Wednesday, May 21, I had the privilege of visiting Mrs. Rants’ fourth grade class at Julia Butler Hansen Elementary in Olympia, Washington. The kids were enthusiastic, polite, and full of questions. They, and their teacher, had “done their homework”—they had already checked out my website and even read Princess Buttermilk Biscuit’s interview.
I showed them the older editions of the first three Hall of Doors books, which I was donating to their school, and the books I have currently available on Amazon (The Hall of Doors, Fairy Gold). After I read a chapter of The Mountains of the Moon, the barrage of questions began.
We talked about the writing of the Hall of Doors series and other books, about writing (including editing and publishing) in general, and about the power of story to affect our lives and others.
As I’ve shared before, the original story that became the first Hall of Doors book was written to comfort a granddaughter whose cat had died at the same time as her parents were divorcing. I couldn’t do much about the family situation, but I could offer another way of thinking about the cat. What if she didn’t die, but went off to some magical place to have adventures?
A major topic of discussion was the process of writing. You have an idea--or the beginning of one—but how do you get it on paper (or in a computer file)? Do you plan it all out, or just start writing? I shared with them that for certain types of writing, particularly non-fiction, some pre-planning is needed. You can’t just jump into a persuasive essay, for example, without making an outline or at least a list of the points that lead to your intended conclusion. Some people write fiction the same way. They spend a lot of time planning, working out plot details, before they even begin to write the story. Some begin at the beginning and write until they get to the end.
On the other hand, many fiction writers start with imagining characters in a setting, then turn them loose to see where they go. Sometimes the characters can become so “real” in your mind that they run away with the story, surprising the author. My current novel series began with a painting that intrigued me. I studied it until I had some idea of who the subjects of the painting were and what they were doing. That scene became the middle of the story, as I asked myself what happened before, and what happened after. There is, in my opinion, no “right” or “wrong” way to construct a story. The important thing is to get it down.
How long does it take? Anywhere from a few days to several years. Most of us don’t sit at the computer and write non-stop. It’s an off-and-on process, woven in with the other activities of your life, with a lot of the “writing” taking place in your head while you’re doing other tasks.
Once you have your story written, what then? Writing is mostly re-writing. You go through it, probably many times, looking for ways to make it better. This is when you take off your “writer’s hat” and put on your “editor’s hat” to correct spelling and grammar, make your sentences flow more smoothly, maybe even re-arrange the whole story to make it more interesting. (Thank goodness for computers at this stage—no need to physically cut up the manuscript, tape it together, and re-type the whole mess.) I cautioned them not to throw away the old versions. You may decide to use something you cut out of the story, or it may even become part of another story.
Once you’re satisfied with the story, are you done? No, that’s where critiquing comes in. It’s time to share with others and to get their opinions. This is the scary part. What if someone doesn’t like your story? Don’t worry about it. It’s just one person’s opinion, and people have different tastes. If you like chocolate ice cream and someone else prefers vanilla, why should that bother you? There are no bad critiques, because each one tells you how one person reacted to your story. If several people are misunderstanding what you were trying to say, maybe you need to think about saying it differently, to make it clearer. Take what you can use to make the story better, and let the rest slide off as if you were wrapped in Teflon.
This attitude can get also you through the rejections when you start submitting your work for publication. If an agent or publisher says “no” that can mean anything from “This is chocolate and I prefer vanilla,” to “I have a dozen other stories that are similar and don’t need another.” Shrug it off and send it somewhere else.
Much of the discussion focused on Princess Buttermilk Biscuit (BB), the cat from The Mountains of the Moon who leads her girl, Sammy, up a moonbeam to a world of mist and magic. BB is becoming quite famous.
One of the students wrote a poem about cats during the discussion. He gave it to me afterward, and agreed that I could share it. It was written as one continuous line, so the arrangement below is partially me playing editor.
Soft kitty, warm kitty,
Little ball of fur,
Big kitty, small kitty,
Purr, purr, purr.
Too many kittens,
So, so cute.