Thursday, September 30, 2010

Gennifer Choldenko urges us to "write up"

In reference to the last post but one, I thought I'd post my notes from a session at the summer conference of the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators in Los Angeles.

Gennifer Choldenko, author of Newbury Honor Book Al Capone Does My Shirts and other books, gave a talk titled "Kill the Bunnies" at the recent SCBWI summer conference in LA. Although you can find blog posts of all conference sessions at the SCBWI website, I'll add my own notes about highlights of the session here.

She urged us to question conventional wisdom about our audience. For example, she asked, is it true that children grow up faster today? Certainly, they appear outwardly more sophisticated, but it may also be that kids with helicopter parents take longer to mature.

Are attention spans shorter? With video games and the distractions of the online world, some suggest shorter chapters, shorter sentences, more action. But look at the length of best-selling books, the Harry Potter Books, the Mysterious Benedict Society books, the Eragon series-- many over 500 pages in length.

Delivery systems are expanding. The Diary of a Wimpy Kid stories began as a free online comic. Collaboration between story-telling and gaming is on its way. There will be more ways for a hard-working author to get a foot in the door.

She quoted E.B. White: "Write up for kids, not down." She urged us to get to the emotional core of our story, to find the door in the story that leads there. Meanwhile, each scene must in itself be gratifying to the reader.

As for her writing process, she says she cultivates the between state, halfway between dream and waking, with a notebook at the bedside. Ideas come when she lets go of an intense focus on the book and allows her mind to rest. She has to feel her way, not think her way, through a novel.

She reminds us that skill and practice matter, and reminds us of the 10,000 hour rule: it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at any trade. Among other things, this means we should not let marketing overwhelm our work. We should get out there to do promotion, but first and continually we have to make sure our work is worth reading.

Remember, she said, kids deserve our very best books. There is a kid out there who needs your book. Write for that kid. Write. Writing is the best part of this job.

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