anderson, Jon Scieszka, and Bruce Coville (only to mention a few)! Yup, SCBWI doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to turning 40!

As I’m furiously typing up my notes here’s a few quick take-away’s to give you a glimpse of this weekends wonders:

1. Children’s book writing is about responsibility and engagement, said author Bruce Coville in his opening keynote address. He went on to quote the Broadway play Into the Woods in saying “move a finger, say the slightest word, something’s bound to linger, be heard. No one is alone.” Write with purpose and heart.

2. “Writing holds our DNA, our bones, our blood. It is a part of ourselves. When writing, don’t write what you think we want to hear. Tell us what is so intolerable to bear alone that it must be a story!” – Author Libba Bray

3. “Social Media only works when it is genuine to who you are. Don’t force yourself to blog and tweet.” – Editor Julie Strauss-Gabel

4. “24 hours a day is MORE than enough time to meet the demands in your life! You have more control over how you spend your precious time and energy than you want to admit.” – Author Laurie Halse Anderson

5. “Life is a shit-storm. When it begins to rain the only umbrella we have is art.” – Quoted by illustrator David Small

6. It took Judy Blume (yes, the amazing Judy Blume) twenty-three drafts and three years to finish her novel Summer Sisters.

7. Libba Bray suggests that whenever you get stuck with your writing that you always go back to this one central question: What does my character want? Start there, dig deep!

8. Agent Marcia Wernick suggests you treat writing like a business. Create a business plan of goals for your writing. Make good goals like: Deliver a new book in six months, get 300 new Facebook friends this month, or make contact with your local newspaper. Be realistic and stick to it. Give yourself annual, bi-annual, and monthly reviews.

9. In our media-saturated society it’s important to teach kids media literacy. This is exactly what author Jon Scieszka is trying to do with his Spaceheads series. The objective is to get kids to access, analyze, evaluate and create media in a variety of forms in order to be media literate.

10. “The number one element I see missing in manuscripts today is not enough interior monologue.” – Editor Krista Marino

11. “Art disturbs the Universe! We are here to continue the revolution and make it grow.” – Author Laurie Halse Anderson

12. “We need to speak to the head and the heart of the child. Just because a child can read Dostoevsky – read the words – doesn’t mean they understand it. We need to be sure the emotional needs of the child are nurtured.” – Editor Beverly Horowitz

13. When illustrating every visual element needs to feel essential to the telling of the story. It’s a portrait of rain and a portrait of lightening. – Illustrator Jerry Pinkney

14. Jump! Risk when you are writing!  You may crash and fall or you may grow wings. No jump. No wings. – Bruce Coville

Nuts and Bolts and Chocolate

Picture book author Tony Johnston has over 125 books for children in her repertoire! She was kind enough to speak at the 2011 Southern California SCBWI Writer’s Day and share her immense knowledge and insight. This was one of the most heartfelt talks I’ve ever been too. Johnston is passionate and moved by her responsibility as a writer.

The following notes were taken during her talk:

"Giant" by N.C.Wyeth

Where Do You Find Inspiration?

  • “Keep alive to everything.” – N. C. Wyeth
  • Bumble through life at the ready.
  • “If I keep alive to everything, a story will find me.” –Tony Johnston
  • “I have not exhausted the ground I stand on.” – N. C. Wyeth (on why he doesn’t need to paint the alps. There is plenty to see and explore where he lives.)
  • Notice things more and more. Inspiration doesn’t always come from an emotional core.
  • The LA Times is a great place to find stories.

 Let the Feelings Catch You:

  • “Be caught by feelings.”
  • “Words from the heart, enter the heart.” (Saying in the Torah ??)
  • Sentimentality is the cheapest lie.
  • You don’t have to include significance and meaning to have a heartfelt moment in your book.
  • Make ‘em laugh, but do it honestly.
  • Heartfelt silliness is also an emotion.
  • When writing about difficult subjects (like racism) remember that children don’t flinch. It is the grownups that flinch.

