Writing Kidlit Magical Realism

 

Gene Wolfe advises young writers at the Shared Worlds camp. Via BuzzFeed

Today, I stumbled across this piece of writing advice from sci-fi writer Gene Wolfe. “Start the next book.”

Yikes! I’m still editing The Temple of Lost Time with my ASA mentor. I just finished an epic overhaul involving the wholesale slaughter of darlings and ruthless culling of scenes that slimmed my pudgy 66,000-word manuscript down to a lean 54,000 words with a taut-n-terrific middle. Next we polish.

I can’t possibly start something else.

Can I?

I’ve been reluctant to work on multiple writing projects at once. What if I mix up characters or lose the voice of one work or do something stupid with the files?

Erm, no. I’ve realised two things. First, it’s unlikely that I’d have two manuscripts at the same stage of development. The kind of thinking and energy required in pre-writing is very different to that of outlining, drafting, revising and finessing.

Second, I will not manage to create a significant body of work if I maintain my current ambling pace. Just as stores need stock to sell, serious writers need finished works. It’s time for me to shift gears to generate more stories.

Off the Back Burner

My Graceland (working title) project is so exciting I’m almost giggling at the prospect of sticking my fingers into its gooey belly. After some 12 months of preparatory mulling and reading, I have a protagonist named Tallulah and a cast of odd-bod characters, a cool setting I can’t wait to explore, an intriguing genre, and the first shreds of research.

yaroslav-blokhin-341149

Graceland will be a contemporary middle-grade coming-of-age story with a dusting of magical realism. I want to create a story that feels like Roald Dahl’s Matilda—funny and poignant, filled with heartbreak and hope, but with a darker, issue-laden backdrop. The Secret Life of Bees comes to mind, but my protagonist will be 12 or 13, a year or two younger than Lily Owens in Bees. And I want some wry Aussie humour to buoy it. Think: Cloudstreet for kids.

Why Magical Realism?

We all know the adage: Write the book you want to read. Well, the book I just described is exactly what I want to read. If I l lined my favourites on a shelf, I would see a trend – a strong leaning toward magical realism, which I love because it’s atmospheric. Think of The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Secret Lives of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Skellig by David Almond

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Even elements of The Secret Garden could be considered magical realism.

The bigger question is what is magical realism. It’s a valid question, because just about everyone—including authors, agents and editors—is confused.  It’s no wonder: magical realism is by nature vague. Simply put, it portrays a mundane world where magical (or miraculous) things happen without question or explanation.

 “If you can explain it, then it’s not magical realism.” – Luis Leal

I have been reading up on the genre for a while now to prepare myself. I hope I can pull it off. It takes a light touch to get the balance of realism and magic right—subtle yet substantial. It can’t be tinsel and bobbles tossed on at the end. It has to lie in the warp and weft of the story. More reading is required. With any luck, I’ll absorb ‘it’ by osmosis.

Really Good Magical Realism Resources

Lindsay Moore‘s Magical Realism article on the Emory Postcolonial Studies site presents a brief academic overview with two examples and a useful list of characteristics.

How about an academic  article that refers specifically to magical realism in children’s literature? In particular, David Almond’s Skellig. Don Latham’s paper is insightful. Particularly useful are the references to Wendy Faris’s five characteristics of magical realism. What a find this was! It came from a site called Alice’s Academy, which is an off-shoot of The Looking Glass: New Perspectives in Children’s Literature, a database which is now hosted by Australia’s La Trobe University. #RabbitHoleWarning!

Agent-Editor-Author Michelle Witte has a 5-part series that unpacks magical realism and gives some examples of texts. She boils it down to “ordinary events with a touch of the extraordinary.” Michelle’s series is comprehensive and avoids getting bogged down in the political and historical roots of the genre/movement. Those are interesting and valid points, but they don’t help with creativity.

Ted Gioia, a world authority on jazz and books, covers the latter on one of his sites, Conceptual Fiction. One year, he completed A Year of Magical Reading, reading and reviewing a book a week that incorporates elements of fantasy, magic, or the surreal. Use this one to find well-written reviews on what Ted calls Conceptual Fiction, which is literary genre fiction. I spent a couple of hours browsing his virtual shelves. #RabbitHoleWarning!

My Goodreads Magical Realism shelf  has over thirty titles to consider. Take a look if you’re looking for titles for kids or adults. Or the HuffPost has nine suggestions for grown-ups.

[I will add more resources as I find them.]

Going to Graceland

Now that I’ve given myself permission to work on Graceland, I’ll continue reading magical realism for grownups and children. I’ll research elements of the story (setting, themes, etc) in earnest, looking for my propelling nugget of goodness or PNG, a deliciously quirky fact that makes my story take off. And I’ll start planning my character arcs working toward an outline…

…All while polishing the other MS, The Temple of Lost Time.

Over to You

Do you have a favourite magical realism title? What do you think about working on more than one project at a time? Got any tips?

