This weekend, we cut down a tree in our yard to make space for a new fence.
I knew this work was happening, yet when I pulled into the driveway and saw the tree trunk lying there on the lawn, limbs chopped away and leaves stripped, my heart dropped a little bit. This wasn’t an old tree, or even one we had planted. It was just a young tree that had taken root on its own, and sadly in the wrong spot.
Still, it hurt to cut the tree down, as it hurts to end any life, even that of an ant or a fly. I wasn’t the kind of child who killed insects arbitrarily. Usually, I sought to re-home them, returning them to where they belonged and myself to where I belonged so that we could each live on in harmony, our worlds separate and yet part of a greater whole.
What’s interesting about the idea of re-homing or relocating is that it can be applied to writing. When we write, we don’t usually put the words in the right order the first time. And yet, it can feel as bad as cutting down a tree to erase some of our hard-fought words. It’s very hard to throw your work away.
Childhood me would say it doesn’t have to be that way.
What if instead of erasing, instead of deleting or removing or throwing away, we just re-homed our words? Relocation is so much more palatable than extermination.
Removing a part of your work is still difficult no matter what you do with the words, but in the instance of relocation the pain seems to diminish. It’s not quite so gutting to take your words and place them aside, in a file or a pile or a folder where you know they will live on safely while you move forward in your own space, the space you have made within your work for improvement by setting the old words aside.
This spring, as we bring in the new, consider (rather than throwing away), setting aside the old for a later date or another time, even if that time may never come. Sometimes freedom is not in the outcome of our actions, but in the act of breaking away.
Sometimes, all we need is a bit of space in order to gain a fresh perspective.
Every author dreams of making a meaningful connection with their readers. We crave the phrases that make your hearts clench, that stir your deepest fears and unleash your wildest hopes. What is the point of reading if not to FEEL? As a reader, I feel deeply. As an author, I strive to make my readers feel deeply, too, but communicating a meaningful observation about the human experience is not just a matter of heart–it’s a question of writing craft.
While there are many aspects of writing craft that help the reader connect with a story–voice, clarity, and meter, to name a few–today I’d like to discuss truth, and how delivering a story that rings true entices the reader to fall in love. Our hearts seek truth. In life, that’s our common goal: truth in purpose, in love, and in legacy. Without truth our victories ring hollow and our accomplishments feel thin.
The same is true of stories.
Truth in fiction requires all the complexity and nuance of life. If we leave our stories less than fully rendered, they cannot deliver the same gut-rending impact of real life events. It is our goal to make our stories connect, but how? In order to generate the sensation of truth in a fictional work, we need many different ingredients of story craft working together to create a semblance of reality. For me, the key components of this reality are specificity (or detail), originality, and complexity.
Think of what you ate for breakfast. Say you had an English muffin. It’s easy to dilute your action into a simple expression such as, “I had an English muffin for breakfast,” but that’s not particularly engaging to read, now is it? We know the facts, but only at the summary level. There is nothing specific about this action that compels us to care about what you had for breakfast. Our hearts are not inspired.
If instead, we heard about how chilly the kitchen tiles were beneath your bare feet, and how you sat opposite another place-setting, its plate empty but for a scant coating of dust, we begin to wonder. We’re comforted by the warmth of each buttery bite of English muffin, but we sense an underlying sadness from that empty place. What happened to you? What is your story?
As soon as you have the reader asking questions, you’ve got them. They ask because they care. When the heart is engaged, we can’t help worrying, wondering, and waiting. Our hearts demand answers. In order to give them to your readers, you must first get them to ask the questions by including meaningful detail in each moment of the story. If your moment has no meaningful detail, cut it. We only wish to read that which engages our hearts fully and leaves us turning the pages in search of answers. Meaningful details make a scene come to life. Without them, our story is no more real than a cardboard cutout.
These details about Finley’s father give him a specific and very real identity. He is a human being composed of a million odd parts, and here, Legrand gives us one to latch onto. Now we know him, and once known to us, we cannot help but care about him.
I’ve been reading Cheryl Klein’s amazing writing craft book, The Magic Words, and in it she talks about how important imagination is to a writer’s craft. Imagination is flexibility. It is surrendering oneself to creativity with the full knowledge that you will fail many, many times before you succeed. It is knowing that you will feel pain, frustration, sorrow, and fear from those many failures, and that when the answer comes, it may be with a greater measure of relief than true joy. The imagination is a fickle, dangerous thing. It takes a brave writer to use it, and use it well.
