Monday, November 11, 2013

Guest Post: Shawn Stout on Writing About Talking About Writing Middle Grade (It Gets Worse from Here)

By Shawn Stout
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I’m really rubbish at a lot of things.

Athletics. Keeping plants alive. Singing.

Actually, I can sing without any problems, it’s just the sounding good part that I stink at.

Washing windows. How do you keep the tiny fuzz on the paper towels from getting stuck on the glass, anyway?

Never mind. I don’t really want to know.

Also, talking about writing. Don’t misunderstand, I love to hear other people, in particular my fellow VCFA-ers, talk about writing. They call it craft.

“Kraft?” I ask them. Because with this I am well-acquainted and could talk at length about a certain orange cheese that comes in a rectangle.

No, Shawn. Craft.

Oh. See? Rubbish.

So, when wonderfully talented and beautiful Cynthia Leitich Smith asked me to talk a little bit about writing middle grade books, I immediately said of course.

And then right after, I fetched a cold compress.

The thing is, I’ve written a couple of middle grade books. My sixth book is coming out in the middle of October, and thanks to the brilliant folks at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I have learned a lot about story and characters and plot and tension and arc and all kinds of other things.

But it’s the talking about writing part that makes me feel…well, like I’m playing dress up.

Because the truth is, each time I sit down to write, I get the overwhelming feeling that I don’t know what I’m doing and am put off balance when I actually get words on a page that start to tell a story. Somehow more words come. And then by some miracle more…until one day, what do you know, there’s a book. It’s magic.

But magic is not helpful, craft-type information, is it? No, I didn’t think so.

So, I went to the place that I often go to for answers to life’s tough questions: wikiHow. It’s the craftiest.

wikiHow’s entry “How to Write a Middle Grade Novel” gives step-by-step instructions on, you guessed it, how to write a middle grade novel.

Understand your audience, create a protagonist, come up with a fiendish plot…Okay, this isn’t helping so much. These are the basics, for certain, but they aren’t really any different from writing any other type of fiction, are they? They aren’t going to help me sound like an expert writer.

(On a side note, did you ever notice that the word expert looks really weird when you stare at it for a long time? Expert. Ex. Pert.)

Oh dear, if wikiHow can’t help me, who can?

This got me thinking. How do you become an expert writer, anyway?

When do you make the leap from don’t-know-what-I’m-doing-throwing-words-at-a-page-hoping-something-makes-sense writer to I’ve-solved-the-mysteries-of-the-written-word-and-I-can-comfortably-and-confidently-share-my-vast-knowledge-with-the-world writer?

Is it after awards have been won, after expectations of sales have been exceeded, after seven books have been published? Eight? Ten?

I don’t have the answers. Right now, I don’t know how I wrote my last book and am quite certain I won’t be able to write another. Despite having written and having been lucky enough to be published, I’m even more certain that I am not qualified to give advice on the subject.

Writers are playing against themselves in a game where there are no rules. And without rules, how do you know when you’ve won?

But maybe self-doubt is just one of those things that come with being creative. You know, things like addiction to tea, love of track suits, and obsession with cat videos on the Internet.

Maybe self-doubt has a part to play in all of this. Perhaps it is a necessity, along with a healthy balance of ego, serving to help us revise, improve, and stretch beyond expectations. Without self-doubt, wouldn’t there only be one draft? We’d call it brilliant, we’d call it expert, but really it would be rubbish.

So, maybe there are no true experts. Maybe a writer is always trying to be a writer, always learning, figuring out how to talk about writing. And trying not to be rubbish at it. But what do I know?


Lori said...

Brilliance and modesty and genius all rolled in one - thank you for this posting, Shawn. I'm sharing out with my students- for whom I impart knowledge not always sure that I can do the same myself, though I try, try, try!

Rebecca Van Slyke said...

I'm right there with ya, Shawn. EVERY time I go to the well, KNOWING that it will be dry, there's enough for one. More. Story.
Until the next trip to the well...
Like you said:

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