I have nothing to share about writing that is earth-shattering. What you’ll read here you probably already know. But like it is with all important things in our lives, it doesn’t hurt to hear certain things more than once. Here goes:
Often writers are told to be well-versed in their genre. This is excellent advice, but reading shouldn’t end there. Picking up books in genres other than your own brings freshness to your writing and strengthens what you ultimately create. This nourishes you as a reader, too.
None of us ever arrives. Our writing will improve if we continue to read craft blogs and books and take advantage of classes, critique groups, or conferences. Here are a few books I’ve read recently, am working on now, or plan to pick up this next year:
The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction
-- James Alexander Thom
Second Sight: An Editor's Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults
-- Cheryl Klein
Writing the Breakout Novel
-- Donald Mass
Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them
-- Francine Prose
Writing Irresistible Kidlit
-- Mary Kole
Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide from Story Creation to Publication
-- Ann Whitford Paul
Take time away from writing
Make sure you are doing things outside of writing. Now that I write full-time, it’s very easy to stay detached from the rest of the world. Make an effort to engage your surroundings, whether that means tuning in to nature as you walk the dog or making a point to get involved in a new activity.
How do you nurture your writing life?
On Finding Satisfaction in Publication:
Nothing I write will work for every reader. I can only guarantee that it works for me.
On Negative Reviews:
Think about your absolute favorite book of all time. We all have one. A book we love, one that's practically perfect in every way. Got the book in mind? Now go to GoodReads. Look the book up. Filter the reviews for 1-stars (because I promise you, it does have one stars). And smile. Because if people can rate your favoritest book in the whole world with one star, then of course people can rate your book that way, too.
On Evaluating a Book's Worth:
Few books are perfect. If you read like a writer you must read to gain what you can from each book, so reading then becomes a generous act. I tell my students they must learn to be generous readers, and judge each book not by whether it's the book they would have written but by whether it fulfilled the writer's apparent intention for it.
On Remembering What Matters:
Words on the page. That’s what was important to us before we were striving to be published...Eventually, all of the glamour and the shine will fade away. The quarter that was dropped into the hype machine will expire, and the machine will go still and cold. But the story will remain. New readers will still find it, even if it’s only available in garage sales. And today’s readers will still remember it. It’s our job as writers to create a story we’ll still be proud of then.
On Relinquishing Control:
Once a book is published, it no longer belongs to me. My creative task is done. The work now belongs to the creative mind of my readers. I had my turn to make of it what I could; now it is their turn. I have no more right to tell readers how they should respond to what I have written than they had to tell me how to write it. It’s a wonderful feeling when readers hear what I thought I was trying to say, but there is no law that they must. Frankly, it is even more thrilling for a reader to find something in my writing that I hadn’t until that moment known was there. But this happens because of who the reader is, not simply because of who I am or what I have done.
member AC Gaughen
recently reminded our group of this poem and how well it applies to the writer's life. I pulled up my copy of "If", something I printed and framed for a student's bar mitzvah several years ago, and had a read through again.
The words are golden and so right on.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
For those of us living the writing life, whether we realize it or not, we are constantly learning as we read. Often I'll find myself engrossed in a book where the author's voice becomes so familiar I swear I'll never forget its rhythms and style. And while I sometimes can hold onto a general sense of these things, I'm finding I need to be more intentional with my reading if I want these impressions to last.
This year I've started using my commonplace book
as a place to record quotes that have struck me as important. Sometimes it's a fresh simile, other times just a sentence to remember the atmosphere an author has so wonderfully invoked. I've recorded the last few pages of novels, those key moments when everything comes together. I've written down scenes when the protagonist reaches the end of his or her self and must become something new.
It's in looking for and taking note of things that I'm learning to grow as a writer.
Here are a few similes and metaphors I've collected these last few months:
"Alice's stomach was rumbling like an empty garbage can rolling down a hill..." PIE, Sarah Weeks
"I try to stuff myself between the seats, like coins." EMILY'S DRESS AND OTHER MISSING THINGS, Kathryn Burak
"Majid had a family network as complex and secretive as a walnut shell." THE RUINS OF US, Keija Parssinen
"Her voice sounds as hollow as the empty wasp's nests." CROSSED, Ally Condie
"The day is collapsing into dusk. The Gypsies in their white shirts are the only lamps. The moon is coming in like a pan on fire." SMALL DAMAGES, Beth Kephart
And some darn beautiful truths
"I lay my hand on my heart. Our parents teach us the very first things we learn. They teach us about hearts. What if I could be treated as though I were small again? What if I were mothered all over again? Might I get my heart back?
