Writers are often given the advice, “Write what you know.” Your two books Small as an Elephant and Paper Things are set in a place you know (Maine), but the struggles of the children in these books are not your experiences. What is your advice for helping writers use what they know in their writing?
Although my life story is different — I have never been abandoned by a parent or had to couch-surf for an extended period of time — I have experienced all of the emotions that Jack and Ari experience. For instance, while at school, Ari grapples with alienation and fears of inadequacy. I wasn’t homeless when I was Ari’s age, but I was frequently ill. I, too, struggled with the loss of friendships and the feeling of being left behind. So in a way, I am writing what I know – just sideways. My advice for writers? If you want to write about something you don’t know about, do careful research.
Can you talk about your process for reading your own work?
While writing, I reread my work (both silently and aloud) over and over and over again. I’m reading for meaning, to determine the presence (or lack) of voice, to make sure the sentences delight. I’m checking the pacing (does the story have to speed up or slow down?) and I’m fixing conventional errors. Rereading gives my brain a chance to slow down and think about my reader – to consider what the reader might be longing for at any given point. It’s an essential part of the process.
In your book No More, I’m Done you offered lessons for teachers to foster more independence in writing for primary writers. What are some habits or routines you have found that help support more independent writing (close writing) for our middle grade writers?
Here are the things that I believe support independence in all writers:
- Daily writing (even if it’s only for ten minutes)
- Choice of topic (even though everyone may be writing in the same genre). When students choose their own topics, they write with more engagement and voice. They have time to think when away from the writing (as all writers are apt to do) and they never utter “I’m Done!” in class, because they know that if one piece is finished, they simply start another.
- Time to think (staring into space is a POSITIVE writer-like behavior). I recommend beginning Writer’s Workshop with “Quiet 5” in which the teacher plays soothing music and everyone in the room writes without talk or movement – even the teacher.
- Time to share (Sharing our work builds a sense of audience and helps us develop a better understanding of the reader’s needs.)
You have written some fun series books (Andy Shane, Winnie series) Is there any advice you could offer for writers (middle grade students) who might want to create their own series?
Spend time developing your characters. The more you know about your characters — their strengths and weaknesses, their funny-little quirks –- the easier it will be for you to tell multiple stories about them.
What authors inspire you?
When I was learning to write, I reread all of E.B. White’s books. In fact, if I were forced to choose only one story to learn from it would be Charlotte’s Web. Thankfully, I don’t have to choose one source of inspiration! So I continue to learn from Jane Kurtz, Gary Schmidt, Thanhha Lai, Megan Jean Sovern, Jacqueline Woodson, Clare Vanderpool, Neil Gaiman, Anne Ursu, and many, many others!