Wow. Just wow.
There are so many amazing things that happened today, I can’t possibly blog about all of them. Luckily, I don’t have to. The amazing team at SCBWI is blogging the conference for you! It’s just like being there, minus the scramble for caffeine at the Lobby Starbucks and getting lost at the Century Mall while looking for the grocery store.
Not only is Linda Sue a talented writer, but she ran an insightful and inspiring workshop about writing middle grade and had the best description I’ve heard yet for the difference between middle grade and young adult: middle grade readers are finding out about the world, and young adult readers are finding out about themselves. I love that focus, and since I write both, it helped to sharpen my perspective about why I write differently for those two audiences.
I had to write constantly while listening to Linda Sue, because it seemed as if every word out of her mouth was important. Memorable. Requiring further study.
She posited that middle grade readers are learning about the world and finding out that the world isn’t fair. She wanted us to ask our middle grade protagonists: What are you going to do about it? Just because the world isn’t fair, doesn’t mean that it has to be miserable.
This question brought into relief the essence of middle grade novels and why I write them: I want to bring the world alive for middle grade kids, and ask them hard questions about larger themes like slavery and friendship and right and wrong. Linda Sue is clearly passionate about bringing out compelling themes in middle grade fiction, something that drives my writing as well. But she spent most of our too-short hour taking us through a writing exercise to show how plot, character, and setting are all tied up together, and how you should think about them intertwined as you write your middle grade novel.
Specific and Universal
First, she asked us to write (and share!) five things about ourselves that the other people in the room might not know. There was a range of funny to sad, poignant to joyful. Here were mine:
1) I’m allergic to pineapple
2) I once designed supersonic engines for NASA
3) I was elected to my local school board
4) I once ran biathalons, but now they would kill me
5) I have a Ph.D. in engineering, but studied global warming
You already knew I was a geek, but my fellow MG workshoppers didn’t.
Then, she asked us to repeat the exercise in the first person, about our main character.
Here’s mine for Kate, 13 year old protagonist of Byrne Risk:
1) I really miss my mom, and I don’t know why I have to have this stupid caretaker instead
2) I’ve secretly named one of my genetically engineered experiments “Perky”
3) I once raced my best frined Kip on our hover scooters to the junkyard…and let him win
4) My brother Duncan once snuck into my room to watch holos of our mom. I pretended I didn’t see him.
5) I don’t remember the planet I was born on.
One cool part about this exercise was to see elements that crossed over – ways in which we related to our MC’s. But the most important part was seeing how the particulars of time and space could quickly flesh out your character. In this way specific information (highlighted above) about setting is used to define your character – your character doesn’t exist outside of their setting, some floating head or amorphous “everyman” kind of creature. They exist because they are part of a specific time and place, and these are intertwined with your setting. Elements of your character that exist outside of this specificity, tend to be more universal (and often emotional), and these universal themes can often be drivers of plot or character motivation.
Linda Sue emphasized that you needed a balance of the specific and universal in describing your character, and that your character is not separate from your setting or plot.
Using the Default Setting
For contemporary settings, the “default” setting of “now” and “here” have to be even more carefully described than a fantastical future world in a different galaxy. If your story takes place in a middle school in 2010, you have to work as hard as a speculative fiction writer does to create a detailed world that is believable and specific enough to bring that setting alive for your reader. Otherwise it will feel empty and blank.
Defining the Stuff
Nothing could be more common than a child’s room. But if you walked into five different children’s rooms, you would instantly get a sense of those five different children, just from the stuff that filled their rooms. Long before you ever asked them any questions. Having a list of the stuff filling your main character’s room is a great place to start in visualizing them, placing them in the time and place (both past and present) that defines who they are.
OK, I’m off to digest the contents of a day overly filled with writing experiences. That is, I’m going to sleep.
p.s. live blogging will continue at the conference tomorrow, if you want to eavesdrop on the awesome going on here.