On Writing Picture Books:

  • Keep it simple.
  • “How difficult it is to be simple.” – Vincent Van Gogh
  • Writing simply does not mean words must be short and easy. It should be the words that belong.
  • “The difference between the right word and almost the right word can be the difference between the lightning and a lightning bug.” – Mark Twain
  • Don’t slip into Cinderella’s Syndrome. Don’t try to fit a story into something that doesn’t fit. The glass shoe is the shape/structure of your story, if you try to force it, it will break.” Johnston’s example of this was a picture book that was really a novel, but she didn’t realize it till an editor pointed it out to her.
  • Find the right form for your story.
  • Listen to your editor.
  • Don’t sentimentalize or trivialize.
  • The process for every book is different.

The Essence of Childhood:

  • Great picture books deal with the essence of childhood. Essence is the spirit, the pith, the heart of a story.
  • The language of essences is clean, like an arrow, straightforward.
  • “To the memory nothing is ever truly lost.” –Eudora Welty
  • You must get back to the place where it hurts.
  • “No tears in the writer. No tears in the reader.” –Robert Frost

Be Bold When You Write:

  • Don’t play it safe. Writing is about risk taking!
  • Writing is about sharing yourself.
  • “Don’t hold anything back. Don’t hold anything for the next one (book). It’s the only way to write. It’s the only way to live.” – ?

 Other Thoughts and Wisdom:

  • Any small goodness is of value.
  • We need to take time to halt our lives, become introspective, and focus on what is important to us.
  • “It is in the early morning that I think about what I believe and want to say.”
  • How do you write a novel? Hemingway’s answer: “First I clean the Fridge.” (He’s finding space to think).
  • Johnston is a bit superstitious. She believes it is “spiritually healthy” to let her manuscript to “rub elbows” with other great books. Before she submits a manuscript she puts it on her shelf between other great books and lets the essence rub off onto her work.
  • If you are in the middle of a cocktail party and inspiration strikes, politely say “I’m writing a novel, I’ll be right with you in a moment.” Then go and get out what you need to. “It is about the writing, not the cocktail party.”

Tony Johnston has written around 125 books for children. She studied under the renowned poet, Myra Cohn Livingston, and has taught creative writing at UCLA. Her awards include Honorary Texan for The Cowboy and the Black-Eyed Pea, Simon Wiesenthal Award for The Wagon, and the John and Patricia Beatty Award for Any Small Goodness.

Writing for Kids: A Three-Quarter Life’s Work

Author Gordon Korman has been in the children’s book industry since he was a teenager, and has over seventy novels and books under his belt! With such a long prolific career, he is an asset to all of us looking to break into this industry. The following notes were taken from his 2010 SCBWI LA Conference keynote speech.

“I’d like to dedicate this speech to Paula Danziger. She always cared about the new guy. She wanted every writer to enjoy the view she had.” – Korman

Korman’s Take on His Audience:

  • “Not bad, pretty good,” is the best compliment you can get from an 8th grader. Korman sees his audience like little New Yorkers. They’ve seen everything.
  • Kids are more subtle than you think they are. The stuff we adults think is important goes over their heads. But they notice other things.
  • Kids are not an exotic sub-species. You are just an older kid. You need to have a sense of what’s cool to a kid, and honestly it’s not that different. Rick Riordan has a great sense of what kids will think is cool.

It’s a Hard Life Writing Humor…

  • Humor doesn’t get a lot of respect in most careers/businesses (movies, TV, books).
  • Aristotle jinxed us 2000 years ago when he said “Comedy is Lower” (the lower form of storytelling).
  • But Korman doesn’t agree. What do you use more in your day to day life? Your sense of humor or your ability to use foreshadowing? What do we teach?

Funny Bits and Anecdotes:

  • No more dead dogs in stories! We’ve had enough! (Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, White Fang, etc.)
  • The title of my book Liar Liar Pants on Fire does not translate into French. In French it translates to “Teller of truths your trousers have combusted.”

How Korman Got His Start In Publishing:

  • Korman wrote his first book at age 12. He later sent it off to Scholastic using the info he found in the book fair brochure. Amazingly enough a fork lift operator found it and gave it to the “higher ups” and the rest is history.
  • Korman suggests we all find a fork lift operator with an eye for new talent and get our work out there!
  • We all have some story of luck that helped us to get published, but what’s more important than luck is the stubbornness and the persistence.

Writing Tips:

  • You will have to let go of some stories because they just don’t make sense.
  • Lighten up. Inject humor into tragic situations. Korman used his book Pop as an example.
  • Good relationships with editors will bring you to the right place at the right time.
  • Picture a bored, disaffected, 11-year-old saying “I don’t care about this,” to you when you are writing.  It will keep you on your toes. Remember, what will kids think is cool?

In The End…

  • It is not an easy ride for any of us. None of us have a seamless journey. We all try a lot of different things. Work like you are using spaghetti – throw it against the wall and see what will stick!

Gordan Korman is the author of seventy novels for kids and young adults, and most recently Pop,  Zoobreak, and The Emperor’s Code. His writing career began at the age of twelve when his seventh grade English assignment became his first published novel. Now, more than three decades later, he is a full-time writer and speaker, with over eighteen million copies of his novels in print in twenty three languages.

A Tender Bridge

Quotes and Advice from Ashley Bryan:

  • “If you put art into the world, you will get beauty in return.”
  • If I can conjure up the joy of the voice of the book, then the child will want to read. Kids don’t want to be put on the spot. A kid can work with you if you give them time.
  • I hold the book as I speak the words so the kids know where the words come from.
  • I rejoice in the spirit of the oral tradition.
  • Kids need to know how the words will speak through them. This is different for everyone. Work cooperatively, and allow the child to ask you how to pronounce something. This will give them confidence when they perform a poem.
  • Poetry infuses fiction and non-fiction.
  • I hope that in the reading of the book you can hear the original storyteller.

Books and Poems Recited by Bryan:

  • There were many poems presented. These two I jotted down.
  • Black Bird (Folk tale picture book)
  • Nicki Giovanni’s “Why I like Chocolate.”

Ashley Bryan’s numerous awards and honors include the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration, six Coretta Scott King Honors, the Arbuthnot Prize, a Fulbright Scholarship, and several honorary doctorates. He illustrated The Story of the Three Kingdoms, The Sun is So Quiet, Ho God Fix Jonah, and many others. He retold and illustrated many books of African folktales and six books of African American Spirituals. Mr. Bryan studied at The Cooper Union in New York and earned a degree of philosophy from Columbia University. He lives in Islesford, Maine.

Writing Novels for Today’s Kids

Newberry Honor winning author Gennifer Choldenko spoke at the LA SCBWI 2010 annual conference. The following notes were taken during her keynote speech on how to write novels for today’s kids.

Are Today’s Kids Different Than When We Were Kids?

  • Do kids grow up faster now that when we were kids? True? Each child and age group has a huge range of behaviors.
  • Kids are more outwardly sophisticated today than we were as kids. But on the inside they are the same.
  • It’s hard work growing up.

Why Was A Wrinkle In Time So Successful?

  • Great characters.
  • Original Story.
  • No Fat.
  • It’s not the Newbery that makes the book still resonate with kids today.
  • Another book that still has resonance today is The Little Princess. And it’s over 100 years old!

We Need More Multi-Cultural Authors!

  • Kids need to see voices that reflect their circumstances in life.

How to Get Boy Readers…

  • Ask yourself if you can compete with Xbox. Video games are getting more complex rather than shorter, they also have more action.
  • We need books that reflect the emotional reality of boy’s lives.
  • Kids don’t start reading at age 14. Publishers don’t only want YA. They need readers early so they will grow into YA. Think through what you hear.
  • Human beings need stories!

How Publishing and Media is Evolving…

  • The delivery systems (for books) are expanding!
  • The industry is not getting easier to break into, but there are now more doors/ways for books to be published.

On Writing For Kids…

  • “Write up for kids, not down.” – E.B. White
  • Childhood is a lot harder than it looks. Dig deep.

Craft and The Writing Process…

  • What you experience while you are writing is what we (the reader) will experience when reading.
  • Don’t trick-out your protagonist and no one else. Be sure everyone is three-dimensional.
  • Pay attention to how people walk, talk, etc. Be a notorious eves dropper.
  • Every detail must work within the context of the world you have created.
  • If you’re not totally engaged in your work, then something is wrong.
  • No set-up scenes! Each scene must be gratifying within itself.
  • If every risk you take pans out, then you may not really be risking much.
  • Push your protagonist. Readers like to see a protagonist do something they (the reader) would never do.
  • Put your characters in the lion’s cage and see who they really are.
  • Skill matters! Varying levels of practice is more important than talent. It’s about the time!

Clever Quotes and Anecdotes…

  • “Once you have your first draft, re-read to see what you have been avoiding.” – Her editor
  • “The idea for my next novel is contained in the scribble my subconscious hands me.” – Choldenko
  • “Next time fail better.” -?
  • “You need to feel your way through a novel, not think your way.” – Mailer (?)
  • “Throw your heart over, and follow.”  -?

Take Care of Your Writer Self…

  • Keep the caffeine flowing (or not.)
  • Stay away from toxic people (who want to tear you down).
  • Make yourself the time to read and write!

Set Small Goals…

  • BIC = Butt in Chair
  • Try to make a page count or word count for the day!
  • Beware of quantity over quality.

And a Few Other Words of Wisdom…

  • Critique groups are not for everyone.
  • Don’t let promotion overshadow your work.
  • Make sure you have a book worth marketing.
  • Know when to hold on and when to let go. Follow your guy. It’s a visceral decision.
  • Rejection happens. Get used to it.
  • No one can teach you to write. You have to teach yourself. It’s done through writing!

Gennifer Choldenko’s novel Al Capone Does My Shirts was a Newbery Honor Book and a a School Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year. Other books by Choldenko include: Notes from a Liar and Her Dog, If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period, and No Passengers Beyond this Point.

Surviving the Novel

Author Paul Fleishman spoke at the 2010 LA SCBWI conference about the daunting task of writing a novel. He advises that the best thing to do is to stay organized! The following notes are his tips on how to keep the task in check.

Long Form Writing…The Novel!

  • If you’ve only been writing short form then the novel can be daunting. It may look like the Himalayas off in the distance. Insurmountable.
  • Make sure a longer book is what you are looking at before you begin. A novel will be multi-characters, complications, strong tone.
  • The span (time covered in the book) is not important. It is the level of detail that will denote length.
  • Longer form = longer hours.
  • Long doesn’t mean you waste time in the book. Every word and scene must count.
  • The years pile up.
  • The novel writer is part of a community that stretches past the globe and time.

Organization and Keeping from Feeling Overwhelmed:

  • Be sure to have separate documents for your drafts and story development elements.
  • Devon-Think is a great program to help you keep organized.
  • I like to separate my documents into the following categories:

a)      Manuscript

b)      Working out (For experimentation or figuring out decisions in story/plot) This is thinking on the page.

c)       Outline (An outline is a great wall that will hold back the barbarians of chaos! An outline is where you mentally walk through your book and ask the big question. This will help you from hitting the wall.)

d)      Improvise (Ride the wave, though having a surf board is nice too).

e)      Research

f)       Unused Lines

g)      Back Matter (Lists of names, reminders, acknowledgements, possible scenes, character forms, titles, etc.)

  • Keep bookmarks (online and in books). They will be handy later.
  • Save your different versions of your book. Email them to yourself so you have a back up.