Image Credits

Gene Wolfe’s hand via BuzzFeed

Record Store by Yaroslav Blokhin via Unsplash

Staying Ground by Rob Potter via Unsplash

Exciting Update on Greenglass House

CelebrateEdgarsWinGreenglassHouse

Some ticker-tape for Kate Milford, winner of 2015 Edgars (Children’s Book)

Did you read my April 2015 book review of Kate Milford’s middle grade mystery Greenglass House? I’ve got great news to share!

We Picked a Winner!

Kate Milford won the children’s category of the 2015 Edgars.

Congratulations to Kate and the team at Clarion Books for creating such a captivating, atmospheric story. It’s a gorgeous book.

The Edgar Awards are an initiative of the Mystery Writers of America. The highly coveted prize is recognised as one of the most prestigious in the mystery genre. Kate Milford is rubbing shoulders with the likes of Ellery Queen and Louise Penny. Stephen King took out best novel this year for his book Mr. Mercedes.

I wholeheartedly agree with the judges’ selection of Greenglass House. Read why here.

Greenglass House by Kate Milford,  Clarion Books 2014 ISBN: 0544052706

Greenglass House by Kate Milford,
Clarion Books 2014
ISBN: 0544052706

A Sad Side-Note…

Two-time Edgar winner Ruth Rendell passed away on 2 May 2015 at the age of 85. She penned more than sixty novels and brought to life Inspector Wexford. Her death comes only half a year after that of another uber-famous Edgar winner, PD James, who died at the age of 94 in November 2014.

Here’s to Kate Milford–may she live long and have many more successes, following in the footsteps of these great ladies of mystery.

CC Image Credit:

PARTY! by Patrick Hoesly

Children’s Books & Happy Memories

Books and Memories...

Books and Memories…

The Guardian‘s fantastic article Children’s Books Are Never Just For Children makes some great points about children’s literature and the value society places on it. As a creator and advocate of children’s literature, I devoured the article and followed it with some serious soul-searching.

Aside from the fact that kidlit is HOT right now–accounting for one in four books sold in the UK in 2014–this zone of the literary landscape is exhilarating. Welcome to the quest to create outstanding children’s literature, where mere word-smithery won’t do. Art is the aim.

Kidlit is High Quality

Phillip Pullman, author of The Amber Spyglass, turns the perfect phrase to describe the language of enduring children’s Amber Spyglassliterature: “Perfect lightness and grace.” Kids’ books are designed to be reread, which means that every word is refined, polished, and arranged to perfection. Not a comma is wasted. Neil Gaiman told The Guardian he might not be able to justify every word in (his book for grown-ups) American Gods, but he sure could in (his children’s classic) Coraline.

Picture books require a mind-bending economy of words. Anyone who thinks they can whip off a good 500-word book has clearly never tried. Sure, with practice, a writer can push out a story, but to create one that is multi-layered and timeless is a feat few achieve.

Kidlit Stands the Test of Time

Consider the wonder of the enduring favourites of children’s literature: The Chronicles of Narnia, Pippi Longstocking, the works of E Nesbit or Enid Blyton, and more. Where the Wild Things Are is the epitome of timelessness.

MadelineMy mother read the Madeline books to me in the sixties, and I read them to my children in the nineties, and they were just as charming the second time around. I am looking forward to introducing them to my grandchildren one day–maybe in the twenties?

It’s striking how long children’s books can last. One explanation may be the way in which they’re read. They become part of our emotional autobiographies, acquiring associations and memories, more like music than prose. –SF Said

I love the concept of “emotional autobiographies.” These associations with literature are powerful and positive. Just writing the word Madeline above conjured up for me a banquet of memories and images–first trips to the library with the peculiar smells and sounds of that place, the security and comfort of sitting on my mother’s lap, discovering the gentle pleasure of reading for myself.

Secret GardenOne of my most poignant childhood memories was the rush of elation at the age of 11 as I turned the last page of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I fell in love with books then and there. As a writer of children’s literature, I long to reproduce that specific experience for a new generation of readers with evocative, inviting stories of my own.

The Guardian‘s article mentions AA Milne, who’s remembered not for his wonderful West End plays, but rather for his endearing Winnie the Pooh books. Even Salman Rushdie believes it is his children’s literature that will continue to be read into the future. A noble brand of immortality is rewarded to the writer who succeeds in creating enduring children’s literature.

Longevity and fame are not the prizes I yearn for from my writing. I want to spread a little love, hope, and joy to the kids who read my stories. If my books endure–all the better. I will be content to contribute to the happy “emotional autobiography” of my readers–and their parents. Because, after all, children’s books are never just for children.

Creative Commons Image Credit: Jay Ryness

Pull Quote: Author of the article, SF Said, The Guardian

Book Review: Irresistible Kidlit Writing Manual

Refresher courses are always a good idea. Every year, I make sure I study a writing book or three to keep my skills sharp. In 2014, my writing craft book of choice was Writing Irresistible Kidlit by editor and former literary agent Mary Kole.

