A Top Ten List for Beginner Writers
I’m just starting out with writing children’s books, what is your best advice?
LB: I don’t really have BEST advice, but I do have A LOT of advice!
1) Join SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). This is the best organization for new and experienced writers and almost all children’s book authors are members. It’s $95 the first year and it will give you breaks on classes and conferences, as well as offer an incredible amount of resources through their site.
2) Go to conferences and classes! You have a lot to learn, and trust me, it will be fun and you will join an incredible like-minded community.
3) Seek out your local SCBWI chapter, and meet fellow artists as often as you can.
4) Form a critique group (SCBWI can help with this, too): Look for writers who want to share in the process and help with each other’s projects. It’s important to make your group only children’s writers. Writing is a solitary activity so a little social interaction is good. Plus, you can never see your project as clearly as someone from the outside can. You will improve immensely through this process.
5) Read. As much as you can. Pay attention to plot points, character dialogue, scene structure. Books are free master classes. (Don’t forget to read craft books, too.)
6) Be consistent with your schedule: Even if you can only afford an hour a day to write, do it. Eventually, it will lead to a finished manuscript, I promise you.
7) Don’t give up easily. All writers get shiny new ideas when they reach the hardest part of their books. Sometimes writing flows and sometimes it feels like trudging through mud for the entire project. This has nothing to do with the eventual quality. So stick with yours. Graduating from the start to the end is very essential to your growth as an author.
8) Subscribe to writing podcasts. Listen while you are on the elliptical. Subscribe to blogs on medium.com. A wealth of information is available to you for free on the Internet.
9) Do not compare yourself to the books you read. It takes a long time to get good. Most people do not sell their first book. Many successful authors won’t sell a book until they complete three or four of them. And as for those amazing novels you’ve read, they’ve been edited by a publishing team. Most don’t start out as stellar. It’s easy to feel like a hack if you start comparing, but don’t let the negative talk get in your way. You will improve with each word. Keep at it. Onward.
Reading for Improvement
One of my favorite craft books of all time is Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas (also fabulous and a worthy investment is its companion book, The Breakout Novelist). Also, check out all the Save the Cat books for plot guidance. I think everyone should take a look at screenwriting books, like the Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier, as that will help you better understand basic story structure which, as you get more experience, you can alter with forethought. (Though keep in mind that writing a book is more loosey-goosey and character driven than shorter-format screenplays.) The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler is a particularly valuable read if you are writing a quest type adventure book. Don’t miss Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Browne and King to avoid unprofessional, typo-ridden end products that will turn an agent off before they get very far. On Writing: A Memoir of Craft, by Stephen King, is both entertaining and interesting and an important read for all writers. For me, I never stop learning for craft books. I am about to read: Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets A Novelist Can Learn From Actors by Brandilyn Collins.
Themes in an Author’s Life
I’ve realized something incredible about my own writing: Every book seems to explore a similar theme. The two books I’m working on now are about forgiving other people. In League of Strays, my protagonist needs to forgive herself for her own mistakes. There are other themes running through my work, but the repeated exploration of ”forgiving” pops up in nearly everything I write.
What does this say about me? Who do I have to forgive? Could it be my stepfather, who died a decade ago, and was an alcoholic through most of my formative years? (Happy to report he stopped drinking when I was 13 and made amends through the rest of his life.) I’d always assumed I’d moved on. Still, after having had two children myself, I’ll admit that looking back on my parents’ moments of irresponsibility give me pause. I don’t sit around dwelling on past bruises to my psyche, as a general rule, but the common themes in my writing may show that I haven’t come to terms with my past as fully as I’d like to think.
And then there’s me. There are things I’d like to be forgiven for, but they are so far in the past that moving on seems a better option. I imagine we all have certain things we’d like to apologize for…people we were mean to in junior high, for example. I was mostly the victim when it came to teasing, but a few times, I picked on someone else, perhaps as way to deal with my own feelings of frustration. Hmm, is it coincidence that I now write for middle-grade and young adult audiences? Maybe not.
Books can be an author’s therapy, I realize. Every time my characters get to forgive or be forgiven, it’s a victory for me. Through them, I get to apologize in so many different ways.
I guess you could say that I live through fiction.