Things to Keep in Check as You Go Along…

  • Look for continuity in your book. Is your character still wearing the same red dress many days later?
  • Watch out for repetitive words. You don’t want verbal ticks.

When You Revise…

  • When revising make notes on what you did so you can find those sections in previous drafts.
  • Do a read-through without fixing things. Highlight as you go.
  • Do open heart surgery on your book. It happens. There’s no way around it but through.

When Researching…

  • If using the internet, copy and paste the text into a word file and change everything to the same font. It will be easier on the eyes.  
  • The highlighting button is great when doing research. It makes things easy to find.  
  • Listen to Pod Casts and take notes.
  • “Research should be like a slip. It should be there but never show.” – Sonja Something

Quotes and Anecdotes:

  • “Every book I write teaches me how to write IT. But not the next one.” – Fleishman
  • To me, a vacation is whether or not I have a book project. It’s a mental vacation. The book stays with you no matter where you go. It’s in your head.
  • There’s a great article about writer’s block in the October 2nd 2000 issue of the New Yorker called “The Novel and the Nun.”
  • Check out Anne Lammot’s book on writing Bird by Bird. Particularly the chapter KFKD.

Paul Fleishman won the Newbery Metal for Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices. Other books include: Seek, Whirligig, Zap, Minds Eye, Breakout, and The Boring Room.

For Richer or Poorer: Writing Through the Good and Bad Times

Young adult author Carolyn Mackler spoke at the 2010 SCBWI LA Conference. In her keynote presentation, she addressed the struggles of living a literary life, and that even when you’ve made it (been published, won awards), you still face new challenges in your career. Despite the breakdowns, one must press on and persevere! The following notes were taken turning her speech:

A Few Thoughts About the Writing Life …

  • Mackler doesn’t feel much connection between her writing success and her home life. There is a disconnect between the two.
  • Mackler always felt like she was not supposed to stand out. If one stands out then they can get shot down.
  • Mackler cannot purge the adolescent voice in her head.
  • Be proud of what you wish for.
  • Be proud of making a commitment to your writing life. Pledge to stick with it when broke, stuck, or insecure.

A Little About Carolyn Mackler’s Journey to Publication…

  • She worked for MS. Magazine and had the honor to work with Gloria Steinem.
  • She did screenplay research for Mike Nichols.
  • Her book Love and Other Four Letter Words sold when she was 25 years old.
  • Her agent Jodi Reamer was an assistant agent when she contacted Carolyn Mackler.

Staying Published has Been a Rocky Road…

  • The path to stay here (to stay published) can be rocky.
  • After Mackler wrote her Printz honor book The Earth My Butt and Other Big Round Things, the words dried up. It was a “mind-screw.” She started to second guess herself.  She would ask herself: “Is this what a printz honor book writer would write?”
  • After the birth of her first child she felt as if she couldn’t do this (writing). She felt like she was done. However, a good friend said to her  “Maybe you can’t have a baby and write a book, but maybe you can have a 2 or 3 year-old and write a book.” This helped her to get through.

On Having a Banned Book…

  • Mackler’s book The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things was banned after it came out and 350 students signed a petition to support her. This story got the attention of the Baltimore Sun. The school got letters from the public and the superintendent of the school that wanted her book banned, got fired.
  • The reason books get banned, but movies can do almost anything is because the novel (in Mackler’s opinion) is more powerful than a movie. The reader is part of the creation of the story because they must imagine and envision it. There is creation in the act of reading.
  • “Your book is intellectual anthrax” – quote from a play by Adam Rote Rapp about a YA book author who’s books are banned.
  • “It’s the books that will never be written, books that will never be read that concerns me.” – Judy Blume on censorship and book banning.

Look to The Future and Be Flexible…

  • It’s important to be flexible, Mackler advises.  You may need to shift gears, scrap manuscripts and go in a new direction.
  • Mackler has felt a lot of pressure due to the trends in YA literature these days. She’s tried a new creative twist in her next book, which is grounded in reality but is not fully contemporary realistic fiction like her previous books.
  • She’s in it for the long haul, and this is some of the tricky stuff you have to deal with. Even as a published author there are difficult decisions to be made.
  • The writing life is always an ebb and flow.

