10 things I learned about writing in 2016

I’ve just spent my first full year as an agented writer after years of learning how to write children’s fiction. In no particular order, here are my lightbulb moments of the last 12 months: things I’ve realized that have helped me most in my development as a writer this year.

  1. Beautiful writing abhors repetition, unless deliberate. There’s a fabulous, funny example of intentional repetition in BECAUSE YOU’LL NEVER MEET ME, one of my top reads of last year.
  2. Transcendent writing says something about the human condition. Frances Hardinge writes exquisite sentences I could happily live inside for a month, but it’s the insights that pepper her work that make feel wiser, and changed, after finishing one of her books.
  3. Revision always hurts and is always worth it. Wonderful pieces of writing may get cut during this process. Lin Manuel Miranda said this better than I can recently: “You don’t cut because it’s not good, you cut because it’s about serving the story and momentum. Editing would be EASY if just bad bits fell away.” Remove whatever’s needed and work hard to go deeper, closer, realer.
  4. Making up words is okay (viz. RIVERKEEP).
  5. Length doesn’t buy us depth as writers. LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET has 757 words and yet it’s heartbreakingly profound. I also learned that one of my favourite books of 2016 was given a last-minute edit just before press by its author, who pared back 3000 words at the 11th hour.
  6. To write something worth reading, the story must be in me and I in the story. The manuscript I’ve just given to my agent was ostensibly for my daughter when I first drafted it two years ago. But I realized during early edits that this wasn’t enough. I located the place inside myself that the story really sprang from, and that’s what brought it to another, stronger place. James Scott Bell talks about this in PLOT AND STRUCTURE: the need for a personal resonance in the stories we choose to write.
  7. Experimentation is good: challenging myself with new forms is worth the risk. I discovered that a story told from two points of view could work, but I had to let go of the metronome-like regularity (even back-and-forth between both characters, interspersed by an outside insert) of the first structure I tried; loosening up a bit helped the narrative function better.
  8. Beginnings matter. This fantastic blog from Jennie Nash talks about the need for confidence from the very first line. Some of my writing friends said they felt the need for hooky openers is overstated these days, but I disagree. If we can write, why not write something memorable, right from the starting gun? Maybe this is an impulse from my copywriting day job, where every syllable counts. A captivating first line is large part of my satisfaction as a reader, and I’ll do all I can to deliver the same experience for my readers. I’ve just finished listening to the audiobook of A CHRISTMAS CAROL and Dickens knew what he was on about in this regard. “Marley was dead: to begin with.”
  9. I need to read my drafts cold and be honest with myself. In my most recent story, character motivation wasn’t strong enough, stakes were too low and the goal unclear. I prioritized the changes I had to make, took my agent’s advice on which areas were dragging, and got to work. The new draft made us both a lot happier.
  10. If editing feels hardest as I near the end of the story, that’s because it is. And that’s okay. Writer Vikki King said (I’m paraphrasing) the work of writing a story is in three parts – the first 75%, the next 20% and the final 5% – and the secret of success is putting the same amount of effort into all three parts. Think on that.

What were your lightbulb moments as a writer this year? I am actively seeking tips – please let me know your insights below. 

 

Image from Sheng-Fa Lin on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/CeuUD

I pledged allegiance

The Pledge of Allegiance

I pledged allegiance to the flag

after the scuff of chairs and desks,

facing front, hand pressed to my heart;

The sagging stripes and folded stars

didn’t stand for the Republic,

but Happy Days and Hostess cakes,

sprinkler summers and autumn leaves,

tobogganing and snowball fights;

They’re throwing more than snowballs now,

and there’s no ducking it: it’s blame,

for their dead American dream.

My hand still presses to my heart.

O America, this rebirth

of indecency must not stand;

Remember justice?

It was supposed to be for all.

 

 

 

 

Words: Sheila M. Averbuch

Photo: Paul Sableman on Flickr

Why kill your darlings?

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Few writing tasks are harder for me than rewriting my opening chapter. I end up stuck to my opening lines like a suction cup, afraid to break the book by reimagining how it might open. It’s where I’m least willing to kill my darlings, but I’ve realized why my first chapter, of all places, can’t be a safe haven for favorite phrases, descriptive passages, or belches of backstory.

The story’s opening is like a cross-section of the book: it lets the reader glimpse elements that run right through the narrative, all the way to the climax. Anything in chapter one must earn its place through multiple rigorous edits.

I know this. Or, I thought I knew this. Still, I’ve found myself clinging to descriptive passages in particular, and to favorite bits of character background. The need to hold onto these things has felt almost superstitious, as if these elements are good luck charms that hold my book together. My chapter-one rewrites end up being hugely frustrating experiences as I leaf over earlier drafts, fretting over phrases I’ve left behind and thinking, wrongly, that reinserting them will reignite the magic.

