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.

Write Books that Change Lives

There is nothing more rewarding as a writer than to write a book that change’s someone’s life.

At a conference I attended many years ago author Ellen Wittlinger spoke about a letter she’d received from a reader about how her book helped the reader through a difficult time. “If my book stops one kid from committing suicide then it was worth it,” Ellen said, as we all started to tear up. We write because we have stories to tell and we hope that those stories touch others and leave some grain of resonance. Changing one person’s life would – of course – be worth it!

But, this blog post isn’t about how to write a book that will change someone else’s life.

In our current state of publishing it seems high concept and commercial books are the ticket to success (or at least a publishing deal). We are always told to write from our heart, but sometimes love doesn’t seem to produce a paycheck. Agent Mary Kole just wrote a great blog post about the push and pull between writing a book that an author loves vs. writing a book that can sell.  Of course, the bottom line (from an agent’s POV) is the book needs to sell.  Yes, that makes sense. But recently I came upon the best piece of writing advice I think I’ll ever receive. It comes from a book on screenwriting called “The Anatomy of Story” by John Truby, and in it Truby says:

“Write something that may change your life.”

I’d like to modify that to: Write the book that will change your life.

Your life – you – the author!

Sure, it’s important to think about your audience as well, but first, I think we need to think about ourselves.  I think we need to dig deep inside and look at what stories we want to explore because they mean something to us. After all, we are the ones who will be spending months (and possibly years) on this project.  Shouldn’t our first priority be to make sure that journey is meaningful to us – as an individual, on a personal level?

After all, there is a true and real chance that our books won’t sell.  It’s possible that our books will sit in drawers and never see the light of a printing press or the hands of another reader. But if we write books that change our lives – then isn’t that alone a book worth writing? And it’s worth considering that a book that can change our life is one with the power to change another life too.

So when you’re out there deciding what project to start next, battling with the market, and trying to figure out what will get you published, I suggest you sit back and listen to the writer deep down inside. Hell, listen to the human deep down inside. Write the story you’re afraid to write. Write the story you’re afraid isn’t marketable. Write the story that will change your life. That’s the most powerful story you have to tell.