Carolyn Mackler is the author of the popular teen novels, The Earth My Butt and Other Big Round Things (A Printz Honor book), Tangled, Guyaholic, Vegan Virgin Valentine, and Love and Other Four-Letter Words. Carolyn has contributed to magazines including Seventeen, Glamour, CosmoGIRL!, Girls’ Life, Storyworks, and American Girl. In 2008, Carolyn was a judge for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. She lives in New York City with her husband and two young sons. Visit her online at www.carolynmackler.com.

The Shape of Our Stories

“I see stories as a three-point projectory with you as the wild card.” Author Marion Dane Bauer began her keynote speech at the 2010 SCBWI LA conference with this statement. Her powerful speech was given with such honesty and power I was nearly brought to tears. The following notes were taken during her session:

The Three Point Projectory…

  • One: All books begin with desire. I don’t know how the story will end, but I know what it will feel like when I get there.
  • Two: The story strives for a climax.
  • Three: We read to reach an emotional resolution. Your book’s resolution will hold its theme.

Where Do Stories Begin?

  • In our hearts.
  • Stories are about struggle. They begin with neurosis, anger, fear, unfulfilled longing, etc.
  • I write for my own pity and fear.

A Common Theme in My Writing…

  • The first three novels I wrote have a common frame – losing a parent figure.
  • The common theme wasn’t intentional. I didn’t see that I was doing it. But when someone pointed it out to me my first reaction was sheer panic! I am writing the same story over and over again! But then I remembered that Hemingway repeated some themes too, and I felt better.
  • Don’t think about the pattern. It simply happens. I feel my way into it.

Arguing with Your Editor…

  • I told my editor what needed to stay for the book to still be my story, and she told me what needed to change for her to publish it.
  • Concept is not a story.

Answering Your Deepest Questions…

  • Desire has to rise up through you in order for it to work for you.
  • The feeling response to “said” issue, you must let that move through you with each story. This is what feeds you as a writer. This is what will answer your deepest questions.
  • If what pulls you (writer) forward is what will cause you to want to write your story.
  • The emotional resolution is your truth. This is not something you can teach. This is something that you must feel and explore many more times.
  • Discover your stories, and in the discovery find your own personal truth.

Marion Dane Bauer has been publishing since 1976 and is the author of more than seventy books. She has written novels, easy readers, both fiction and nonfiction, picture books and novelty books. She has won numerous awards including the ALA Newbery Honor. She recently retired from the faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program and was the young adult faculty chair.

The End of All Our Exploring: The Journey of Narrative

M.T. Anderson’s books ask you to question your reality. They demand you take nothing for granted, and they show you a new perspective of the world you thought you once knew. His keynote address at the 2010 SCBWI LA Conference was just as powerful in turning the world of writing on its head.  “This keynote,” Anderson began, “will address writing, travel, leaving home, and returning again.” The following notes share the journey of narrative through the unique eyes of M.T. Anderson:

Real Life Adventure Vs. Reading About Adventure…

  • When reading about adventure, Anderson, was not thrilled with the specific moments of adventure, but the vastness of the landscapes that were presented in the story.
  • Anderson spent some time traveling but it did not sit well with him due to lack of knowledge of foreign language, and a finicky appetite wherein the lack of protein in his diet turned him into a rabid crazy person.  “There’s got to be a way to experience exotic adventure and still be able to have cookie crunch readily available!”
  • “Canada is America’s France.” (Funny anecdote).
  • The answer of course is reading and books! Books take you to faraway places.