My heart is unfolding." CHIME, Franny Billingsley
"That taste is still in my mouth. I know what it is. It's the taste of pretending. It's the taste of lying. It's the taste of a game that is over." LIAR AND SPY, Rebecca Stead
"In spring, Amherst changes into a storybook. The students grow wings from their heels and run through town spinning and singing. You get the idea that some parts of life are pure happiness, as least for a while. The toy store in the center of town puts all its kites outside, on display, so that the tails and whirligigs can illustrate the wind." EMILY'S DRESS AND OTHER MISSING THINGS, Kathryn Burak
What helps you process what you learn as you read?
I spent fourteen years as an author in training, and while I learned many things in that time, I'm finding there are a slew of different lessons on the other side of publication. This spring, I examined the public
, and writing
life I want to cultivate. Right now, I'm trying to learn just how to protect my creativity -- how to let it grow and expand with a new project, how to feed it, how to keep it from being destroyed during the fragile moments a story is unfolding and finding its way. I've yet to figure this out, but here are a few things I'm pondering:
- It's not the mind but the emotional self that gives us confidence or causes doubt. We are directly and indirectly taught the mind is a truer compass than the heart. And this is right oftentimes, especially for highly emotional people like me (and I would suspect most other writers, who tend to connect deeply and passionately with people, ideas, stories, and universal truths). The thing is, we writers know in our heads plenty of things that never penetrate our hearts. Whether we realize it or not, the emotional "truths" that occupy our lives influence our creative selves far more than we realize. How can we protect the vulnerable place stories spring from?
- Surround yourself with supportive people. Obvious, right? Find a friend or group of people who support and understand you. While non-writing friends and family are wonderful, they don't always understand the writing world. Form a critique group. Become a part of a professional organization like SCBWI. Find people in the same phase of the journey you can encourage and commiserate with. Find people farther along who can show you the way.
- Step away from the constant noise of the Internet. Never before have authors been asked to live the writing life so publicly. As soon as a book sells, the solitary falls away. We've got to find ways to protect our creativity in the midst of it all. There are too many ways to lose confidence -- reviews written by professional organizations as well as book bloggers or Goodreads account holders, articles in accessible publications like Publisher's Weekly or GalleyCat that praise our peers or their books and leave us feeling left out, or publications that praise us but leave us feeling like we'll never measure up again.
What are ways authors can protect their creativity?
Here are some ways I'm trying to protect my creative side:
- I am in constant contact with both my critique partners and my debut group, The Class of 2k12. Both encourage me when I flounder and bolster me when I need support. Some of them have calmly told me again and again that they believe in what I write. When we can't muster the strength to see our own talent, it is so good to have people whose belief in us we can borrow.
- For the sake of my creative health, I've decided that reading the School Library Journal blog, Heavy Medal, is something that doesn't nourish me right now. As I watch people who love children's literature analyze books I admire (in a professional, respectful, invigorating way), I'm finding I doubt my abilities more and more. No book is perfect. I know this to be true. But seeing the "faults" of books well-executed while I'm drafting my own new, unformed work is enough to make me think I'll never produce anything of substance, depth, or worth.
- I need to extend to my writing the room to grow in a safe environment. For me, I'm learning it's a place free of chatter and analysis and comparison. It's a place my friend Val says needs to be quiet enough "to hear that small voice inside trying to remind you that you are doing something important, something special, something worthwhile. And that small voice is the voice you need to hear loudest right now, the one you need to be listening to. During the creation process, kick everyone else out of the room. Tell the critics, your editor or agent, the readers, the doubters to leave, kick them all out of the room and be alone with your story. You and the story. That's all there is right now. That's all that matters."
What have you learned to avoid or embrace to foster your creativity?
Classroom connections is a recurring series meant to introduce teachers to new books.
Never Eighteen -- Megan Bostic
"Bostic writes this graceful, affecting tale without pretension...Perhaps it's because of that simplicity that the story concludes with such a powerful emotional punch." --Kirkus review
Please tell us about your book.
Austin Parker is never going to see his eighteenth birthday. At the rate he’s going, he probably won’t even see the end of the year. But in the short time he has left there’s one thing he can do: He can try to help the people he loves live—even though he never will.
What inspired you to write this story?
Watching someone I loved die of cancer opened my eyes. So many people waste their lives away. They’re standing still while the world passes them by. I think it’s important to remind people that you only have one shot at life; you should live it like you mean it.
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?
There wasn’t much research involved since I’d been a first-hand witness to the effects cancer has on the body. However, I did have to look up some of the specific forms of cancer, which I did online. I also visited the Space Needle and EMP, which I’m ashamed to say, having lived here all my life, I’d never been. I revisited the hike at Comet Falls. I hadn’t done it in a few years, and I wanted to get it just right.
What topics does your book touch upon