For me, there’s only one way to find the magic: get right back inside the character’s head and be honest with myself about what they’re most preoccupied with, and what their deeper fears are (things that need only be hinted at, here in the early pages).

I’ve just finished a couple hours on my opening chapter, forcing myself to keep the character’s main preoccupation in focus, but it’s terribly hard. What a temptation there is to plonk in my good-luck-charm phrases and descriptions. I’ve known the phrase “kill your darlings” for years, but this morning was the first time I understood why it makes sense to do so. Holding onto those darlings can pull me away from the moment, out of the character’s genuine mindset as I strain to write towards a piece of imagery or backstory-memory that I’ve told myself I must include.

It’s like preparing spontaneous anecdotes in advance of an important social event, terrified of running out of things to say when the stakes are so high. But that never really works, does it? It’s much better to stay in the moment, react to stimuli, and allow pertinent facts to bubble to the surface in a natural way.

Last month I had a similar experience, realizing the need to stay in the moment later in the manuscript, where I introduce a second main character. This girl was truly starving, but spent an unnatural amount of time — and wordcount — resenting her father. When I looked hard at the scene, the hierarchy of needs dictated what I (if I were her) would be thinking, feeling and prioritizing in that moment. I went with the hunger, and her thoughts about her dad sort of leaked out later in the scene, in a much more natural and narratively helpful way.

How do you deal with darlings in your revisions? I’d love to hear any insights or challenges you experience, in the comments below.
Photo by victory of the people on Flickr

When children don’t see themselves in books

DiversityInChildrensBooks2015_fc4 by David Huyck

I’m a white author in a largely white Scottish village, trying along with half the writing world to become published in children’s books. The question of ethnic and cultural diversity in both authorship and storyline has been very much on my mind, because as a newcomer to this industry, it’s impossible not to notice – and agree with — the groundswell of feeling that children’s publishing is overly white and needs to change.

So it was with tremendous interest (and discomfort) that I saw this startling infographic, Diversity in Children’s Books 2015: it illustrates with painful clarity that not enough children are seeing themselves in the books they read.

The disparity is immense. While white kids (and rabbits…lucky rabbits) see themselves in abundance in children’s books, the news is grim for people of color. The data shows that, in an analysis of the percentages of books depicting characters from diverse backgrounds, more than 73% of those depictions are of white children.

Kids of black, Asian, Native American and other cultures are significantly underrepresented. No one ethnic group gets a higher percentage of depictions than the 12.5% of books devoted to animals, trucks “and other non-human objects.”

Diversity in Children’s Books 2015

This infographic is the brilliant work of Illustrator David Huyck, Assistant Professor Sarah Park Dahlen and author/teacher Molly Beth Griffin, and you can read a blog post here by Sarah about its genesis. The infographic has taken fresh 2015 data as its foundation (publishing statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison), so what you see here is the latest, hardest information — and hard it is.

What happens when children don’t see themselves in books? What happens when those children are grown-ups who are aspiring writers, but who have spent years feeling in their gut that their stories aren’t “the kind of thing” people read or publishers publish?

And those questions don’t cover what is perhaps the gravest issue of all, for communities like my overwhelmingly white village: what happens to white kids who lose the chance, in their childhood, to put themselves inside the heads and hearts of black, Asian, Latino, Native American and mixed-race main characters?

A chance for deep, real empathy is lost – that’s what happens. That’s what’s happening.

Even the whitest communities are becoming more diverse, and fast. Scotland’s defined ethnic minority population might be just 200,000 people, but that’s doubled from 100,000 people in 2001. The Scottish Book Trust has recently introduced the Saltire Bursary 2016 to encourage more aspiring authors, poets and storytellers from diverse backgrounds. I am with YA author Elizabeth Wein, a fellow Scotland resident, when she says this truly is one of the best countries in the world to be an author, given the support of organizations like SBT.

The Saltire Bursary is fantastic, and change needs to start somewhere. But when we see things like this 1968 exchange between “Peanuts” creator Charles M Schultz and the Americans who urged him to incorporate a black character into his famous strip, the mind boggles that such a badly needed diversification has been so slow in coming.

Look at this infographic, share it. Tell David, Molly and Sarah what you think of it.

And ask yourself – what does happen when children don’t see enough of the real world, and the real people it contains, in the books they read and love? What can you do — in your own teaching, writing, parenting, book-reading and book-buying — to help improve and champion diversity?

Give props to the creators of this amazing infographic, please. Cheers to Sarah for posting it earlier today. Please note, David created the infographic with a Creative Commons license; but please link to Sarah if you reproduce it.

David Huyck, Illustrator
davidhuyck.com/
@huyckd

Sarah Park Dahlen, Assistant Professor at St. Catherine University’s MLIS Program
http://sarahpark.com/
@readingspark 

Molly Beth Griffin, Author and Teacher
http://mollybethgriffin.com/