I’ve shared this video from John Cleese many times, but it always warrants sharing again! Have a laugh and a listen. My favorite quote: “Creativity is not a talent; it is a way of operating.”
The first time I listened to this video, I was gobsmacked by Cleese’s underlying message that creativity is a tolerance for failure–literally a tolerance for that twisting, anxious uncertainty that fills your gut when you’re searching for an answer.
The people who generate the most creative answers are very good at getting themselves into a particular mood in order to access their imagination, and then tolerating that awful sensation until they solve the problem at hand. This tolerance is the only thing that will get you to truly unique, original ideas. This matters because ideas that strike the reader as unique also ring with truth.
Ideas that we’ve seen many times before are cliche. They’re stereotypes. They’ve got a negative connotation that’s impossible to shake no matter how strong your voice or meter is. Fresh ideas, however, engage the reader’s imagination. They offer something new, something to understand and learn from–they offer new truths about the world that we have not yet discovered, and there is nothing more exciting for readers than discovery. After all, it is our life’s work to discover the truths of our existence.
Much the same way that detail makes a character or scene come alive, originality allows a premise to flourish in the reader’s mind. An original premise, an original expression of metaphor (see Lindsay Eager’s Hour of the Bees), an original turn of phrase, an original emotional insight, or an original connection to a commonly held belief–these fresh moments enthrall the reader and make it impossible for them to turn away.
Let’s go back to that English muffin from this morning. Details allow us to connect with this breakfast in a particularly meaningful way, but we can get even more mileage from this scene if we understand the layers of decision-making that led to it. It’s easy to get caught up in plot and end up with a story that reads A to B to C and so on, but without much real excitement no matter how daring the plot points are. Telling a story is not about describing a sequence of events, but showing your character’s choices as they move through the events.
Did I choose to eat the English muffin even though it’s the last one in the fridge and my husband will likely lose his temper and possibly strangle me for it? That’s a much more important breakfast than before. Similarly, if eating the English muffin reminds me of someone I’ve lost but I do it anyway, my choice is a mix of joy and pain, which is both contradictory and true.
Choices ARE messy. They don’t happen in an instant–even in an instant, half a dozen thoughts can tear through a character’s mind. Their choices aren’t simple. They’re complex. The reader needs to SEE this complexity in order to feel the character’s truth, because no human makes quick, clean choices and no character should either.
Here’s another example from Some Kind of Happiness:
Here, we see Finley’s full range of reasoning as she decides whether or not to visit the Everwood, the imaginary forest that has become real at her grandparent’s home, and is 100% off-limits. Finley doesn’t hide her thoughts from us. She confesses. She shares her deepest secrets. We see her worries about getting caught for breaking the rules. We see her concern for her cousin. We see her burgeoning desire to be someone needed and loved purely for what makes her unique. These truths all feed into her decision, and by showing them to us, Legrand wins our hearts.
My favorite rule of thumb to generate complexity within a character’s choices is to follow this pattern of decision-making:
First, the character feels. Then they think of their options. They anticipate what might happen if they make the wrong choice (or the right one). And finally, they make their decision.
This doesn’t mean that we need to see each of these steps with each choice our character makes–that would result in a novel far too long and tedious to capture anyone’s heart! Instead, pick the KEY moments. Where does your character need to reveal a deep fear? A wild hope? A secret desire? Allow us to peek behind the curtain of your character’s choices and we will feel the warm blush of a friend sharing a secret.
When a character trusts us, we care for them. We root for them.
As 2016 draws to a close, I have a lot to be thankful for. At the beginning of the year, I started an accomplishment jar. This is where I’ve captured a lot of the special moments from this year, so I can revisit them in the future. I’m grateful for every single one.
Thank you to the amazing educators who shared THYME’s story. You are wonderful and necessary and your work matters SO much.
Thank you to the dozens of classrooms I have visited via Skype across the country.
Thank you to the schools who kindly hosted me and the kids who asked such great questions. There is nothing like speaking to a room full of eager book nerds.
Thank you to the festival and #nErDcamp organizers who work so tirelessly to bring books and authors to their communities.
Thank you to the readers. My heart swells three sizes with every note.
Thank you to the libraries. You are essential.
Thank you to the independent book stores. You are the heartbeat of our communities.
Thank you to my writing family. You were the friends I needed before I knew that I needed you.
Thank you to the brave authors who continue to stand for what is good and true in this world. I am proud to stand with you.
