For those all of those aspiring children’s writers out there who still think they can write an authentic manuscript that kids will enjoy reading without ever cracking open a single middle grade or YA book themselves, think again. Consider reading as your new homework. Some books are master classes on the art of writing all by themselves. For those of us really obsessed nerdy types who actually enjoy reading, this is one of the best parts of our job. The rest of you need to trudge through it and do the work, even if you don’t like it.
You don’t have to take my word for it; the importance of reading was another resounding theme during the SCBWI LA Summer Conference. The overall message? If you want to be a writer, you have to read. Period. It was stated over and over throughout the weekend. READ! Read everything!
Karen Cushman, author of the Newbery Award winner The Midwife’s Apprentice, gave a wonderful keynote address about courting surprise. It was all about how we can find inspiration; the magic that turns words and pictures into a story.
Be curious, be aware, be open.
This applies to so many aspects of the writer’s life – look for accidental repetitions, images in your drafts, go for a walk, daydream. As it applies to reading, Cushman said it was important not only to read many, many books – “Read 100 books, read 1000 books, like what you want to write” – but also to read diverse topics. She said she reads as many books about writing as she does about dieting. If you really enjoy a book, ask yourself why you love it.
I would also add read diverse genres. Although you should definitely read the most books in the genre for which you want to write, you should read outside of your area as well. The more diverse the creative influences, the bigger the pool to draw from for inspiration.
Clare Vanderpool, author of the Newbery Award winner Moon Over Manifest, discussed how universal the need for stories is in her keynote speech. She said, “We learn more not by dissecting books but by immersing ourselves in stories. We all have this need for a connection to story. It is through stories that we find our bearings.”
I loved this. Story immersion? Sign me up. Emotional connection? Ah, I’m yours for life.
As a writer, I find I don’t always have to analyze every story I enjoy to see why it works, what plot devices were used to move it along at the right pace. The more I read, the more I intuitively absorb how a good story should ebb and flow. My writing reflects this for the most part. If something’s not right with a manuscript – mine or a critic partner’s – it usually starts with a gut reaction of something feeling off.
Ari Lewin, editor at GP Putnam’s Sons, discussed during a breakout session that she could detect a writer’s level of skill and competency from a query as well as how much they read.“All of you should be reading so much! Sometimes I read things and can tell that you’re not reading.”
That just blew me away. My writing could show that I’m not reading enough? Like a writer’s DNA map spelling out all my faults? Yikes. I felt naked just sitting in the room with her. I wanted to cover up with a big fat copy of Anna Karenina.
Jill Corcoran, agent with the Herman Agency, when answering a question during the Agent Panel about the path she would recommend for a new, unskilled writer said, “You have to learn your craft. If you read a lot of books, you will discover your own voice.”
What a concept, eh? Read enough books and you’ll find your own voice? I love it! Are you a writer who struggles with voice? Ask yourself if you’re reading enough. (I know, I know, I talked about voice ad nauseum in the last post, but if you’re one who’s struggling with voice, maybe this is something that could help.)
Eugene Yelchin, illustrator and author of the Newbery Honor book Breaking Stalin’s Nose, expanded on this point a bit during the Picture Book Panel. When discussing the issue of trends in picture books, he said,“When you read tons of books, research them and say, ‘Can I be a part of that?’ It’s still you.”
I thought that was an interesting point. Even if you read tons of books, research them and figure out what makes them tick, when you go to write your own books, what comes out will be all your own; your own story told in your own voice, filtered through your own unique experiences. It all goes back to:
Be curious, be aware, be open …and read!
Of course! I have a whole page all about the books I’ve read so far this year.
There were also several book suggestions that I managed to scribble down furiously during the conference:
- Editor Farrin Jacobs was discussing characteristics of enduring stories and she recommended The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall and The Giver by Lois Lowry as stories with emotional truths of life.
- Editor Neal Porter gave First the Egg by Laura Vaccaro Seeger as an example of an enduring story.
- Three books that influenced author/illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi were The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum, Peter Pan and Wendy by James M Barrie, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
- Editor Krista Marino recommended The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan as having one of the most captivating first pages she’s ever read. She also recommended Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn as an adult novel with great tension, a real page turner.
- Agent Linda Pratt touted Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby as YA version of Water for Elephants. She gave it as an example of the type of realistic fiction she is looking for.
- Clare Vanderpool recommended Mystery & Manners: Occasional Prose by Flannery O’Connor – an essay collection on writing.
- Editor Ari Lewin recommended Chime by Franny Billingsley as an example of what she’s looking for. She also mentioned the following as pleasure reads: The Passage by Justin Cronin, The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles, The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, and The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart.
What about you? Do you have any reading suggestions?