Friday, June 27, 2008

Summer Words

Greetings from the Aspen Summer Words Festival. Between workshops, presentations, and panel discussions, it has been a full itinerary. I have been working with 12 students, who have written manuscripts for young readers. They range from very young picture books to non-fiction for middle grade readers to YA novels. The question that is constantly put to me by hopeful writers is, "How do you do it? How do you take an idea and turn it into a story?" I wish I had a secret I could pass on, some code word that enables me to sit at my computer and "land flights of creative inspiration like a traffic controller," as another writer once told me. But I don't. All I know is that the process is pretty much the same for every writer I know. And that is to sit down, turn on the computer or pull out pen and paper, and write one word at a time, until words become sentences, sentences paragraphs, paragraphs chapters, and so on.
I do have a few good hints. Here's one. I never begin a book without a sense of beginning and end (although I reserve the right to change it later). Writing fiction or non-fiction is like making a sandwich. You need two pieces of bread to hold the parts together so they don't fall out. What you put in the middle (in a sandwich or a story) can be an improvisation. You can make it up as you go along. But at least you have the security of knowing where you came from and where you are headed.
But mostly I tell students that writing is hard work. It takes talent to be a writer. But perseverence is even more important. And research the market. See what's out there. I met the delightful agent, Jennifer Flannery of Flannery Literary. She represents such authors as Gary Paulson and Pete Hautman. She talked about the fact that bookstore sales for children's books are on the rise. Authors of non-fiction have always relied on the wonderful support and enthusiasm of librarians and teachers, but it's good news that bookstores are including more non-fiction on their bookshelves.

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