When I think about writers I really love, Linda Sue Park's name always flies to the top of the list. It's not just because she's written some of the most beautiful, carefully observed novels around, the covers of which festoon this interview.
It's also that she's incredibly generous. The classes she teaches can be life-changing for writers who take them at the right time. She's on the SCBWI Board of Advisors. What's more, she blogs thoughtfully and enthusiastically about books she's reading and enjoying. So if you're looking for your next read, be sure to bookmark her blog and learn from a truly brilliant writer what makes a book great.
Linda Sue, who won a Newbery in 2002 for A Single Shard, is teaching a workshop at the conference this year. Read on for a sneak preview of what she'll talk about, and for updates of what she's reading and writing herself.
I was lucky enough to take your class on scenes last year and it felt like a revelation—the right information at the right time, and it made a lot of stuff click into place for me. Have you ever had that kind of experience with your writing that launched you where you are today?
My biggest 'revelation' occurred while I was reading a collection of essays by Katherine Paterson, in which she stated that she writes two pages a day. Major light-bulb moment! I didn't know if I could ever write a novel—novels are long and complicated and have lots of characters and threads and scenes—but I did know that I could write two pages in a day.
When I sit down to write, I NEVER use the word 'novel' in my head. I don't say, "Better get to work on the novel..." That's terrifying to me. I say, "I have this story I'm working on, and today I have to write two pages." I've written every single one of my novels this way.
Your master class on growing the middle grade novel is sold out. (Alas!) For people who can only dream of attending, can you share an insight or two from your syllabus?
Moment of panic: I'm supposed to have a syllabus?! *g*
Just kidding...mostly. OK, here's one point I'll be making. For me, character and setting are NOT separate elements. Example: If I say "a twelve-year-old girl who loves music", I might be able to picture her face, but nothing else about her is real. Her clothes, her hair, how she moves in space—she has NO substance for me unless I know *when* and *where* she lives. Before I can begin to write about a character, I have to have a specific setting in mind.
I believe we are all products of our time and place. My character's emotions might be universally human, but her actions, dialogue, thoughts—they're going to be determined by her personality AND by the time/place she lives in. So it's impossible for me to think of character and setting as two different entities.
Likewise, character and plot are hopelessly intertwined. In my master class, we'll be exploring how setting shapes character; how character determines plot; and how plot is affected by setting...in other words, how all three elements should work together seamlessly in a good novel.
What well-grown MG novels have you read lately that we all should pick up?
New titles: AS EASY AS FALLING OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH, by Lynne Rae Perkins. THE DREAMER, by Pam Munoz Ryan. ALCHEMY AND MEGGY SWANN, by Karen Cushman. Less new: THE MOSTLY TRUE ADVENTURES OF HOMER P. FIGG, by Rodman Philbrick. PRINCESS BEN, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock.
One thing I love about your blog and your class is that you tell us what you really think of books. That kind of honesty is rare. When you’re reading and evaluating a book, what’s running through your head? How do you articulate what’s working and what isn’t? How do you apply that to your own writing as you’re revising?
When I read, I'm a reader, not a writer. I read purely for pleasure. A good book means I'm turning the pages, compelled, immersed in the world of the story. I am definitely NOT 'evaluating' or 'analyzing'—until I hit a snag.
Poor editing, a continuity problem, a plot inconsistency...or worst of all, a 'believability' issue: Those moments take me abruptly out of the story world, and in that instant, I become a writer. I immediately try to identify what brought me out of the story and think about how I might have done things differently. I read so much that I get a ton of practice at this skill, which hopefully serves me well when it comes to reading my own work.
If the story I'm reading is good enough—and this is what usually happens, because there are so many good books out there that I have zillions to choose from—I get over the bump quickly, and get back into the story within a few seconds. But if the bumps occur too frequently, I get first annoyed, then dismayed, and then I put the book down and don't finish it.
One thing I wish folks would understand about my blog: I don't blog any title unless I like it. That's the reader part of me: I found the story compelling and I finished it, and I liked it enough to want to let other people know about it. But on occasion, I do comment on the 'bumps'. That's the writer part of me. No book is perfect, but each one is an attempt to make sense of a tiny corner of the world. Taking note of the bumps in otherwise very good books is for me a huge part of respecting the role Story plays in our lives. I know that this kind of honesty sometimes hurts people's feelings. I wish it didn't, but for me, Story as the paramount way we learn and communicate deserves nothing less than honesty, and is more important than any individual.
You’ve done some innovative projects lately: a 39 Clues book and The Exquisite Corpse. What’s it like to work on something like that? And how does it bode for the future?
It was a nice change of pace for me. Part of the reason I took on those two projects was because I wasn't working on anything at the time (see last answer, below). It turned out to be very exciting to be part of The 39 Clues team. I loved series books when I was a child and I've thought about writing a series. But I had doubts about my ability to write about the same characters in book after book. Writing STORM WARNING, Book #9 of the series, was the perfect fit for me: My book would be part of a beloved series, but I'd only have to write one title!
How do you decide what book you’re going to tackle next?
This one's easy: I am a one-idea-at-a-time writer. I usually don't have any ideas. No, scratch that--I get a lot of BAD ideas, but hardly ever any good ones. So when I get a good idea, I have to work on it because it's the only one I have. Natural corollary: I always think every book I write is the last one I'll ever write.
And that's something to consider: that all writers, no matter how well-published or well-known, suffer from self-doubt. The trick is to make it your friend—to use it to push you toward writing and revising better!
There's still time to sign up for the SCBWI summer conference in L.A., July 30-Aug. 2. Click here for registration and more information.
Watch Jim Averbeck interview Linda on the red carpet (or bathmat) at an ALA awards ceremony: