for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations
It’s opening night. I am sitting in the audience at the debut of a play I had written.
I remember thinking as I watched, “This is as much as I know right now.” It wasn’t a negative thought. I simply knew that this play was the culmination of everything I knew up to that moment.
The next play I wrote would be the sum of more knowledge. I knew that I would learn from each attempt. I knew I would grow every time I came to the page.
And I did.
The thing is, in my career so far as a writer, I have come to a lot of different pages: plays, newspaper and magazine stories, a screenplay, a picture book. I used to look at that pathway and say stuff like, ‘Well, you’ve certainly wandered all over the place.’
Now I look back and I can see that it all made sense. That each page in each genre taught me a bit more. I can see it because in my YA novel--all of those teachers showed up.
My first playwriting professor Len Berkman used to say you need something new to happen every three inches on the page. This doesn’t mean that a bomb drops at the top of the page, a bigger bomb drops half way down the page and then the annihilating bomb drops at the bottom of the page.
No, Len was talking about pacing, about dropping breadcrumbs so that the audience is learning and going deeper into the world of the play with you. His measurement was three inches.
Theater also helped hear the voice of a character. It helped me with dialogue and intention. I love revealing character through what they say. How little. How much. I love hearing their secret desires in their words and silences. Dialogue also moves the pace of your writing along.
Journalism helped me probe for truth. I loved interviewing people. I loved watching how they would open up. I would watch how they would avoid certain topics.
From those interviews, I became aware of the lies that certain characters told. We are all tell ourselves lies, some greater than others.
But when I’m developing a story and a character, I always ask them, “What do you not want people to know? What are you hiding? What are you lying to everyone about?”
Answering those questions will often lead me to the emotional arc of the book.
Though I have only had one picture book published, I wrote many more and every time I did, I remember thinking, How can a story with 300-700 words be told so many ways?
In my mind, picture books are masterworks. Every time I come to the page now I bring a spareness to my storytelling. And a massive respect for verbs. If you get the right verb in a sentence, it tells a story all on its own.
All of these pages led me to my debut young adult novel Evidence of Things Not Seen (FSG, 2014).
I hope you can hear the theatre in my first person sections.
I hope the pacing makes you turn the page and draws you deeper into the story.
I hope you can see the characters struggle with the truth of their lives in the third person sections.
And I hope you appreciate the spare quality of the writing and all the spaces that allow the reader to enter in.
What’s next? Something, for sure. Because no matter what, I am a writer. And the next page will logically turn after this one.
As always, I’m excited to see what it will be.
Cynsational Screening Room