Today, a blog post for writers: getting to the emotional heart of your writing. This is one exercise in a series of exercises I’ve got planned for my talk at our Montana spring SCBWI retreat in two weeks.
Readers want stories that touch them in a deep way. They want stories that resonate long after the reading is finished. To write such a story you must be willing to push outside your comfort zone. You must be willing to write from the heart even when it hurts; you must be willing to press beyond the familiar even when you’re uncertain.
You must be willing to write what you think you can’t.
Every story is ultimately about desire. The strength of your story directly reflects the strength of your desire – your desire to work on it, to dream about it, to find the heart of it, to love it. That desire is inside you, and it’s also inside your work, and you have to translate that desire so your reader feels it.
Here’s an exercise I’ve used to understand what drives me, what desires I have and therefore what desires will rise through my work and reach readers. Try this:
List your 3 most powerful childhood memories
Identify the 3 emotions key to each of those memories
List the 3 emotions that drive your protagonist in a work that’s important to you now.
Circle the strongest emotions from these b and c lists, paying attention to patterns.
For example, two repeating emotional patterns in my life (and thus in my work) have been betrayal, and fear of death. What are yours? Can you make certain that they appear in your story? That you can tackle them even when they hurt?
That’s the secret to writing fiction that moves people. Your characters need to express what is in your heart as a human, and as an artist. You are bringing something to life. You are the Blue Fairy. Yours is the only voice that can ever express what you feel. You’re not in competition, not even with yourself. You just have to believe that you can write to the heart of your story.
You have to try to write what you think you can’t.
In THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE, a chatelaine – a piece of jewelry worn at the waist during the 17th through 19th centuries (read more about chatelaines here) – plays a huge role. For each of twelve children, there is a charm on that chatelaine. I won’t reveal here what it does – that would be a spoiler!
Just for fun I made a series of twelve super-short videos, one for each charm. Most of the photographs in those videos were taken by me, on a trip to Scotland and England in 2015.
The videos will be featured in a book launch blog tour starting on March 14. It’s a game, it’s a challenge, and I hope you’ll follow along as we play. The first stop on the tour will be at My Brain on Books.
Signing the first copies of THE CHARMED CHILDREN in my editor’s office.
This is a nerve-wracking time for an author. Will it sell? Will people like it? Will they even read it? This is my baby and I want it to be loved!
Now, in fairness, I’m on cloud nine over the wonderful welcome it’s received to date. Kirkus, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly have all given it starred reviews. It’s a Junior Library Guild selection and a Spring 2016 Indies Next pick. But all these accolades are no guarantee that the novel will sell, although they do give it a big boost.
If you are a reader rather than a writer, you may not know the following. With the exception of a very, very few (as in, count them on the fingers of one hand) children’s authors make little money. Most readers are not aware that the advances authors receive are parceled out over months if not years, and those advances must be earned back before royalties kick in. That can take a long time, and many books never “earn out”. I know almost no authors who actually make a living from their writing, and those who do have published many books in order to see income. This is true regardless of a book’s quality.
A “real” copy and my pretty bookmarks.
Publishing houses today are struggling to maintain a positive bottom line, and so can’t afford to offer material support to most authors. They also can’t afford to keep books in print for the length of time it might take for an author or a book to attract an audience. The marketing and publicity of a book today falls equally if not entirely on the shoulders of an author, who really should be writing that next book, not tweeting or snapchatting about the upcoming release. My friends and I are responsible for our own websites, printing our own bookmarks, providing snacks at our signings, paying for our own travel.
Mind you, I’m not complaining. I love what I do and would continue to write even if none of my work saw the light of day. I’m just putting this information on the table. It’s surprising to me when I meet people who think I’m getting rich off my writing, or that I have stacks of books to give away. Neither of these is true.
If you like an author and/or are interested in reading their book, please do get thee to a bookstore. If you can’t afford to buy the book, ask your local library to stock it. Pre-orders of books are especially important as those initial sales often tell the publisher whether the book will succeed. Honest Amazon reviews are also important, as they can boost a book’s profile.
And on that note – in the next couple of blog posts I’ll be announcing a blog tour about THE CHARMED CHILDREN, with a mystery guessing game in the form of short video teasers. I hope you’ll follow along and join in the fun!
I loved Kirby Larson’s writing as soon as I first “met” her through her Newbery honor-winning novel HATTIE BIG SKY. I’ve met her for real since then – and she’s a delightful person as well as an amazing author. I’m truly honored to have her today on the blog, talking about her newest book (an Amazon Best Middle Grade Book for February!), writing historical fiction, writing about animals, and more. You can read all about her and her books at her website.
First, please tell us a bit about your newest release, AUDACITY JONES TO THE RESCUE, a little summary and insight.
