Thursday, October 25, 2012

Guest Post: Beck McDowell on The Blinking Cursor

By Beck McDowell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

“Why do you write?” a boy asked me from the back row during a school visit recently. His tone indicated that he, personally, would rather be beaten about the head with a USB cord and, clearly, I had some sort of mental deficiency for choosing writing as a career.

My answer was instinctive. “Because this book,” I said, holding up a copy of This Is Not a Drill (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin, 2012), “was once a blank page. It began as a blinking cursor.”

I’m still in awe of the magic of the creative process.

To start with nothing and create a book or song or poem or dance. It’s like that great line in "Shakespeare in Love" – “It’s a mystery.” Even those of us who write aren’t really sure how it happens.

Yes, there are important steps you can take to prepare yourself for the task. I wrote for high school and college newspapers, majored in English and minored in journalism, was a book addict all my life, read about 30 books on the craft of writing, studied online bloggers’ advice about agents and query letters, and spent years helping my students find good books.

But the truth is: when you finally commit to “Butt in Chair, Fingers on Keys,” all you really have is faith and hope – faith in yourself to harness that idea swirling in your brain. And hope that there will be people who want to read it.

Has it happened to you? The germ of an idea appears – like a gift from the universe – and you know in your heart it bears your name. It lights on your shoulder, fragile and tentative, but persistent – circling back around to land again when you shrug it off. Reappearing each time you look away. Demanding that you admire its colors and examine its unique markings.

The idea tugs at your subconscious while you’re eating breakfast, whispers in your ear when you’re watching TV, leaves you wondering where you were going when driving your car.

Make no mistake - that nugget will ultimately require many hours of polishing before it shines. I spent months poring over multiple drafts of each page before submitting This Is Not a Drill.


Beck says: I don't use curtains or blinds 'cause I love the "green" canvas for my brain to paint on. I also love cute notebooks for fleshing out details and using a "real" thesaurus. The glass penguin was a gift from my sister right after I signed with Penguin.

Dylan Thomas wrote 200 drafts of his poem "Fern Hill," but I’m convinced he began with “prince of the apple towns” – an image that came to him unexpectedly from a source he couldn’t name, one that wouldn’t let him go until he recreated his childhood on paper.

The idea for This Is Not a Drill called to me, even in my sleep. I never consciously worried about violence entering my classroom, but I dreamed about it on several occasions. Some parts of the story that came to me surprised me – that it took place in a first grade classroom, for example; I’d taught middle and high school for years.

And then there were deep truths I expected all along – that teens find they have more strength and wisdom than they know when they’re required to step up in a crisis.

Is there an image that won’t let you go? An idea that floats through your thoughts on tissue-bright wings, waiting for you to follow it?

Embrace the magic. Turn that blinking cursor into a sentence, then a paragraph, then a page and a chapter. Take it one step at a time, but begin today. You’ve been chosen to tell this story. It’s your destiny. It’s magic. “It’s a mystery.”

Cynsational Notes

Join Beck on the rest of her blog tour: Oct. 26 at A Life Bound by Books; Oct. 29 at The Story Siren; Oct. 30 at YA Bliss; Oct. 31 at Buzz Words Books; Nov. 1 at YA Love Blog; Nov. 2 at Icey Books; Nov. 5 at Nerdy Book Club; Nov. 6 at The Naughty Book Kitties; Nov. 7 at The Compulsive Reader; Nov. 8 at Teach Mentor Texts; Nov. 9 at Confessions of a Bookaholic; Nov. 12 at Katie's Book Blog; Nov 13 at Alluring Reads, Nov. 14 at Page Turners Blog; and Nov. 15 at My Best Friends are Books.

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