Jane Yolen delivered my favorite line of the SCBWI conference: “I want to know when the word ‘literary’ became pejorative.” Amen, sister!
If you don’t know who Jane Yolen is, I’m so sorry. You can find her biography here, but take my word for it when I tell you that you would be hard-pressed to find a more inspirational writer of children’s literature. And by literature, I do mean literature. Or take it from Newsweek, who labeled her “the Hans Christian Andersen of America.”
I own many of Yolen’s books and read them regularly to my children, but her heroism lies in her staunch insistence on and commitment to quality children’s literature. At the conference she said, “Instead of wanting to be a writer, too many people want to be millionaires.” She continues, “Even if the business of publishing is struggling, the business of storytelling is not.” At the end of the day, “…all we can count on is the joy of writing.”
After telling us that there really are no rules for writing, she proceeded to give us her 20 personal rules of writing. These rules are relevant to any writer – not just children’s writers. I took notes as quickly and faithfully as I could, but inevitably there is some paraphrasing here. I hope you will find these as useful and thought-provoking as I have (and do).
- Eschew the exclamation point! (okay, I couldn’t resist) Right away I am guilty. I know I overuse them. Basically, if your writing isn’t exciting enough on its own, the exclamation just serves to point that out to everyone else.
- Go easy on adverbs. Apparently, you could have made a 200 page book just out of the adverbs in the fourth Harry Potter book. But, as Jane says, “You are not J.K. Rowling. And neither am I.”
- Don’t let the characters float on the page. Anchor them with action. Do not rely too heavily on dialogue.
- Have fun writing.
- Use magic writing spells. She gave us a few of hers: BIC = “Butt in Chair,” HOP = “Heart on the Page,” PNF = “Passion not Fashion.”
- You may never be the best, but you can get better.
- Nobody outside of a fairy tale expects a happy ending. Do not look away from the hard choices. Make your characters struggle.
- Fall through the words into the story.
- Not everything should be simple. Children’s literature should not be easy any more than adult literature should. Stretch your readers (my words).
- Search long and hard for the right word. She quoted Mark Twain. “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
- The first line carries the rest of the book. This is especially true for picture books. She used the opening line of Moby Dick as an example. “Call me Ishmael.” What if the first line was, “My name is Ishmael.”?
- Exercise the writing muscle. Work at it every day. Yes, this means on weekends, holidays and vacations. If you write a page every day for 365 days, you have a 365-page novel at the end of a year. It might not be a good novel, but it would be a novel nonetheless.
- Every writer is nurtured or a nurturer, but rarely both. Most women writers are nurturers, but not nurtured. They try to squeeze the writing into very limited time. Her advice: “Do what you have to do.” Make the writing happen.
- YOU need an editor. Do not publish without one. Period.
- Money flows toward the author, not away from the author. You get paid to publish your work, not the other way around.
- Ignore landscape at your peril. This is also a tough one for me, but Yolen says the details of surroundings must be precise.
- Read what you’ve written aloud. This rule goes not just for picture books but all writing. You will notice more when you hear your written words spoken.
- Writer’s block is all in your mind. If you’re stuck, do not stop working. Move on to a another project, something different.
- There are projects that you will never complete. Jane says: “Deal with it. Moaning about it is for sissies.”
- Some french word from Top Chef? Here she started talking about some word they use on the T.V. show Top Chef referencing “a small taste to awaken the palate.” God only knows what she meant by this. I think my addled brains were spilling over by this time, so do with it what you will. Perhaps others who attended the conference remember? If so, let us know in the comments!
Her final words? “What are you still doing here? Get out there and write!!Authors, Books, Children's Books, SCBWI, Writing · Tags: Jane Yolen, Publishing, SCBWI, Writing, Writing Tips