We Long for Exotic Lands…

  • Do we Americans embrace the landscape of fantasy? We are immersed in the same rotation of Home Depot after Home Depot, Walmart after Walmart. We long for new kingdoms!
  • Anderson encourages you to check out his online interactive map about the state of Delaware. This Delaware may not resemble the one you know, for it is the one featured in his book Jasper Dash and the Flame Pits of Delaware. Anderson created this interactive map in addition to his books as a way to explore landscape and the world without exploring character. This was a creative way to expand upon the world, and hey, he had fun making it! This wasn’t a marketing stunt, but a way in which to spend time in his exotic land.
  • The Conan books are initially based out of Texas (where the author is from). Take what you know and let it be a basis to inspire your worlds.

Travel as Metaphor…

  • There is something metaphorical about travel in books. They take us away from home so that we can see home. We can only view our home from far away. We must be up high upon the hill looking back for it to actually be viewed.
  • Travel is about understanding the past. Through exploring the geography of a place we learn about the history of that place, and thus ourselves. We discover a new landscape.
  • Good examples of books that explore the landscape and result in self discovery are: Holes, The Arrival, and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.

Estrangement Helps Us to See the World in a New Way…

  • The definition of literature is that seeing something through estrangement forces us to see the world in a new way.
  • There is so much that we take for granted when we look at our world or think of our homes.
  • Literature restores a sense of the unknown to what we already know.
  • Put any object in front of us and we know what it is, but we do not see it anymore. Art is meant to show us what we do not or no longer see.
  • We perceive things, but not as they are.
  • Literary books are ones that work through estrangement.

Examples of How to Estrange the Reader…

  • The use of a striking image or striking language can show you things in a new way. The language will break you out of a trance so you see something anew.
  • Sean Beaudoin’s book You Killed Wesley Pane creates a new language out of modern slang and 1940’s noir. There is an active language throughout the book. Examples include calling the police terms like “The Snout” (aka: pigs) and the police station “The Snout House.” Or the use of the phrase “Rust apple rust” in describing the color of a car, which is more poignant than simply writing a red car. These demand attention.
  • The Monster Blood Tattoo books are a good example of fantasy and plenitude and language. The world created has its own linguistic history. There is an ancient quality to the language, and it has a life of its own. Example: Sailors are called “Vinegar-oons”. This juxtaposes the familiar and the unfamiliar. The use of the ending “-oons” is familiar, while the term “vinegar” references the fact that the sea is so salty it has turned acidic. By grounding the nickname in the mythology of the world it becomes more powerful.
  • If writing horror, use Freud’s theory of the unheimlich. The idea is that the root of all that is terrifying is something that is also the most familiar. Only you take that familiar thing and turn it on its head. Change it ever so slightly. Neil Gaiman’s Coraline is a great example of this. The little girl goes into her home where everything is familiar; it’s her house, her room, her parents. But the horror comes when her parent’s eyes have been replaced with buttons. The domestic turned alien now becomes horrifying and scary.

Use the Internet to Expand Your Work…

  • There is artistic pleasure in creating things on the internet. Be open and embrace the new media. There is new expression in using the internet. It can expand your world in a new way, give it new breadth and depth. It doesn’t have to be about marketing. It can be about your story.
  • Again, check out M.T. Anderson’s Delaware Map.

In Closing…

  • Remember, if complex or simple, it is the books that take us away from what we are expecting that show us something new.
  • Press yourself to stay away from the cliché.
  • Take the hand of those looking to see the door and present it to them. Open the door for them. Show them the world.
  • Push your language!

The State Song of Delaware…

  • And in true closing, M.T. Anderson serenaded the crowd with his state song of Delaware. Check out some quick snippets, and see for yourself - M.T. Anderson Singing.

M.T. Anderson has written stories for adults, picture books for children, adventure novels for young readers, and several books for older readers (both teens and adults). His satirical book Feed was a finalist for the National Book Award and was the winner of the L.A. Times Book Prize. His first volume of his Octavio Nothing saga won the National Book Award and the Boston Globe/ Horn Book Prize. Both the first and second volumes of the two-part series were Printz Honor Books.