Random thoughts on writing and on children’s books:
The demands of picture books are so different from the demands of novels. There is a subtle dance between art and text which cannot be entirely planned for when the writer begins. A picture book writer needs to remain as supple as a dancer in order to accommodate a partner (the illustrator). It is the book–not just text or art–that has to be whole.
As a writer, I need quiet. Turmoil–even intellectual turmoil–rousts the ideas from my brain. Like birds shaken from cover by the unthinking hunter, they fly away. Perhaps that is how some writers work. I work in silence (no music playing), solitude (no interruptions, please) and joy.
I generally do not think out plots or characters ahead of time. I let things roll along. Organic is the word I use for this. But actually I do it because I am a reader before I am a writer. I want my own writing to surprise me, the way someone else’s book does. If I think out everything ahead of time, I am–in Truman Capote’s words–“Not a writer but a typewriter.”
To the outside eye this may seem a lazy way to write. It drives anyone I work with crazy. But I have learned to trust those intuitive moments when stories seem to leak from my fingertips.
On writing a novel: The first chapters are a slog, circling and re-circling again, trying to find the right voice, the strength of the main character, the central metaphor. Often the middle sags as I rethink, re-vision, try to re-adjust everything. But by the time I round the next-to-final curve in the road, when I can almost see the tape at the end of the run, I fling my virtual arms in the air and race to the finish.
If I ever write the perfect book, I’ll stop writing.
Most woman writers do not have the luxury of a wife. We muddle through our chores and our writing, doing a balancing act that would put the Flying Wallendas to shame.
A safety net is most often not an option.
A writer never gets used to rejections. But if enough manuscripts are out there, each small rejection is less important.
Well, each one hurts less.
Some rejections I greet with shrugs. Wrong book for that editor. (Shrug.) Wrong timing. (Shrug.) Whew, dodged that bullet. (Shrug.)
Some rejections I greet with astonishment. She told me she wanted the book—whaaaa! He doesn’t understand it—whaaaaa!
Some rejections I curse the editor for being dense, uncaring, lying, or incompetent. Some I curse publishing in general, its emphasis on bestsellerdom, its attention to bottom line, its incapacity for surprise. Occasionally I curse myself: I’m not good enough for the idea. I was too facile. I sent it to the wrong editor. I am too demanding, not demanding enough.
But I did the only thing possible, given a rejection. I turned right around and sent the little picture books off again, by email, to someone else.
Musing on the Muse: The Muse is an ornery creature and rarely comes when called. She wears feathers in her hair and birkenstocks on her feet and is often out in the woods when you are home at your keyboard.
But sometimes when you are writing, and are so concentrated on what you are doing that you pay her little heed, she comes into the room, looks over your shoulder, and breathes softly in your ear. It is a tickle, like baby’s breath, and could be mistaken for a shift in the internal wind in the room.
And you won’t know she’s been there, not until minutes or days or weeks or months or years later. You will think that what you put down was ordinary but it turns out to be extraordinary. And that’s when you understand the Muse had visited you.
Trust me. Some things I do know.
Works in progress: What I have never quite understood about writing is this: an author’s relationship to the work in progress. Sometimes it seems promising, sometimes brilliant, sometimes just plain stupid. And that may be the same piece on alternate days. This is not a reaction by the self-critic who dwells inside. Well, at least not entirely. We read from a personal perspective that moves the goalposts by the day. Hell, by the moment.
In St Andrews, I once told a friend that here in New England we say of the weather, “If you don’t like it, wait half an hour.” And he replied, “In Scotland we say the weather changes on yer backswing.” One’s own writing is like that–your perception of its worth changes on yer backswing.
Book for writers: TAKE JOY: A Book for Writers has been published by Writer’s Digest Books and an expanded edition by Writer’s Digest. If you enjoy these few notes about writing, you may like the book even more!
On Intuition: Someone on line asked me, how to use intuition. Well, intuition works best when you remember that “tuition” is part of it. You need to have paid ahead of time (ie done your prep work) so as to prepare the ground for intuition.
I gave a speech at the SCBWI first National New York conference in January 2000, which was subsequently broadcast on C-Span. So many people have asked for copies of that talk, I am publishing it here. It is copyrighted material, so it can be for your own use, but if you want to distribute it, you need to get permission.
Writing with Joy:
There are writers who believe that writing is agony, and that’s the best anyone can say of it. Gene Fowler’s famous words are quoted all the time: “Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.” Or Red Smith’s infamous screed: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”
But by God that’s a messy way of working. And blood is extremely hard to get off of white paper.
Now, I am one of those people who makes a distinction between being a writer and being an author. A writer puts words on a page. An author lives in story. A writer is conversant with the keyboard, the author with character.
Roland Barthes has said: “The author performs a function; the writer an activity.” We are talking here about the difference between desire and obsession; between hobby and life. But in either case, I suggest you learn to write not with blood and fear, but with joy.
For more about this topic, see my book TAKE JOY.
Writing teachers speak of “finding your voice” as if the damned thing were lost somewhere: behind the desk, under the computer, in back of the commode. Whenever I hear that phrase, I am reminded of the “discovery” of America. Columbus did not discover America, he encountered the native people who already lived there. They were not lost, to be found. And neither is the story’s voice.
The story’s voice, not the author’s.. That is what must be uncovered, not discovered.
