Libba Bray’s Ten Insights for Writing

“What I want to talk about is the ways in which we open ourselves up to the process. Writing is a discovery to develop and reach new places with our work.” Young adult author, Libba Bray, began her presentation at the 2010 SCBWI Southern California Writer’s Day with the above call to arms. She followed with these ten insights to push your work to new heights.

1. Some Days Your Writing Will Suck! This is normal. Do you have a perfect hair day, every day? No! The work will get better! Trust it. The work will surprise you with the answer. No one ever died from a day of bad writing!

2. Name Your Inner Critic. We all have an inner critic who sits over our shoulder and makes comments like “Wow, that is suck-tastic.” “Derivitive.” “You’re a fraud!” Name your inner critic. This way you can tell them to leave the room! You don’t need them in the room. You need that freedom, particularly when you are working on your first draft. They will trip you up keep you from getting the work out. So let the mad man go (inner critic), and then later invite them back in when you are ready to edit.

3. Writing Should Scare You. If what you are writing doesn’t scare you, even a little bit, then there are no stakes. This means you haven’t pushed far enough. This means you are too comfortable and you aren’t pushing your own limits.

4. Read! Yes, you must read! Make the time! It is a pleasureable part of your job. Read everything. Make your synapses go nuts! Let your brain get excited and start making connections. It will influence your work. Author Linda Sue Park once said that “you must read one thousand books before you can write your first word.” So get reading! (Libba Bray admit’s that she is still catching up.) Read! Know what is possible.

5. Don’t Write Cheerios. Don’t be lazy. When ever Bray is too tired (or lazy) to make dinner she will eat a bowl of Cheerios. Yet a half hour after she’s eaten it she feels unsatisfied. “Did I eat?” She asks herself. Don’t write fiction that is soggy and forgettable!

Stories are about people, and real human experiences. Characters and their relationships are what matters. Develop and understand your characters and create and an emotional connection. “Plot is the footprints left in the snow after your characters have run through.” – Ray Bradbury. There is no fake altruism. There is nothing that is un-earned.

“Good” is a reletive term. Characters, like real people have flaws and problems. Beware of trying to create “good” people/characters. Beware of protecting yourself, by protecting your characters. Take off the armor! You do your characters a disservice if you try to make them “good”. They will become flat. Root around in the murky places to find your characters.

The personal is universal. The more specific you are, the more you let the audience in. Don’t always go for the joke – show the vulnerability, and give it room to breathe.

6. Remember. You are not writing for today’s teens.You are writing for your inner teen. Remember the emotional language of being ten, thirteen, and sixteen. Remember who you were then? Remember what it feels like to be foreign in your own body, longing for a meaningful kiss, that electric moment that could change your life forever. It might happen now, or in five minutes, or in five days. Things are immediate. Remember how you created nicknames for your friends. Remember the fashion statements you made, or using your fake ID, or driving away from home just to see how far away you could get before you felt the need to turn around and come back. Remember the strangeness, and the emptiness. This is a language that never leaves you.

7. Find Your Own Voice and Honor It. When Bray was younger she tried to be Raymond Carver – a sparse, deoressed, male, alchoholic. Then she tried on a bunch of other writer’s styles as well. She was afraid of the inner critic that thought her own work, her own voice, would be boring. Bray had a breakthrough in a writing workshop when after an in-class exercise the teacher came up to her and said “I love what you wrote today. I love that your writing had so much anger in it.” This was a revelation for Bray, and awakening. It freed her to open up and find her own voice. There is no one else who has your voice!

8. Change Up Your Game. Just like working out, there is a point when your writing will plateau. You can get too comfortable writing the same book. So change up the game! Play with form, but do it in service of your story. There are all sorts of interesting things you can do – no punctuation, death as narrator, use screenplay format, etc. The fantasy element in Bray’s Gemma Doyle series came from playing with her manuscript.

9. Just Say No to the Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend. Pterodactyl = Vampire. Be careful of trends. There is no sure thing, except for writing the magic of what matters to you. Find that and dig deeper! (Read more about the hot pterodactyl boyfriend in a previous post with Libba Bray: Write with Wreckless Abandon).

10. Earn Your Moments. Go deeper until you hit a vein. Truth should make you uncomfortable. Earn it! Don’t give characters characteristics that they have not earned. We have this moment and then we move one – work with the ambiguity, don’t bail out your characters.

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.

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