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).

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. Don’t let the characters float on the page.  Anchor them with action.  Do not rely too heavily on dialogue.
  4. Have fun writing.
  5. Use magic writing spells.  She gave us a few of hers:  BIC = “Butt in Chair,”  HOP = “Heart on the Page,” PNF = “Passion not Fashion.”
  6. You may never be the best, but you can get better.
  7. Nobody outside of a fairy tale expects a happy ending. Do not look away from the hard choices.  Make your characters struggle.
  8. Fall through the words into the story.
  9. Not everything should be simple. Children’s literature should not be easy any more than adult literature should.  Stretch your readers (my words).
  10. 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.”
  11. 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.”?
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. YOU need an editor. Do not publish without one.  Period.
  15. Money flows toward the author, not away from the author. You get paid to publish your work, not the other way around.
  16. Ignore landscape at your peril. This is also a tough one for me, but Yolen says the details of surroundings must be precise.
  17. 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.
  18. Writer’s block is all in your mind. If you’re stuck, do not stop working.  Move on to a another project, something different.
  19. There are projects that you will never complete. Jane says: “Deal with it. Moaning about it is for sissies.”
  20. 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!!

Categories: Authors, Books, Children's Books, SCBWI, Writing · Tags: , , , ,

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20 Comments

  1. Good, sound advice from an old pro. Notice how Ms. Yolen didn’t come anywhere near suggesting there is some sort of “formula” for good writing (she’s too smart for that). You learn by doing, as Plato said a long time ago. Ya wanna be a writer, start putting words on paper. Learn from each story, poem or essay. Edit meticulously and NEVER accept the notion of “good enough”.

    Thanks for reproducing Jane’s smart words…

    • Cliff – I recognize you from LT and have visited your blog. Welcome to my corner of the world. I’m sure there are as many “formulas” for writing as there are writers – we all need to discover our own voices and write from there. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. After I looked up the word “pejorative” I enjoyed this post. Thanks for all the good advice, and for adding to my vocabulary.

    Can you expand on #13, regarding nurtured & nurturing?

    • I think what she was trying to say is too often writers (women especially) do not have a support network that values their work as work. She said her own husband, even 45 years ago, was willing to take the kids on weekends, change diapers, etc. to give her the time to write because he “knew she wasn’t playing.” Go him!

      Many writers, though, are cramming their writing into the tiny little blocks of time they have left after caring for and nurturing everyone else. I think she was saying value yourself, nurture yourself and nurture your writing, no matter what it takes. Recognize it for the important work it is.

      P.S. This is really more my take on what she said than what she actually said. 🙂

      • Thanks for elaborating. I thought that’s what she meant, I just couldn’t quite get my mind around it. I’ve thought often how we must carve out time for our writing, but I like how she used the term nurture. That puts an emotional tag in my brain that I can pull off of later.

  3. These rules apply to all writers, and it’s always good to see them restated and out there for people to see. Always good to be reminded too 😉 I’m far too fond of exclamation marks too but try to keep them out of my novel/story writing and only in emails/comments etc! lol

  4. From a French teacher-turned-writer (and fan of Top Chef), “a small taste to awaken the palate” is an amuse-bouche. Fancy restaurants serve one before the apps.

    Could she have been talking again about the first line?

  5. From a French teacher-turned-writer (and fan of Top Chef), “a small taste to awaken the palate” is an amuse-bouche. Fancy restaurants serve one before the appetizers.

    Could she have been talking again about the first line?

    Thanks for giving us Jane Yolen’s whole menu!

    (www.vbtremper.wordpress.com)

  6. Yes, amuse-bouche. In the restaurant world, it is often something the chef is experimenting with, and will send out for folks to try, especially to tables with regular guests.

    She was saying that if you step away from your main work-in-progress, take on these smaller projects as a diversion, something to challenge you, but something that can be quickly finished, so that you get right back to the main show.

    I hope that helps – it was a great talk.

    (And Julie, I think that was exactly what she was saying about nurturing.)

  7. Julie:

    A pleasure to run across a fellow Library Thing-er. Yet another indication your are endowed with a true love of words. To be a good writer, one must be a good, discerning reader.

    Er, that’s Rule #21…

  8. Thanks so much for sharing this. I think Jane Yolen has nailed it – beautifully and passionately put. THAT is why I write, and how I want to write.

    AND I learnt a new word… 🙂

    Great note-taking, btw. I’ll be sharing your link with others.

  9. Greetings from SCBWI Queensland, Australia. It was a bit too far for me to swim to NY this year. Many thanks, Julie, and all of you contributors for the info, and Kat for the link.

    I’ll be at SCBWI Bologna and the London Book Fair, and will try to reciprocate on my return. Anyone else going to either of these?

    Best wishes

    Peter Taylor
    SCBWI Queensland Coordinator
    http://www.writing-for-children.com

    • Peter, just found your comment (got caught in my spam filter for some reason). Will not be going to Bologna or London due to lack of budget. Hope you will keep us posted on your site.

  10. Love her. She is so talented. Thanks for the excellent recap!

  11. Some very good advice! And I also agree that she should have added “read a lot.” Thanks for sharing this.

  12. Thank you for sharing this! I adore Jane Yolen’s books … thanks for sharing all her tips!!!

  13. Fantastic! Thanks for sharing!

    http://jessicavitalis.com (Stop Pinching Your Sister!)

  14. I hadn’t heard all of those before, thanks for sharing. (would normally have put an exclamation mark there – oops used an adverb too)

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