Be Prepared for Serendipity:
Be prepared as you write to be surprised by your own writing, surprised by what you find out about yourself and about your world. Be ready for the happy accident. Open yourself to the numinous, to the shapes and shades of language, to that first powerful thrust of story, to the character that develops away from you (sort of like a wayward adolescent), to the surprise of the exact and perfect ending.
You are–after all–the very first reader of what you write. Please that reader. You may not have any other!
Children and Stories:
Children know themselves to be the single most powerless unit in today’s world. They can not support themselves, they cannot vote, they have little physical strength, they have but a small knowledge of the universe. They cannot see over walls. As infants they are entirely dependent upon the kindness of adults, and as they grow up further, they are still small satellites in an adult world. They dream of being big enough and old enough and able enough to tame the Wild Things In reality those Wild Things could well devour them.
Therefore we give them many tools with which to keep the the real world at bay until they are ready for it. We give them teachers, we give them toys, we give them chants and prayers and cultural attitudes, and surround them with tribes and tribal constraints.
We give them stories.
Letting go of your golden words, your little gifts, your special children, may be the hardest thing in the world. We all want to be perfect on our first or fourth or twenty-seventh try. To revise something is to admit that you made a mistake—alright, you made many mistakes—in your work. No one likes to believe that. In fact, we worry that if we change something, we will only make it worse. After all, when we begin a piece, we do it with a rush of energy, power, joy. Revision can be thus seen as an act of deliberate destruction, cruelty personified, amputation.
Here is a trick that painters know. They will often turn a picture upside-down to see if it works. Upside-down the painter cannot count on reading the actual figures, only the composition. Well, we can’t read a story or poem upside down, but we can do the equivalent.
Take a story or chapter and break it up into breath spaces as if it’s a poem. Write it down that way. You will very quickly see where you have overwritten a piece, where your repetition is not helpful but just a mistake. When you see a cliché on a single line, it leaps out, grabs you by the throat, threatening to silence you.
This is also true with poetry. Break the lines down into the smallest groupings possible. Suddenly the errors are appallingly clear. They wink at you like neon lights.
Know this about being published: it is out of your hands.
Even if you do everything you can think of to affect that outcome, you can not make an editor take your work.
You can go to conferences. You can take creative writing classes (though I have always wanted to see if it were possible to teach a course in non-creative writing!) You can read books about writing. You can set a work schedule on your computer and make a special place and space for your writing like my Aerie. You can travel to Yaddo and make friends there with peformance artists. You can subscribe to PW and The Writer and Poets&Writers. You can get a BA, or an MFA or a PHD in Medieval Lit. You can work as a day laborer, having heard that it will ready you for writing the great American novel. Or you can work as a librarian, because someone tells you that is the way to learn to write children’s books. You can walk around Lower Slobovia for a year, sail across the Atlantic in a water closet, become Arnold Swartzenegger’s personal amanuensis, have intercourse with bug-eyed aliens, manage to marry a mass murderer or to murder a mass marrier. Or get thrown off the jury at the next OJ retrial. You can even–God help us–sleep with an editor. It does not–alas– guarantee a thing. Though all of those are probably more effective than merely having talent or writing well!
Julian Gloag has written rather sarcastically that “If I were to shoot my publisher in some nice public place with plenty of blood, I guarantee my novels would be back in print in plenty of time for the trial. . . and the world would be a lot better off.”
So, once you have committed any words to the page and have sent your manuscript off to the publisher, it is truly beyond your capacity to make anything happen in re the publishing of your work. Besides, as Emily Dickinson pointed out, “Publication is the Auction of the Mind of Man.” (Are you cynical enough to remember that she wrote that after unsuccessfully trying to market her poems?)
Therefore, once the book is in the mail–relax. Read a good book. Or read a bad book. Just don’t worry about it. Better yet–get busy writing something new.
For another look at many of these same questions–with answers that are complete, brief, and snappy–see Aaron Shepard’s site.
Anna Grossnickle Hines has a collection of articles on her site, many of which have good advice for writers.
Why do I go to a weekly writers’ group? For moral support, good critiquing, and laughs. (And not bad food values, either!) These women are all smart, fine writers, good critics, and best friends. They do not let me get away with weak or facile writing. Each one has particular critical strengths, but together they make the world’s best teacher of writing. I value them individually and together. And I love hearing their works-in-progress as well, like the first attempt at the moving Sarah, Plain and Tall, the brilliant stories from Journeys with Elijah, the powerful poems in Learning to Swim, the stunning diary entries for the Queen Victoria book, May Blossom of Britannia, the bouncy delights of Cats, Cats, Cats, and the sweeping adventure of If Ever I Return Again.
My writing group on the porch at my house, mid-meeting, on a particularly windy, January day: Ann Turner, me, Patty MacLachlan, Leslea Newman, Corinne Demas, Barbara Diamond Goldin. Anna Kirwan is missing, as she had to stay home and work on a book.
A writer has many successes:
Each new word captured.
Each completed sentence.
Each rounded paragraph leading into the next.
Each idea that sustains and then develops.
Each character who, like a wayward adolescent, leaves home and finds a life.
Each new metaphor that, like the exact error it is, some how works.
Each new book that ends–and so begins.
Selling the piece is only an exclamation point, a spot of punctuation.
©2000 by Jane Yolen revised ©2007