Writing Irresistible Kidlit

Writing Irresistible Kidlit [ISBN 978-1-59963-576-7]

The book delivers exactly what the subtitle promises: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers. Mary Kole generously laces her advice with excerpts from current YA and MG books, and she sources the opinions of other publishing professionals. Every chapter finishes with some exercises to try. The book packs a wallop with this great combo of insider advice, pertinent examples, and handy exercises.

In an interview with Writers’ Digest (who published the book), Mary Kole summarised her message:

“It’s all about a great idea mixed with characters that readers can really relate to. And your theme must be universal enough to attract a wide audience. Idea is only half of the battle, though. The best writers I know are always learning and working on their writing craft, so execution is also important.”

9468186250_7a72c99662_mHeavy Highlighting

I devoured Writing Irresistible Kidlit from cover to cover, highlighting, annotating and dog-earing pages until my copy looked like the victim of a gnarly face painting accident. With my highlighter sucked dry, I turned the last page and felt a surge of empowerment and direction that rarely comes from reading writing craft books. Not only was I equipped, I was inspired and ready to fly…

One Stop Shop

Mary Kole’s book covers everything kidlit writers need to know:

  • Understanding the MG and YA markets — with a detailed section on why understanding the difference is critical
  • Getting a grip on the mindsets of MG and YA readers
  • Shooting for “Big Ideas” (This chapter is worth re-reading a few times.)
  • Basic Kidlit Writing Craft
  • Advanced Writing Craft
  • Publishing Tips

Notable Quotables

The book is way cheaper than a master class but every bit as helpful. For the benefit of Spilling Ink readers, I’ve selected a few of the passages I starred, circled or highlighted to death. Here are a few nuggets:

On MG/YA Markets and Readers

  • “To generalize, conflicts in YA tend to be bigger and more all consuming and they are resolved on a more bittersweet note than in MG. There are fewer 100 percent happy endings because readers are starting to realize that life is more complicated than that, and nothing is ever all bad or all good.” (p 15)
  • “The kidlit audience reads to bond with characters.” (p 73)
  • On the importance of relatability: “We want characters to grab us because we recognize ourselves in them. This  is especially important when writing MG and YA, because pre-teens and teens are searching for connection.” (p 106)
  • “The idea of a core relationship is especially important in MG, where family bonds factor more strongly into a protagonist’s life than they sometimes do in YA. It’s very common to have MG with a sympathetic family member, family friend, or mentor.” (p 115)

 On Good Ideas

  • “Writing aside, a book’s number-one killer is a lack of story.” (p 27)
  • “Story originality is overrated. Your stock trade as a writer is your vision and your ability to execute and idea as only you can.” (p 29)
  • “A story must be both a mirror and a window. A mirror, because it reflects something readers recognize in themselves. A window, because a great story also needs to show the reader something new.” –Mary’s paraphrase of a sentiment expressed by kidlit author Mitali Perkins (p 77)

 On Storytelling Basics

  • “Most novels do not find their true beginning until the writer is deep into revision. Just because you put it first doesn’t mean that your current opening section is the real beginning. “(p 49)
  • Interiority--access to a character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions–is a great tool that writers don’t use nearly enough…It reinforces character feelings or turning points in key moments. Interiority is usually found in summary at the end of a scene or paragraph and used judiciously to make sure that an emotional moment really “lands” with the reader.” (p 58)
  • “You should strive to create a bond between the villain and your reader, one that disturbs them but that they can’t help.” (p 124)
  • “When (your main character) has an ally, take that person away. When she has a decision to make, put a ticking clock on it. Where there’s an object that he absolutely requires, obliterate it. When she craves a safe place, make it inaccessible.”

Advanced Kidlit & Beyond…

  • Theme is born when a writer has a Big Idea, something he wants to express about the world, or a Big Question that he’s hoping to answer about life or human nature.
  • On Authorial Voice: “Of all the craft elements I teach, voice is among the most enigmatic. Writers always want to know what voice is, and the best I can usually come up with is ‘It’s the je ne sais quoi of writing.’ Real helpful.” (p 219)
  • “Writers can become very myopic. They get so caught up with writing and trying to play the publishing game that they forget their larger role: Creator and truth-teller. And we can’t tell a lot of life truths or explore a lot of Big Ideas if we’ve been tapping away at a laptop in a darkened room for weeks on end.” (p 241)
  • “We create to be true to ourselves and to tell the truth.” (p 242)

Recommended Titles

As mentioned, Mary backed up her advice with excerpts from over forty kidlit books. Her list could fill a whole year with exemplary writing, but I’ve narrowed it down to a few that made it to my TBR list:

Mary’s Resources

Kidlit.com – A fantastic website with all kinds of information and links

Mary Kole Editorial – Looking for an editor? Mary Kole’s available.

Creative Commons Image Credit

Time to Fly by Victoria Nevland