Thank you to everyone who supported me this year. Writing is a team sport, and I couldn’t have done it without you. I wish you all the best in 2017!
Over the summer I had a conversation with some of my favorite educators on Twitter about contemporary middle grade stories that pair well with Counting Thyme. I’m a huge fan of many of the books they suggested, so I’m sharing them here today. If you or your students loved THYME, your next favorite read could be one of these great books!
Thanks to my wonderful Twitter peeps for helping me put this list together (shout-out to the #bookjourney crew)! I love read-alikes, which give us such a great opportunity to make connections across characters and stories. Feel free to share your faves and recommendations in the comments below. And if you’ve read THYME, don’t miss the reader participation campaign that launched this week!
This summer offered up a surprise for me. I experienced the joy of seeing Counting Thyme on summer reading lists around the country–something I hadn’t really anticipated in the way that all authors fail to anticipate their books’ lives beyond the manuscript phase. It’s been a truly incredible thing, and I was fortunate to write about the experience on The Booklist Reader, which you can read here.
Today, I’m sitting at my computer wondering what day it is, mainly due to spending the last few days at nErDcampMI, the annual grassroots education summit hosted by Colby and Alaina Sharp in Parma, Michigan. nErDcamp is more than just a literacy event–it’s a meeting of like minded nerds from across the Midwest and the country, all in service of books. So yes, it is basically the best thing ever.
Things I learned at nErDcamp 2016:
I need to work on my selfie game. These educators are ON IT.
The brain power at nErDcamp is something you can feel in the air.
Kathy Burnette opens NerdTalks
I could listen to picture book author/illustrators talk ALL DAY.
Deborah Freedman, Greg Pizzoli, and Lauren Castillo
Panels with kidlit authors are the most fun.
Me with Adam Shaughnessy, Aimee Carter, John David Anderson, Kate Beasley, and Kelly Barnhill
That Mr. Schu really knows how to work a crowd!
I love talking with readers. You guys are the best.
Kids are amazing!
Opening of nErDcamp Jr.
I have major serious face when I teach stuff.
Teaching a workshop on developing voice through letter-writing with 6th graders.
Volunteers make the world go round.
Passing out character names for our voice exercise
Once a nerd, always a nerd. Thank you nErDcampMI!!!
For those who are curious, the voice exercise I taught to the 6th graders is based on this post on writing craft that I wrote for Adventures in YA Publishing. The students were each assigned a character (name, age, one-word description) and asked to write a letter from that character to someone else in the character’s life. I asked them to think about who their character might miss, or who they were mad at, or who they needed to share a secret with. The kids all caught on very quickly, and the surprise was that at least three students shared each character prompt, so they also got to see how their writing voices varied as we read their letters aloud.
Wow! The last couple of months have been a doozy. I’m not sure what I expected to happen after Counting Thyme left the nest, but I think this is one of those situations that you can’t really be prepared for no matter what you do in advance.
There are moments in life that stand out in that regard: living on your own for the first time (you mean I have to FEED myself???), getting your first pet (you mean other people go OUT after work???), and having your first child (still trying to figure out that parenting bit!!!).
The publication of a book shares the same free-falling, exhilarating and also frightening feeling of these other milestones in life, but with one key difference:
Yes, people coo over your dog/cat/baby photos (as required), but there’s something unique about putting a story into the world, I think because you get to share it part and parcel with other people. The story becomes an experience for readers, and in that way it belongs to them. When we read stories, we discover each other. We find common ground. And hopefully, we grow, so that we can figure out some of this other stuff going on in our lives.
Thank you to everyone who has been in touch by email, snail mail, social media and in real life. I’m astounded by the wonderful images and notes you’ve shared with me, so today I’m sharing them, with my deepest thanks.
Wow, y’all! This past week (or two) has been an amazing experience. After meeting so many enthusiastic young readers and hearing from so many incredible educators, I am filled with a great love for the bookish people of the world. I had so many incredible first time experiences, from attending the LA Times Festival of Books to author visits with over 400 students, and I learned so much.
I learned that book festivals are AMAZING events full of passionate readers!
I learned that I *can* sign names without miss-spelling them, even while people talk!And even though this first stretch of parties and book events is over, I’ve learned that the journey for Counting Thyme is just beginning. I love all of the pictures, letters, and messages I’m receiving. Keep them coming! Soon, I’ll share an opportunity for young readers to celebrate the theme from Counting Thyme of valuing what every individual brings to the world.
Thank you ALL for taking this ride with me! I can’t wait to see where we go next.