One of the most versatile and accomplished writers in children's literature shares her advice!
Over the years, we’ve given readers, aspiring authors and lovers of children’s literature the opportunity to interact directly with some of their favorite writers. The result: a number of revealing conversations with some remarkable authors. We’re proud to present a few of the best.
In this installment: Dian Curtis Regan. Dian has authored more than 50 children's books in every genre imaginable. Her credits include picture books, chapter books, middle-grade and young adult novels, covering an impressive range of topics. Learn more about this prolific — and superb — children's writer at http://www.diancurtisregan.com/ A few years back, Dian kindly agreed to answer questions from our readers. She gave some great advice, and we're pleased to present it to our Fightin' Bookworms!
I recently decided that I wanted to write and illustrate a book for children. My main problem is wondering where to start. I feel that I have a solid idea, but I become paralyzed when I actually try to write. What would you suggest a first time author do to overcome those fears?
Feeling "paralyzed" when you try to write means that your left brain is overriding your right brain. Your logical side is saying, "This is a ridiculous idea. I can't write a book." One way to get around this is to approach writing in a playful manner. Don't think, "Oh my gosh, I'm writing a book." Play with the story idea. Singsong the lines. Play a "what if" game with the main character: What if Jamie opened the door to her bedroom and found a forest instead of the hallway? Play pretend. What happened next? Become 9 year old Jamie in her fantasy world.
"Clustering" is a way of unlocking your right brain, the creative side. I've used it many times and have taught it to my students. The idea is simple. Take a word or phrase–perhaps the good idea you've come up with–and quickly jot down everything that pops into your mind. Scribble all over the page. Do NOT stop to think or analyze or read what you have written so far. That is your left brain trying to limit you again. Keep brainstorming for a minute or two. The subconscious brain makes all kinds of connections that will amaze you. Once I wrote "peanut butter" while clustering the word "lonely." Where did THAT come from? When I'm home alone for dinner, I often eat a peanut butter sandwich. Bingo.
Story idea: A latchkey child who lives on peanut butter sandwiches. While using this technique with students to develop a main character for a story, we went from a very stilted, ordinary girl to a girl whose socks never match, who can't go into a shop without secretly trying to steal something, and who is embarrassed because her nose is always runny. The students were amazed by the vivid character they'd created–all by clustering. Try it. Children's books are playful, therefore the writing of them should be, too.
While waiting for my agent to sell my first book, I'm having trouble getting focused on something new, although I have several ideas. I'm afraid to get deeply involved in something new and have to stop and rewrite the sold book. When you first started writing, did you ever have such a problem? If so, how did you handle it?
I have that problem every day. :> One thing I've been forced to learn is how to change gears mid-stream. When I was writing Ghost Twins, I often had to read the copy-edited ms. of one title while reading the galleys of another, while writing yet another. And in between–believe it or not–I was writing the Monster of the Month Club Quartet, Home for the Howl-idays, and rewriting Princess Nevermore. It's much easier to stay focused on one project at a time, but life isn't always that coordinated. This week I discovered a teacher from one of my chapter books walking and talking in the middle grade novel I'm writing. Gee, I wonder how HE got in there? :> I had to go back and change his name to the correct one.
Dive into a new project and don't worry about when and if revisions are coming on something else. You might even finish another book before they arrive. If not, just put the book-in- progress on the shelf and get re-acquainted with the other project. You can do it.
Which is more difficult for you, writing picture books or novels?
Definitely picture books. A writer's goal should be to take all those elements that make a 200 page novel great: a terrific character, inventive plot, conflict, tension, suspense, and a fast pace–and put them into a 5 to 10 page manuscript. What you leave out is just as important as what you put in. You have to tell part of a story and let the illustrations tell the rest. Hard for me to leave *out* all those details and descriptions I learned to put *in* as a novelist. My picture book Dear Dr. Sillybear was rewritten countless times in an effort to leave OUT details, and, since it's humor, to get the wording exactly right to make the jokes work. I actually spent more time working on that 7 page manuscript than I spent writing some of my novels.
How do you switch between the different kinds of books you write? Do you change your writer's "voice" with each book?
I find it relatively easy to click into the voice of a 15 year old or a 12 year old. However, when I'm working on chapter books with younger characters, it's more difficult for me to find the right voice. The solution is to spend time around 8 to 9 year olds, listening, until a character comes to you. I'm attempting completely different voices for a few new middle grade projects I'm working on. I think a writer needs to do this so that his/her books do not all sound alike. It's easy to fall back on what you've done before, but difficult to project yourself into a new persona.
What's the best piece of advice you got when you were starting out as a writer?
I was once in a critique group with an adult novelist. She "made" me keep working on the opening of a young adult novel until it was just right. Her advice? Stretch yourself. Go beyond the easy solution to the story's conflict. Toss aside the first ideas that come to you and dig deeper into the psyche of your character. Don't settle for the ordinary. Press on to find the extraordinary elements of your story. Granted, all this takes more time and thought and energy, but the end result will be uniquely yours. Plus, it won't sound all-too-familiar to a tired editor who's seen the same characters and plots many, many times. And with that, I heartily pass on her advice. :)