Finding the Heart to Unlock Your Story

Newbery Award winning author Susan Patron spoke at the 2011 Southern California Writer’s Day. A former librarian and lover of children’s books, she had a lot of heartfelt insight on writing for children. Her talk ranged from finding the courage to write to insights from childhood. The following are my notes taken from her presentation:

Why Does it Take Courage to Write?

  • Why do we keep writing after the shocking horror of the 1st draft?
  • Why do we continue to write after the shocking horror of the 2nd and 3rd drafts? Maybe I should be a carpenter instead, we think.
  • Each draft takes courage!
  • Writing a novel is a thrill, like riding off on a runaway horse, it’s thrilling and terrifying.
  • When Patron became a full-time writer she was scared because this meant there were no more excuses to not be writing.

What is the Higher Power in “The Higher Power of Lucky”?

  • Patron deliberately left this open-ended. Maybe it is God, maybe it is a goal, maybe it is the power of self. Each reader will (and should) interpret it differently.

Insights about Childhood:

  • “Growing up is something that happens in the tiny details of everyday.”
  • The inner life of children is rich.
  • We (humans) are fundamentally good, but we are able to do things that are very bad. She wants to show that her characters are human and flawed. That’s why they do bad/mean things sometimes.

Thoughts on Censorship:

  • The educated possess the knowledge, judgment, and ability to make decisions and opinions on their own about what they read.

Insights on Writing and Reading:

  • Reading is the only time we are able to merge our consciousness with another (with the character).
  • It wasn’t until she finished “Lucky Breaks” that she realized she was writing a trilogy.
  • Patrons writing process: She doesn’t know what she wants to say till she’s thrashed her way through a book. She reads like she writes – to see what happens.
  • You need a view to write, so that imagination can meet memory in the dark.
  • She has never written a novel in under 2 years.  So it was really hard when she was given a 9-month deadline for her “Dear America” book.
  • This quote unlocked the “Dear America” book for Patron: “Boldness is a mask for fear, however great.” – ?
  • I know everything I know about this industry from coming to SCBWI. She’s been a member since 1972.
  • The cover is the first step to getting a reader to pick up your book. It is important.
  • You can write in multiple genres. Look at the work of Linda Sue Park as an example.
  • The diary element of her “Dear America” book seemed like a challenge at first, but soon she treated it like any other first person narrative.

Thoughts on winning the Newbery:

  • It was a whirlwind.
  • “You lose a year of your writing life when you win the Newberry.” – Richard Peck

About Editors:

  • Your editor is your collaborator and your friend. Their suggestions will make your book stronger.
  • The Lucky Trilogy had three different editors. The first editor retired (first book), the second editor was let go with budget cuts (second book), and the third book had third editor.
  • Editors are very good at seeing what you are too close to the manuscript to see.

How do you get over Writer’s Block?

  • Take long walks.
  • Despair!
  • Read craft books.

Fun Tid-bits:

  • Patron taught herself to read using the LA Times comics section.
  • The public library was “Mapquest for the heart.”
  • A State of Arrested Decay – the state of a building that has been abandoned but preserved by the state.
  • Patron doesn’t read other novels while she is writing.
  • Patron was a very active librarian. She even served on the Caldecott and Laura Ingles Wilder award committees in her career.
  • Verite Sans Peur = Truth without Fear

What Resources does the Library Have that we should be aware of? (This was a Question from Audience)

  • Go to your library and talk to the librarian about your project. They will direct you to sources you may not be aware of.
  • There are lots of databases that the library has subscriptions to that the patrons can use. Often you can access these from your home!

Susan Patron specialize in children’s services for 35 years at the LA Public Library before retiring in 2007. That same year her novel The Higher Power of Lucky was awarded the Newbery Medal and the FOCAL Award, and went on to become an New York Times National Bestseller, as well as being translated into 12 foreign languages. The Higher Power of Lucky has been turned into a trilogy including Lucky Breaks and the forthcoming Lucky for Good.

3 thoughts on “Finding the Heart to Unlock Your Story

  1. Wow! That post was full of inspiration and great advice. I laughed at her opening about the ‘shocking horror of the 1st draft’. I thought I was the only one who felt my first drafts were surely proof I had no talent and couldn’t write. She’s correct. It’s all about determination and courage. Thanks Ingrid!

  2. Love this post, Ingrid! Thanks so much for sharing your notes with those of us who can’t get around to many conferences . . . these notes are SO INSPIRING! 🙂

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