I’m not one of those writers who have words tumbling out of them like a rain-fed waterfall. I’ve always envied them, but I’m not one of them. So it made sense for me to focus on picture books and short nonfiction titles for the first part of my writing career: being a slow writer with a compact style tends to work well for those books.
But every time I did school visits with older students, they asked me why I didn’t write something for them. I came up with this great theory to share with them, all about how some authors are great at “writing long,” like artists who start with a huge block of marble and then face the challenge of trying to chisel down to the core story. While other authors—like me—are good at “writing short,” artists who start with a small amount of clay and then face the challenge of building up their creations.
In other words, I told students that because it was challenging to do otherwise, I was better off sticking with writing the kinds of books that felt comfortable for me.
But one of the great things about kids is that they don’t easily tolerate the ridiculous excuses adults make. Which means that some of the best writing advice I ever received came from a 5th-grade boy. After I offered my elaborate explanation (excuse), he sighed, rolled his eyes big-time, and said (in a “how stupid are you?” tone), “Then just write a bunch of short things and stick them all together!”
Huh, I thought, the kid has a point. I think they call them chapters.
And I gave myself permission to write a novel. Yes, it took me over three years to finish writing it. Yes, there were many times when I was gritting my way through it not just chapter-by-chapter, but word-by-word. Yes, it will have taken an additional four years for it to go from “finished” manuscript to a published book I can hold in my hands in October. But writing the first word of that particular story was the single step that began one of my most thrilling writing journeys.
I meet kids at every school visit who don’t believe they have it in them to write anything worthwhile, whether long or short. If you find those kids in your classroom, too, please teach them what that 5th-grader taught me: all you need to do is to start with one word.
Once, in one of my (not uncommon) moments of thinking that I could no longer handle the financial uncertainty of the children’s book writing life, I read a book that purported to match creative people to potential career pursuits. I read the advice, filled out the quizzes, and finally received my assigned “type.” With great anticipation I turned to the section at the back of the book where possible career paths were listed by type. I expected to be told I should train to become a lawyer or an ad exec, something with a perhaps-somewhat-more predictable income stream than my own.
But here are the career options I was strongly encouraged to pursue:
With apologies to all the highly paid mimes of the world, I couldn’t help but feel discouraged at this advice (almost the way one might feel if one were trapped inside a glass box).
I was recently reminded of these possible detours on my life’s path when some writer friends shared “Non-Teaching Jobs Twitter Recommends for Writers” (I have already added “criminal mastermind” and “dolphin” to my own bucket list). And all of this popped into my head again at a school visit yesterday, when a student asked me the question I am almost always asked: “How much money do you make?”
The truthful-but-vague answer, as I explain whenever I am asked, is that while a few children’s book writers do get rich, most of us do not. I try to describe to the students some of the other advantages I find in the writing life, but I know that’s not what most of them remember. I worry that those of them who want to grow up to be puppeteers or mimes or even dolphins will give up their dreams too early after they hear my honest response.
So if you have a young writer in your life, go ahead and tell them the truth: most likely, they won’t get rich. But on my behalf, I hope you’ll also let them know that there’s a lot to be said for loving your work. In having the chance to make an impact on the lives of young people who know you only through your stories. In defining yourself not by how much money you make, but by the richness of your experiences.
Tell them that living their dream may be tough, but that there is more than one kind of payoff in life.
I just did my first official interview about my upcoming middle grade mystery, called Turn Left at the Cow. It features family secrets and a treasure hunt (and yes, even some of Old MacDonald’s critters make humorous guest appearances). The book isn’t due out until October, but the reporter had read an advance copy and wanted to talk while the story was still fresh in her mind. She lives near the rural Minnesota lake that was a big part of my inspiration, so much of my setting felt familiar to her.
Except she was confused about the deserted island—maybe because it’s nonexistent in real life? And she couldn’t place the giant bullhead statue—probably because the nearest statue of a bullhead is two hundred miles away.
So I had to admit that I’d borrowed those details from other small towns. After all, what treasure hunt isn’t made more exciting by a pirate-inspired deserted island? And what small town isn’t the more memorable for having an unnecessary but over-sized aquatic vertebrate on a downtown corner?
That kind of geographic collaging is one of my favorite parts of building a story setting. Depending on how fictionalized my story, I have the chance to create a mash-up of all the different places I’ve been, or even wished I could be. If I want, I can fashion a place that exists only on the map of my imagination.
There are lots of ways that young writers can use actual collaging and related techniques to build a setting for their own stories. Hand around old magazines, travel brochures, and catalogs, and ask students to cut out (or draw) images that fit their imagined settings. Then have them paste the images onto larger sheets of paper for inspiration boards. They can make collages to represent a whole town, or they can do it for a smaller component: their character’s bedroom, or the location of some key action in their story.
I also use my cell phone to take photos of anything I see out in the world that seems like it might fit into one of my story settings. Then I collect the photos in small inexpensive photo albums. They’re a great resource when I’ve been away from a story for a few days and need to re-picture the setting.
Pinterest also provides endless opportunities for creating inspiration boards online. Writers can build boards that showcase the details of their character’s home, school, town, or other key locations by mixing and matching elements from all different sources, creating the visual spaces and moods they want for their stories.
Which means that even if your young writers want to add something unusual to their setting—say a giant fish statue, for example—it’s simply a matter of “wish, and it’s here.”