I had so much fun writing this book that it should be against the law! Audie came tapping on my shoulder one day, demanding attention. I set aside what I was working on to create 5 or so pages of character sketch/moodling, but had no idea where it was all going. Some years later, when I learned that it had been thought that a young relative of President Taft had been kidnapped in January 1910, fireworks went off in my imagination. The young girl, Dorothy, had not been kidnapped but by then my writer’s brain was working overtime: what if Dorothy had been kidnapped? Who would do it? Why? And didn’t it seem likely that a bookish orphan named Audacity Jones might just be a likely rescuer? I got to create over the top fun characters – including an exceedingly clever cat – and tell the story from multiple viewpoints – this has certainly been one of the liveliest writing experiences I’ve ever had.
I can’t wait to read it! Like AUDACITY, much, if not most, of what you write is historical. What appeals to you the most about writing historical fiction for young readers?
There are so many terrific stories from history, stories that haven’t been told because they’re about children/young adults, especially girls. I have found my passion in trying to share these stories in a such way that today’s readers find connections. I am so grateful to my publisher, Scholastic, for supporting my passion for historical fiction.
You also feature animals in your stories. I assume you have pets: names, species, and any amusing anecdotes? What is inspiring to you about the relationships between humans and animals?
In 2009, after having written two nonfiction picture books about animals with my dear friend Mary Nethery (The Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival and Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine, and a Miracle); I decided I wanted to be owned by a dog! So we brought our first-ever dog, Winston, into our home. He is a tri-color Cavalier King Charles Spaniel; spoiled rotten. Winston herds me into my office every morning; if I’m not at work by 8:30, he panics.
Animals not only demonstrate huge capacities for love and loyalty, they also seem to bring out the best in people. That is what truly inspires me about them. I have also discovered from my novels Duke and Dash that writing about animals is another great way to connect kids with history.
One of my all-time favorite middle-grade characters is Hattie Brooks. HATTIE BIG SKY was hugely inspiring to me as I was drafting my first novel. Now that you’ve authored a number of successful and beautifully crafted books, does it feel any easier? What’s changed for you in terms of process and/or inspiration?
Thank you so much for that lovely compliment—it’s a huge one coming from the acclaimed author of the wonderful The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle!
That Hattie – she has so many friends all over the world. I think she is the perfect example of how a flawed character gets into a reader’s heart – the reader is horrified at the choices the character makes and has to keep reading to find out how the character is ever going to get out of such a pickle!
You ask a great question about what has changed for me in terms of process and/or inspiration. That made me stop and think. After some pondering, I came to this notion: I suspect is that very little has changed for me – I still sweat over first drafts, I rarely outline, I make every mistake in the book – but now I have the confidence that I can finish. I know I feel like returning the advance midway through each first draft; I know I can’t believe how much work there is to do when I dive in to revise; I struggle with comparing my work to other writers’. That stuff will likely never change! What has changed is the deep-down confidence that I can write another book.
I know you’re working on a sequel to AUDACITY. Please tell us about that.
I just hit send over the weekend! I don’t want to give too much away but in this adventure, Audie lends a hand to the greatest magician in the world: Harry Houdini.
Oh, I love Houdini! I can’t wait! Are there any more books coming soon? And…are you working on anything you’d like to share?
The third in the WWII/Dogs series, Liberty, is coming out in September of 2016. It’s set in New Orleans and tells the story of how a boy with polio saves a stray dog. There’ll be one more book in that series; it’s just sketches at this point. Trust me: I am working away! I have story ideas to last me till I’m 90!
Thanks so much for this interview, Janet! It was kind of you to take time out from your busy schedule to host me here.
In The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, Kat and her fellow students at the Rookskill Castle Children’s Academy in the fictional burg of Craig on the coast of Scotland are taught by instructors brought in by the Lady of the manor. Their English instructor, Miss Gumble, has them study the Allegory of Plato’s Cave. This instruction turns out to be a lifesaver. (How? I’ll let you discover that.)
What is the allegory?
Plato founded his famous Academy in an Athens grove in 387 BC in order to informally tutor those intellectuals who wished to discuss philosophy and the sciences. Socrates was his mentor, having conducted his own school (the Lyceum) before being put to death after charges of corrupting the youth of Athens. Plato continued Socrates’ tradition of oral argument and debate; Plato’s most famous student was Aristotle. Plato wrote his treatise, The Republic, as a way to elucidate societal behavior and in particular the notion of justice. Our democratic ideals descend from Plato’s arguments.
One of his most famous arguments in favor of thoughtful pursuit of knowledge is the allegory of the cave.
Plato argues that the world is divided into two realms: the visible, and the intelligible (which we can only grasp in our minds). In the allegory of the cave, he suggests that people are like prisoners chained from birth in a cave and unable to turn their heads. They can only see the wall of the cave before them, and behind them is a wall along which puppeteers can walk. A fire casts shadows of the puppets on the cave wall.
Those prisoners in the cave believe that the shadows are reality. When they are freed from their chains by education they discover they’ve been seeing only shadows of copies of reality, and not reality itself.
Plato questions the notion of reality in this allegory. Even more importantly, he suggests that those who can leave the cave – see the full scale of reality through the gift of education – must take this knowledge back to those who haven’t yet left the cave. Knowledge should be the goal of all of us, through education and realization.
I really believe that knowledge and education are the foundations of a rich, full life. Plato’s allegory works for me, just as it does for my character, Kat.