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.

School, Drool, and Other Daily Disasters

School, Drool, and Other Daily Disasters was the title of author Rachel Vail’s keynote speech at the SCBWI LA 2010 Conference. In it she shared her process, writing for middle grade readers, and how to get inside your characters head. Notes from her speech are as follows:

Why Do We Read?

  • A book is more than a story well told. It needs to have humor and heart.
  • The theme of my writing career has been: What does love require of us?

My Writing Day…

  • Typing
  • Making Tea
  • Wandering around and imagining
  • Making more tea

Books That Really Influenced Vail:

  • Of Mice and Men
  • Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing

What is Middle Grade?

  • Middle grade is the age group of 3rd through 7th graders.
  • Most middle grade books are structured like a one-act play.

What is the Middle Grade Dilemma?

  • Middle grade is the moment you emerge into the world and you discover that your family is weird.
  • It’s when you wonder if there are others out there like you.
  • Life or death moments are a dime a dozen in middle grade. Those feeling knock you down. Your bones ache you are growing so fast.
  • Little kids harbor secrets and worries that adults are not privy to.
  • Being brave is not the same as being fearless.
  • Remember that one somebody who took you seriously when you were a child? (Vail shared a story about her uncle who was the only one who wanted to know the rain cycle, which she had just learned in school and was excited to share with someone).

The Impossible Task of Writing…

  • Writing a book opens a window.
  • Writing a book is like building a sky scraper from the top down. You build, and then tear it down. You build again, and tear it down again.

Getting Inside the Head of Your Character…

  • How do we become someone else? We aren’t all memoirists.
  • Start with what you know.  J.K.Rowling probably didn’t live in a cupboard as a child, but she may have lived in a metaphorical one. I’m sure she knew the loneliness and dreamed of more.
  • Mine and re-purpose. I write for a girl who is like me but not like me.
  • Try speed writing. Write for ten minutes on your dad’s car. Go!
  • Voice sometimes comes later, after many drafts.
  • We have to listen to our characters as much as we do our own kids. It’s just as hard.

Finding Your Story…

  • Michelangelo once said that when he was sculpting he was “chipping away at the stone to find the sculpture inside.” It’s the same thing for writing only we have to barf out our first draft to get a stone.

Great Notes from Rachel Vail’s Breakout Sessions:

Rachel Vail has written over 30 books for kids through teens. Her most recent include her trilogy for teens: Lucky, Gorgeous and Brilliant; and her novel for kids Justin Case: School, Drool, and Other Daily Disasters.

Crafting Books for Restless Middle Grade Readers

Ask a middle grade reader if they would rather read a boring book from start to finish or shave off all the hair on their head. What do you think they will pick? Shaving their head of course! Yes, boredom is our biggest enemy when it comes to middle grade readers. Boredom is like punishment, so you must create the biggest punch in the smallest writing space and then continue your momentum!

Author Kathleen O’Dell, said the above at the SCBWI Southern California Writer’s Day this past weekend. The following are her tricks to keep middle grade readers turning the pages and hungry for more!

The Problem With Most Beginnings…

  • O’Dell finds that many books start with  what she calles “getting to know the gang.” This is usually a scene where all the major players of the book (or group of friends) are introduced in a quick, un-memorable way. The thought is that the reader needs to know who everyone is. The problem is that the reader has no connection to each character as they are introduced and forget them as soon as they meet them. Instead focus on the main character and his/her point of view.
  • Beware the character that wakes up in the first paragraph, then proceeds to admire themselves in the mirror. Oh yes, my lovely blond locks, my adorable dimple, etc. This is too generic. You need to spark interest. Plus this is very cliché!
  • Avoid the pedestrian set up. After all the News never opens with the weather.
  • Start with action in sentence one! You must wind up with action, and release it in the first paragraph. You don’t have to create something overly dramatic, just a sense of urgency. For example starting with the line: “I’m late.”

Find the Right Descriptions…

  • Be specific in your descriptions, but don’t be overly explicit. Find the right words and don’t go overboard.
  • Observe people in real life. Be nosy, and eavesdrop. Human behavior is very interesting. You will be surprised how much you can learn about two people with only a few cues. Watch couples, mothers and daughters, sets of friends. You’ll find you can learn a lot about them in how they dress, what they say to one another, the exchange of a glance, etc. You don’t need much – but you do need the right details.

The Deal with Dialog…

  • Dialog will always have a back and forth to it, but it doesn’t have to be tit for tat.
  • Listen to real conversations, in fact transcribe them as an exercise. People be-lie. They don’t really say what they mean. Instead they use other cues (body language, word choice, etc.)
  • Study bad dialog as a way to help you see what doesn’t work. Learn how not to write. Bad TV (soap operas, etc.) is a great place to start.
  • Beware the dinner scene! This is a personal pet peeve of O’Dell’s and yet she sees it in published books all the time. This is the contrived scene where the author gives the characters “meaningful business” in the form of eating in order to dump info on the reader. Often this doesn’t share anything about the character, and everything you write needs to tell us something about our characters, or move the plot forward.

Building Momentum…

  • You always want to move your reader forward! Don’t drain your character with too many subplots. Be careful of pulling the focus away from the main story to spend time with a secondary character.
  • Be careful of protecting your character like they are a child. You must give them conflict. They must make mistakes. They must make hard choices. This will push your story forward.
  • Don’t get carried away with pet enthusiasms. You must cut that three page description of the old haunted house even though it is the best thing you’ve ever written and you love it.
  • Fight the mushy middle! It’s that empty sea in the center of your novel where the wind has gone out of your sails and nothing is happening. Jump to something new! Be courageous and do something drastic – get the reader out of there! And don’t worry, you can go back and change it later.
  • Be ruthlessly honest with yourself. If you’re bored, the reader will be bored. You know what the bad parts are. Get rid of them. Put the book away, and then go back and re-read it with fresh eyes. It’s amazing what you will see when you’ve had some time away. Give yourself the space to recognize it.
  • You need to use concentrate not juice. Meaning you want to concentrate as much as you can – keep the intensity and the punch. You don’t want less info, just more per sip!
  • Don’t be lazy!

The Fear of Revisions…

  • “There is bitterness in rejection, there’s fear in revision.” – O’Dell on the revision process with editors.
  • When you disagree with an editor’s note the best thing to do is to at least try it. She does this and often finds that the change is not that big of a deal. You often have to make compromises or barter, such as – this change to keep that.
  • Don’t freak out when you have to change or re-structure your book. It will make the book better.

Kathleen O’Dell is the author middle grade and young adult novels including the Agnes Parker Series, Bad Tickets, Ophie Out of Oz, and  The Aviary.